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Recently i've been more confident in the progressions I choose for my songs, but the guitar arrangements are still very uninspired. I am particularly bad at creating cool arpeggios or riffs that enhance a section of a song rather than just going along for the ride.

An example of a band that has truly magical guitar lines are The Strokes, and I was hoping you could help me investigate their methods for creating really powerful accompaniments to the chords being strummed on the other guitar (two guitar set-up).

I will first share the reference material (time-stamped for convenience), and then I will think out loud a bit so that you can see why I am experiencing this writer's block.

Automatic Stop, chorus

Bad Decisions, breakdown

The End Has No End, verse

Reptilia, chorus

Would you consider these riffs countermelodies to the vocal melody? Do you think the melodic skeleton is selected first and then filled in with various tones?

Or are these simply arpeggios with non-chord tones added for interest?

Speaking of non-chord tones (passing tones and neighbor tones), are these always on the "off" beat? Most of these cases are played in eight notes, so what is considered the "off" beat anyway?

Is syncopation and rhythmic independence importance to these riffs? The "Automatic Stop" rhythm is particularly elegant. Also, in "The End Has No End", the way the 7th note ascends to the 8th note in the series the first few times but then the 8th descends to the 7th note in the series is just pure magic. Is there a name for this effect? It gives the riff this sort of circular, infinite motion, and very good closure at it's completion.

Somehow there is a good amount of tension in these lines . . . is that tension created by the riffs themselves and related to the relationship between the notes horizontally (dissonant intervals(?)), or is that tension built into the chord progression already?

Maybe I have poor instincts, but the arpeggio patterns I conjure up are super boring. Are there any composers who are particularly good at this who I could study? All I can think of is Bach's 1 5 3 5 1 5 3 5 . . . . whenever I google "arpeggio patterns", the results are just piano warm up exercises.

Please let me know if I am simply lacking imagination or if I am looking in the wrong spot or approaching this incorrectly. I feel as though I am quite scrambled for something that seems relatively mathematic/formulaic at the end of the day, and I could really use this tool to elevate my songs.

Thank you as always.

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    If you just come up with 1 5 3 5 1 5 3 5, break the rhythmic structure to something that's not two and four over 4/4. In a cycle of three: 1 3 5 1 3 5 1 3 5 1 3 5 ... downbeats emphasized. Or something in a cycle of five: 1 3 5 3 5 1 3 5 3 5 1 3 5 3 5 ... Or mix two chords 1 3 5 2 4 7 1 3 5 2 4 7 ... or coming down 1 3 5 7 4 2 1 3 5 7 4 2 ... How about 1 3 7 2 4 5 9 7 1 3 7 2 4 5 9 7 ... – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 10:11
  • This could be an answer—why just a comment? – 286642 Mar 10 at 15:50
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    Because you're asking for a mammoth sized answer and I don't want to write one. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 11 at 16:38
  • Amen to that brother – 286642 Mar 11 at 23:52
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Quartal harmony may be something interesting to explore. I stumbled into it while studying Alan Holdworth, who uses quartal harmony to build arpeggios. I was always (and am still) fascinated by Holdsworth's note selections, arpeggios and scale runs.

"Use of the terms quartal and quintal arises from a contrast, compositional or perceptual, with traditional tertian harmonic constructions."

It goes on to say, as you point out:

"Listeners familiar with music of the (European) common practice period perceive tonal music as that which uses major and minor chords and scales, wherein both the major third and minor third constitute the basic structural elements of the harmony."

My understanding of the topic is far from perfect or advanced, but I base it on the simplest definition "the harmonic layering of fourths."

So, say you're playing a C chord, a kind of standard 4/4 rock rhythm. Your instinct might be to stick to a 1 3 5 (7) sort of pattern, maybe based in major, mixolydian (so the b7) or minor (so the b3 and b7), which would give you the predictable sound you mention.

But instead, try an arpeggio of fourths. In terms of that basic C5 chord you're chucking away on, try playing this over it in eighth notes: C F Bb Eb C (I hold the Eb for a dotted beat which I subtract from the fifth note, so "one two three fourrrr five | one two three fourrrr five).

Conversely, if you play that descending, you're stacking fifths, which gives you the quintal (the good ol' "rule of 9") which can be interesting to explore as an academic exercise, but as it says in the wikipedia article:

"Quintal harmony (the harmonic layering of fifths specifically) is a lesser-used term, and since the fifth is the inversion or complement of the fourth, it is usually considered indistinct from quartal harmony".

In that arpeggio, which I play (string/fret) A/3 D/3 G/3 B/4 B/1, note there is an F; interestingly, fourths and sixths are very frequently referred to as "avoid notes" insofar as improvising and solos (I had one teacher that would actually make a face when I hit a fourth). I never bought that; in fact I very much like the sound of the fourth in my soloing, but I do understand that it is more difficult to use it in a sonically pleasing manner than the "in" chord tones. But IMHO, that's what makes it interesting. And you certainly don't see Holdsworth "avoiding" it in his improvisation.

If you take it to the next level, you turn the above into a moveable shape, which you can play repeatedly up the fretboard. Here's a variation that I sometimes use, which switches between stacking the fourths off of C and Bb (string/fret):

A/3 D/3 D/8 | D/8 G/8 G/13 | B/13 E/13 E/18 | B/13

In notes:

C F Bb | Bb Eb Ab | C F Bb | C

It starts on and resolves to the root (C) nicely, and definitely doesn't sound like your usual chord tone arpeggio.

When I do that sort of thing at a jam with some speed, inevitably, one the players asks if I "studied jazz or something".

Hope that helps.

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  • Also, guitar strings are mostly tuned in fourths, so I imagine it can be pretty simple to get the fingerings down quickly. – user45266 Mar 10 at 17:49
  • Yes, and no. If you play two of the notes on the same string (in order to move the pattern up/down the neck), the intervalic leap is pretty wide. Sometimes if I'm not running the whole sequence I'll just tap the note on the same string. And of course you have to account for that B string... – Tim Consolazio Mar 10 at 19:35
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Some things to consider are:

  • play lots of chord tones or large interval leaps
  • definitely look at combining downbeat rhythms with syncopation, a lot of downbeat rhythm can give it drive, but a few syncopations add contrast and energy
  • hold the "chord" while the bass or second guitar changes to another chord, exploit the resulting dissonance (sort of like a pedal in classical music) or resulting extended chords (if you riff on ^1 ^3 ^5 while the bass moves through I vi IV the resulting chords are minor sevenths and major ninths)
  • play with cross rhythms and patterns, basically things like patterns of 3 or 5 over a count of 4
  • try simple and concise ideas, you don't necessarily need to move all over the place, how much can you get from two fix tones and one auxiliary or even just two?
  • when thinking of chord progression don't overlook non-functional progressions, a hallmark of rock music is non functional or "modal" progressions.

...Maybe I have poor instincts...

It seems like you are already thinking analytically so this could be the tricky part. You could try to go completely on instinct, but you may need to put in a lot of effort to not start thinking about what you are doing in music theory terms.

If you do want to grapple with this through analysis, you should be prepared to apply a fair amount of theory to really describe things well in some songs. Some songs that seem simple and are easy to play can get their effect from unusual or novel musical devices. Things that a novice might describe as "wrong" or things "not fitting together." You definitely want to avoid self editing in a way that tries to conform to something like a chorale harmonization. That's applying the wrong style and mistaking it for playing according to "good theory."

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