Greetings! Today we’re going to look at some ways of writing lead melodies and leads over a riff made up of single notes rather than chords. We’ll assess each riff to work out which modes can be used. Included are 3 simple backing tracks. You can use these to improvise over and test out ideas. Let’s get started!
Contents for This Lesson:
Use these links to jump to the section of interest or start from the top to cover everything.
Writing Lead Melodies: Exercise 1
This first riff is a simple loop based around the open low E string. Since we’re constantly moving back to the note E we’ll treat that as our root note. The other notes are A, B, D and another E an octave higher. In relation to E these notes would be a 4th, 5th and minor 7th. Knowing this allows us to look at which scales/modes contain these intervals. Then we can decide what to play over the riff. This helps to take the guesswork out of writing lead melodies.
Since there’s no 3rd we don’t know if we’re in a Minor key or a Major key. Since there’s a m7 we can look at the Modes which have this interval, all from an E root note. These would be:
Aeolian (Natural Minor)
All of the modes listed above also contain a 4th and 5th interval. We can pick any of the above to use over our riff. Try improvising with each one over the riff. You can practice over the recording below. Alternatively you could play the riff yourself into a loop pedal. You could record it in a DAW and loop the playback. (We use Studio One for our recordings). You could even get a friend to play it and take turns improvising.
Here is a quick example of a melody using the E Phrygian mode played over the loop . I split it into 4 parts. The first and third parts start the same way, using the Root, m3, 4th and 5th. The rhythm guitar shares all the notes except the m3. This helps the melody to feel like it fits with the backing. Since the Rhythm has no 3rd we don’t know if the song is in a major or minor key. Having the m3 early in the melody helps the listener get an idea of what the feel is going to be. Alternatively you could avoid playing the 3rd until later on to create a feeling of uncertainty or neutrality.
Please see below for how to play the Phrygian mode across 6 strings. For our example we want E to be th root note. To do this you can start the pattern below with the Red dot on the 12th fret E string.
Adding Tension and Movement
Next I added some tension using the m2 from the phrygian mode. This helps define more of a phrygian feel and also adds a bit of intrigue.
For the second part I moved up an Octave and then descended to the 4th and 5th. This creates more of a sense of movement. The rhythm mostly emphasises the Root and 5th so I have kept these notes fairly prominent in the melody too.
The third part starts the same as the first part but then moves up higher again. Having parts repeat helps to create a bit of a “hook”. This can make a melody feel more catchy and familiar.
Key Change (Optional)
For the last section I moved in to the E Phrygian Dominant mode. Check out the diagram below. Since the rhythm moves up it feels like a key change, even though the notes are the same. Instead of E – E – A – B three times followed by E – E – A – B – D – E we have A – A – D – E three times followed by E – E – E – D – B – A. I decided to change key for the melody over this section to add a bit more interest. We move up through Phrygian Dominant and then do a “backtracking” lick. This incolves short, two note parts which ascend but each part gets lower so you get a sort of call and response vibe. It then descends back to the root note ready to repeat the whole thing or go in to the next section.
Phrygian Dominant is a mode of the Harmonic minor scale. Click here to learn more.
Ex.1 Other things to try
Have a go over the backing track and see what kinds of melodies you can come up with. Any of the modes listed above will work. You can even try alternating between them since there are no other instruments playing notes that would clash.
Incidentally you may have noticed that only 5 of the 7 Major Scale modes are listed above. E Ionian and E Lydian are both missing. This is because they both contain a Major 7 interval rather than a minor 7. This note will clash with the m7 in our rhythm. However, the m7 is only heard briefly at the end of the first 3 sections so you could try these modes out. Just as long as you avoid playing the Maj7 at times when it will clash. The Lydian mode also has a #4 instead of a Perfect 4 so this will also clash.
Be Wary of too much Repetition
A word of caution. If you have a rhythm which is a short loop repeating it can make the song start to feel like it isn’t going anywhere. This can become boring to the listener. There are exceptions to this and some genre’s of music make use of heavy repetition. For example in dance music repetition can be useful to make the music easier to move to. The intention of the 3 minute example above is for practicing writing melodies over. I would not recommend having a short guitar rhythm part repeating for so long in a “proper” song. Unless it is a foundation with lots of other instruments doing things over it.
Repetition can be useful in situations where you have numerous people taking turns to solo. Or if you are doing a call and response section between two parts, like in a Rap battle for example. The genre of music you are working with will affect various choices you make. Not only for the Rhythm parts but the melodies too.
Writing Lead Melodies: Exercise 2
For our second example we will use another Looping Rhythm. This time however the key will be a bit more defined. The first half is again based around the note E. We are using the m7 and also a m3 and Perfect 4th. The notes are E, G, A and D. Once again here is a 3 minute loop that you can improvise over:
Due to the m7 and m3 we know we are in a minor key. The following modes will work (All from an “E” Root note):
Aeolian (Natuaral Minor)
Again I have picked out modes based on an E root note. That is the note that feels like “home” in this riff. We’ll come back to this shortly…
The second half moves the E up to Bb. This is a Diminished 5th or Tritone above E. We are now playing the notes Bb, D, E, F and G. In relation to Bb we have a Root, Maj3, #4, Perfect 5 and Maj6. The Bb Lydian Mode contains these intervals. It would just need a Maj2 and Maj7 added to give us the full mode. You could also think of this as the Key of F Major, since Bb Lydian is the 4th Mode of F Major.
Looking at things from the perspective of F Major you may notice that the first half also fits this key. This means we could play over the whole thing using F Major or its modes. However… Remember how I said the note E feels like Home in the first half?
How to choose the Key or Modal Centre
Since E feels like the Root of the first half we would need to look at which mode of the F Major scale starts on E. This would be E locrian, listed above with the modes that we can use over our Riff. There is a problem with using E locrian here though… The Riff just doesn’t sound like a Locrian Riff.
Using a mode is more than just playing in a specific position on the neck of the guitar. Each mode has different characteristics in relation to its Root. The b5 in Locrian is a big part of its sound.This gives us a diminished chord when grouped with the Root and m3. Locrian is also a rather dissonant sounding mode, our riff here doesn’t sound dissonant. That doesn’t mean you can’t use Locrian and try to bring out that sound/feel. I think we would be better off using one of the other modes in this instance.
Since the second half feels like it has moved up and treats Bb as the “home” note I think it would make sense to have a key change in the melody here. In my example below I started in E minor and then moved in to Bb Lydian for the second half. Once again I have put some diagrams below for these modes.
Writing Lead Melodies: Exercise 3
For our final example lets make things a bit harder! This Rhythm section uses two guitars panned to the left and right. The second guitar alternates between being a b5 above the other guitar and a perfect 5th. This causes a fair amount of dissonance between the two:
Writing lead melodies over something like this can be tricky so let’s break it down. The Left guitar uses the notes E, G and Bb. These are the notes of an E Diminished chord. The Right Guitar plays Bb, D and F. This gives us a Bb Major chord. You could also look at the whole thing as outlining an “Em7b5 Add b9” chord!
The Riff is 8 bars long. You could break down each of the bars and look at the notes the guitars are playing. In Bars 1, 2, 5 and 6 the first guitar plays E and G and the second guitar plays Bb and D. Overall this is Em7b5. Bars 3 and 4 have G and Bb on guitar 1 and D and F on guitar 2. This gives us a Gm7 chord. Bars 7 and 8 contain E and Bb on both guitars which is a Root and b5.
From all this we can see that there is a lot of emphasis on E diminished. An E diminished triad with a m7 added to it becomes Em7b5. The E and Bb in the last two bars form E diminished, minus the m3.
Ex.3 Example A
Our notes fit the key of F Major like the previous example. However this time there is an emphasis on the E diminished chord. Now would be a good time to break out the E locrian Mode. Here is an example of a melody using E locrian. Bare in mind Locrian tends to be very dissonant so we’re going to get a heavy or melancholic type of sound:
Ex. 3 Example B
Another option here would be to employ a diminished scale. There are two diminished scales. Interestingly they both contain 8 notes rather than the usual 7.
They are the Dominant Diminished Scale or “Half-Whole Scale” and the Fully Diminished Scale or “Whole-Half Scale”. For our example above the Fully diminished scale won’t quite work but the Dominant Diminished scale fits perfectly. We’ll have a lesson on these scales in the near future.
As a quick overview, the Dominant Diminished Scale is a series of intervals alternating between half steps and whole steps. (Or semitiones and whole-tones). In E this would give the following notes:
E – F – G – Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – D – E
There are 8 notes plus the octave. This means the usual convention of only having 1 of each letter (A to G) for the names is impossible. We would either have a Bb and a B or if you name the B as Cb you end up with 2 D’s, i.e Db and D.
All the notes of our riff are in this scale. We can therefore use it to create an “outside” sounding melody. Again this will sound rather dissonant. Here is an example:
These examples are intended to give you a rough idea of how to approach writing lead melodies over a riff. They may not be the catchiest melodies ever but the idea is to give you a starting point. Try using the modes we’ve discussed over each backing track and see what you can come up with. Since the riffs are on quite short loops you don’t have a lot of time to fully flesh out a melody. Forcing you to keep it short and simple. If you can get the hang of this then it will feel easier when you come to write longer parts for your own music.
Have fun with it and we’ll see you next time!
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