Songs Are Overrated. Riffs Rule!

Paul Kossoff

I figured that title would get your attention – especially if you belong to the group who believes that learning entire songs is the best indicator of your progress on guitar.

Is learning a whole song good for you? Sure. Is it absolutely necessary? It depends. Can you make tremendous progress as a guitarist without learning entire songs? Absolutely! Think I’m crazy? Read on, young rock and roller…

Scenario 1: Concerned parent comes to me and says, “Johnny Guitar practices a lot and plays a bunch of parts of songs, but I never actually hear him play a whole song through! It seems to me that he should be playing the whole song, right?”

Scenario 2: Concerned student, Suzy Q, says to me, “Doctor J, I really want to be able to play a whole song. I know lots of bits and pieces of songs but I never play a song from beginning to end. What do you think?”

Want to know what I think?

Let me answer that with one final scene:

Scenario 3: Young, aspiring rock star (we’ll call him “JB”) teaches himself to play guitar by learning dozens of riffs – intros, themes, the memorable parts of songs, lots of bits and pieces – before becoming…wait for it…a professional guitarist!

Learning the memorable bits to classic songs is just plain fun, and contained within each riff are invaluable nuggets of musical goodness waiting for you to discover them! Don’t underestimate the value of the guitar riff, Suzy Q!

I Got the Fever

The first riff I remember learning was “Cat Scratch Fever,” by Ted Nugent. Catchy, greasy, bluesy and pure adrenaline once I got it cookin’. I’ll never forget how powerful I felt (and cool, let’s be honest) when I finally wrangled that little beast and heard it sing from my guitar strings for the first time. It was a life changing moment for young JB, to be sure.

After that one came the tried and true “Smoke on the Water,” then “Stairway to Heaven,” “Day Tripper,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Purple Haze,” “Back in Black,” “Crazy Train,” etc. Each riff became a short, manageable piece of music that I could practice and conquer before moving on to the next gem.

The brevity of the riffs helped me build confidence – they were long enough to sound like something, but short enough not to overwhelm me. In the process, I learned a bunch of techniques and maneuvers that were completely adaptable to other riffs. I was bending strings, alternate picking, hammering-on and pulling-off, power chording like a maniac – I was onto something!

You Complete Me

Learning complete songs is, of course, a critical milestone in your development as a musician, and I’d never want to suggest otherwise. Eventually we all need to learn how to start a song, navigate the middle, and bring it on home to a nice conclusion. You learn to see the musical big picture.

But the key word is “eventually.” When you need to, you’ll learn a complete song. When you start a band with your buddies, or when you decide to play at that open mic, or when you want to post a video on YouTube…you’ll learn a complete song. At that point, it’s necessary. But it’s certainly not rocket science. After all, most songs have two or three main sections to learn, and then those sections are repeated in various ways to form whole songs.

Believe it or not, learning a whole song – in my humble opinion – is the easy part. Getting your fundamental skills down is the hard part.

Learning that verse alone or that chorus alone or that riff alone – now that takes some work, my friend. Putting it all together into a song is a piece of cake compared to learning those bits and pieces well. And for the less experienced guitarist, riffs are much more fun and much more economical: in the time it takes to learn one song, you can learn ten riffs!

So learn those riffs. Make ’em sing. Then learn another one and make no apologies. The Nuge would approve.