Three Essential Rock Riffs and Techniques

Three of the main techniques used in rock music are palm muting, power chords, and octaves. I created three simple rock riffs, all in the key of E or E minor to demonstrate these techniques that any beginner guitar player can utilize.

To play the first riff you’ll need to be able to palm mute. To do this, put the “karate chop” part of your strumming hand right where the string passes over the saddle of the bridge. If you get it right at the sweet spot, you’ll hear the note, but it won’t ring out for very long. It’s kind of half muted. You’ll hear a heavy “thud” sound that doesn’t sustain. This sounds extra awesome with lots of distortion or overdrive. It still sounds cool with a clean tone too, but for this riff, the more distortion, the better!

If your hand is too far toward the neck, you won’t hear the actual note and you’ll only hear a muted string sound. If your hand is too far towards the tailpiece, you won’t hear any change between palm muting and letting the string ring out.

Once you find that sweet spot, alternate between palm muting and letting the string ring out. Maybe play each four times and go back and forth keeping a beat. Once you feel comfortable with that, you can mix together different patterns of palm muted notes, and notes that ring out, to create cool rhythms. In a way it almost emulates patterns that a drummer can create using the kick and snare drum.

Using this technique, let’s try to play this first riff. Don’t worry, you won’t need to know your guitar scales for these! All of the open E string notes are palm muted, while all of the notes on the A string are ringing out. This makes the rhythm seem more complicated than it is. In reality I’m just playing a constant stream of 1/8th notes! Read the TAB below and watch the lesson video.

The second riff uses the technique of octaves. An octave is simply the same note ringing at twice the frequency. Octaves seem simple on the surface, and they are, but to really be able to rock out with them, you need to mute 4 out of 6 strings. Only the two strings that you are playing should ring out and so the hardest thing here is to make the others muted.

First let’s talk about the strings you want to play. To play an octave from a low E string note, just go over two frets and down two strings to find the same note one octave higher. I like to play the lower note with my index finger, and the higher note with my pinky. This formula applies to a low note on the A string. Once you get to the D string, you want to go over 3 frets and down two strings to find the octave. This is due to the fact that the B string is tuned to a third relative to the G string, while all of the other strings are tuned to a 4th. The tuning of the B string always throws things off.

The riff below uses octaves from the A string, so the only strings that will ring out are the A and the G string. Now, in order to mute the other strings, you’ll want to use the flesh of the index finger to lightly tough all of the high strings, and the tip of the index finger to lightly touch the low E string. Your ring finger or pinky finger can double up on the muting duty too by lightly grazing adjacent strings. You want to touch the open strings ever so lightly or else they too will get noisy or ring out. Test out each string individually and make sure only the wants you want to ring out are actually ringing out!

Once you have this technique down, now try to play the riff. Don’t actually take your fingers off the fretboard. As you move from octave to octave just lightly slide across the strings!

The third riff uses power chords, instead of barre chords, which are common to all genres of rock music! A power chord is neither major or minor and it consists of a root note and a perfect fifth. A fifth up from any note is the most consonant interval and it’s so neutral sounding that a power chord kind of just sounds like a single note but heavier and bigger.

To play a power chord use the exact same technique for muting that you used for octaves, but this time you’ll use your index finger on the root note, your ring finger on the fifth, and your pinky on the octave. Again, you will try to use your index finger to do most of the muting by lightly grazing all of the open strings just enough to stop them from ringing out!

Again, test out your muting and fretting technique by playing each string individually and making sure only the notes you want to ring out are actually ringing out. Once you’ve got it, see if you can play through this riff. Don’t worry about the strumming patterns at first. Just try to make the changes from one chord to the next!

The great thing about being able to mute all of the open strings is that you can then strum through all 6 strings with as much aggression and rock and roll energy as you’d like and still only hear the 2 or 3 notes you want to hear!

If you want to see me play these three riffs and teach them to you step by step, check out the full lesson video!

Gary Heimbauer is a writer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer.