Right now I'm playing guitar fine and I'm coming up with various riffs and I'm quite enjoying them however simplistic they may be. But when I'm trying to get some chords to fit for my riff (well I record the riff and play it aloud while I try to figure out the chords), I'm finding it difficult to find the right set of chords or I think the technical term would be family. So,

I want to know is there anyway or technique that I could use to find the best set of chords for my riff

and thus ultimately make a good song?

5 Answers 5


I would start by determining what scale your riff is based on. You can do this by writing down (or making a mental note of) the notes that are used in the riff to see what key or scale those notes belong to.

Once you know what scale your riff is based on, you can probably narrow down your chord choices to the chords that are commonly used with the key that the scale is derived from. So if your riff is based on a G minor pentatonic scale, the key is G minor and your most likely chords would be as seen below from guitar-chords.org.uk/.

Chords in G Minor

For each section of your riff, choose a chord that contains as many notes for that section as possible. You can start with the chord that has a root note (G for a G minor, D for D minor, F for F major, etc.) common to the first note played in the section where a new chord is indicated. That may not be the best chord, but it's a starting point. Your best chord is probably going to be one that contains the most of the notes that appear in that section of your riff. The notes that are in a chord are called "chord tones". Each section of your riff will contain certain chord tones which will suggest the chord that goes best with that section.

For more information related to how notes and chords fit together see this:

How Notes and Chords Relate to one another

Or This: How Notes and Chords Fit Together

  • It is possible to write an album (or EP) that relies on a single riff (motif) "decorated" with all the chordal variations. So rather than finding just the right one, you make a table and use them all. The riff then becomes a unifying theme across the body of work, and you are kind of playing in the search space. The history of art and music is rife with examples, but the "bach motif" (though an imperfect example) comes to mind. ("Motif" is pretty much the proper term for the idea)
    – Yorik
    Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 20:36
  • @Yorik that is an intriguing concept. When using all available chords to play over a single riff would it make any difference which chord is played over a particular part of the riff? Or would it be random? Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 2:08
  • Well, at the most basic: in your table above, you have two options. Make two songs. So not random, but explore all of them. Not all of them will appeal to you, so you cull the worst and work up the best.
    – Yorik
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 14:43
  • @Yorik - Until you mentioned it I was not familiar with the Bach motif. I googled it. Interesting. When I have time I am going to study more on it to see if it could be applied to guitar playing. Thanks for pointing me to a new learning opportunity. Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 14:53
  • This is standard practice in visual arts. While motif is the right term, I call it "throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and picking the ones that stick"
    – Yorik
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 14:55

Generally speaking, a riff will start with the root note of the key/chord. From establishing that, it's straightforward to find the other chords to fit that family - loads of questions here have answers to that part.

  • 1
    Rubbish! Consider one of the most famous riffs, the Stone's 'Satisfaction'. It starts on the 5th.
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 10:32
  • @LaurencePayne - thanks for your opinion. You quoted one riff. There are probably ten that do start on the root for every one you may like to quote that doesn't. Hence 'generally'.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 11:30
  • 1
    'Day Tripper' does. 'You Really Got Me' doesn't. Smoke on the Water' does. 'Layla' doesn't. 'Whole Lotta Love' doesn't. (I'm just going down a Google search for 'greatest guitar riffs' here)....
    – Laurence
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 15:16


Lets take a riff. For example:




The notes are: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Lets search those notes in a scale identifier, such as http://www.scales-chords.com/scalefinder.php

The possible scales are C major (and its modes). The riff starts and ends with the note A, and the note A is sustained at the end (vibrato), so the riff is probably in A minor natural (=A aeolian).

Now we have to see what chords belong to A minor (A,B,C,D,E,F,G):

I(min)= Am, II(dim)= Bdim, III(maj)= C, IV(min)= Dm, V(min)= Em, VI(maj)= F, VII(maj)= G

If you are writing rock riffs, you should consider using power chords instead. All of those, except for the diminished, can be translated to power chords. The diminished cannot translate to a power chord because its 5th degree is half a step down. But if you're writing metal, which is what the riff sounds like, you can use an evil little chord called a diminished power chord, a tritone or a "chord of the devil".

You get a diminished power chord by taking a powerchord and moving the 2nd note a fret to the left:



  • Always glad to help :) If I didn't cover something or you didn't fully understand just say so :P Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 9:39

The simplest way would be to simply use chords with the notes of the scale you are using. This will ensure that the chords have a natural sounding togetherness.

Seeing as everyone is playing the notes of the same scale it would be a natural fit.

You could also try and change the scale with the chords but that is a bit more tricky.

So for instance if you are riffing in G major the rhythm guy just play chords that fit into the scale that is to say

Gmaj (G-B-D)

Amin (A-C-E)

Bmin (B-D-F#)

CMaj (C-E-G)

DMaj (D-F#-A)

Emin (E-G-B)

F#dim (F#-A-C)

  • 1
    This hardly answers the question. There is a choice of seven different chords, but no guidance as to which to use where. Parallel key chords often feature in riffs too.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 15:44

Yorik, while your riff is going, you can identify the sounding of notes and where your left hand fingers are going. I mean notes in chord patterns. You MUST have an idea what are the chords going with your scale. (if it is natural major, (1-Major 2-Minor 3-Minor 4-Major 5- Major 6-Minor 7-Dim) First Give priority to House-Key, Husband-Fifth and Wife Forth. after familiarising with the sound, just try minor chords too. it gives more feeling to your riff. Basically, Your riff is melodic, your chords are harmonic, HARMONIES MUST GO WITH MELODIC NOTES.

Bandu J

  • 1
    Can you explain what you mean by "House-Key, Husband-Fifth and Wife Forth"? I've never heard of this before. Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 1:26
  • 1
    Can you also explain 'natural major'? Would that not include Bb, F# etc?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 11:33
  • 0 down vote I mean that is except double harmonic, gypsy, modes like mixolydian etc
    – Bandu J
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 14:18

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