POLYPHONIC RIFF WRITING LESSON
By Dale Turner

Acoustic Guitar

Let's cut to the chase: "Writer's Block" is B.S.! Obviously finishing a song can pose a tremendous challenge, but there's no reason (when stuck in one of those ruts) to not at least try to move other songs forward, or start fresh new pieces, to keep the creative momentum going. But how can you still "write" when it seems the well has gone dry? Keep reading!

Songs, at least as it relates to guitar players, are generally first spawned from a chord progression (which then requires "stylization"--how to play the chords, so that they have personality--and also a melody, which the progression itself will hopefully inspire over time), a melody only (one of those magical "sing-able" nuggets that randomly pops into your head, which then requires you to find supporting chords), or a riff (a signature guitar part that serves as the track's instrumental hook, intro, etc., which then needs to find a home). In this lesson, we'll focus on RIFF WRITING--specifically, a type of riff writing I learned from studying Steve Morse's music, referred to as POLYPHONIC RIFF WRITING. It's one of several riff-writing approaches I might experiment with when I'm stuck in a writing rut. To illustrate, I'll use a riff from one of my own songs: "Bad Seed" (no, not a Metallica cover!) from my new CD Mannerisms Magnified.

Polyphonic means "two or more independent lines," or "many melodies," and is a term often used to describe musical moments where more than one melodic line is happening simultaneously. As it relates to riff writing, it's when pick-style single-note riffs are structured in a way that you hear two distinct parts in the riff (think "bass and melody"), because notes are being played in contrasting high/low registers and rhythms. The first instructional book I ever had the privilege of writing was Steve Morse: Just the Riffs (now out-of-print). In putting that book together, I noticed in songs (from Morse's Structural Damage) like "Native Dance" [0:39], "Dreamland" [1:43 & 2:07], and "Good to Go" [0:17], as well as (from the Dixie Dregs' Full Circle) "Sleeveless in Seattle" [1:31] and "Good Intentions" [1:11], that Morse was conjuring up the effect of two distinct parts, simply by the way he juggled registers and rhythms in these unique pick-style riffs. (This approach is also described in some of his instructional videos). One day, when I had some spare time to work on music that would eventually find its way onto Mannerisms Magnified, I found I was hitting the inevitable wall. In these moments, instead of getting frustrated, hoping random ideas just magically come, I experiment--make a conscious decision to focus on very few elements, using one of several songwriting approaches that have bailed me out in the past, and see what develops. With "Bad Seed," experimenting with a Morse-inspired polyphonic riff-writing approach won out--and gave birth to one of my personal favorite pick-style riffs!

My "Bad Seed" riff began from a random bass line in 7/4 that I'd had sitting around for quite a while; I just thought it was cool, but never imagined it'd blossom into something special. When I opted to try turning it into a polyphonic riff, I started by actually writing this bass line out, so I could see what types of rhythmic space--what "air" there was for melody, between these bass notes--I had to play with. [See FIG. 1 TAB & YOUTUBE video, below.]

Listen to FULL SONG on Music Player

FIG. 1 - “BAD SEED” BASSLINE
(Use downstrokes throughout, picking on underlined counting prompts for rhythm)

The bass line, which was basically in E minor, only involved notes on the 5th and 6th strings. This made strings 1-4 "fair game" for trying out different melodic options. Again, since I was using a pick (as opposed to playing fingerstyle), any melody notes needed to be played between the cracks of the completed bass line. I tinkered around with different possibilities (again, in E minor), till I found a nice opening line (the open 1st and 2nd strings, played in alternation); then kept expanding the upper-register melody till I had an interesting, two-measure figure. [See FIG. 2 TAB & YOUTUBE video, below.]

Listen to FULL SONG on Music Player

FIG. 2 - “BAD SEED” MELODY NOTES
(Use the indicated picking, and let ring throughout. For fingering, use “one-finger-per-fret” position playing—index finger on 1st fret, middle finger for 2nd fret, ring finger for 3rd fret, and pinkie for 4th fret.)

Of course, as I was creating this, I wrote the melody notes down--directly over the bass line, on the same notation/TAB staff--so I could easily see the relationship between parts. By the time I was done, I had a cool-sounding riff I thought would make a good album opener. Of course, then I had to practice it, so it was playable--because tricky picking abounds! [See FIG. 3 TAB & YOUTUBE video, below.] Which brings up an interesting point/fact: Given this riff's degree of difficulty, I never would've come up with it by just randomly picking around, without following any strict guidelines; these are not the types riffs that just fall into your hands naturally, or that you "luck" into.

Listen to FULL SONG on Music Player

FIG. 3 - COMPLETE “BAD SEED” RIFF
(Melody & bass, played together. Use the indicated picking, and let ring throughout. For fingering, use “one-finger-per-fret” position playing—index finger on 1st fret, middle finger for 2nd fret, ring finger for 3rd fret, and pinkie for 4th fret.)

FIG. 3 - w/SIMPLIFIED NOTATION

In closing, the point I'm trying to make is: An analysis of any of your favorite riffs will always reveal a set of basic ingredients that makes that particular passage tick. Once armed with enough of these types of "ingredients" (again, from behind-the-scenes study, application, and just plain ol' listening) you will always have compositional concepts to fall back on; when you're stuck in that inevitable writing rut, you can still move a project forward. In the end, my experiments with polyphonic riff writing not only rewarded me with a rawkin' instrumental riff, I was also able to use pieces of it as a reoccurring theme throughout the verses of my song "Bad Seed"--a moody, somewhat progressive, acoustic "art rock" track that serves as a wild opening song on Mannerisms Magnified, and also works as a great live set opener. Please enjoy! And RAWK ON!

—Dale Turner

In late 2005, Dale Turner started chipping away at the ultimate musicianship challenge: Write an entire record of super eclectic (non-mainstream, though surprisingly accessible) rock music that *he* (see BIO) wanted to hear, AND produce, perform all the instruments, arrange, and engineer himself (including the disc's artwork). The record that resulted, Mannerisms Magnified, sits somewhere between the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist tradition of Jon Brion, Elliott Smith, Joseph Arthur, and Sufjan Stevens, with added flavor from Dale's King's X, Mr. Bungle, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Brian Wilson/Beach Boys, and Bobby McFerrin influences. (Guitar influences include the aforementioned Buckley and Smith, along with Steve Morse, Tommy Emmanuel, John Frusciante, Ani DiFranco, Ty Tabor, Andrew York, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck.)

GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE says: "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"


MUSIC CONNECTION MAGAZINE calls Mannerisms Magnified: "Clever in concept and sophisticated in execution. Turner's an accomplished guitarist ... working at a high level. It seems there's nothing he cannot do in the studio."


THE BIG TAKEOVER says: "With his agile guitar plucking and mischievous lyrical wordplay, Mannerisms proves Turner is an exception to that old axiom, 'Those who can't do, teach.' Expertly crafted, multi-layered, and idiosyncratic guitar pop. Impressive."


THE MAG (U.K.) says: "Slacker-rock mingles with seventies-style harmonies and new-prog in this eccentric and eclectic collection ... like a strange re-invention of Supertramp, mixed with Pavement. This record is incredibly creative, inventive and well-crafted."


MUSIC ZEITGEIST says: "Recordings that kick trendy clichés to the curb ... Jellyfish-style pop layered with Brian Wilsonesque vocals co-mingle with complexity that beckons the prog association. Dale Turner is a prodigious, inventive and very special musical talent.""


ALL ACCESS MAGAZINE says: "A rich cocktail of differing textures, aural delights, interesting instrumentation, and quirky vocal arrangements. A remarkable and inspiring effort on all fronts. D-I-Y Musicians take note; Turner will teach you a thing or two."


INDIE MUSIC DIGEST calls it: "Musical brilliance. Highly original, creative, extremely melodic, and unpredictable as hell. If you're looking for a tripped-out musical experience ... jump head first into Mannerisms Magnified."


MUSIC WEB EXPRESS calls Dale: "A multi-talented yet quite eclectic composer/guitarist who never fails to take a hard left turn ... Mannerisms Magnified takes rock music in a daring new direction ... You'd never guess it was all one person doing it all."


ALTSOUNDS says: "Dale Turner is an inspiration in every sense of the word ... A true mad scientist at work ... If Radiohead was making music in the 70's with Mike Patton helping on vocals, this may be what would have been heard ... This one-man-band is a one-man-force to be reckoned with."


PROGRESSION MAGAZINE calls Mannerisms Magnified: "A varied mix of clever rock and pop, with a progressive edge. A very personal album. Dale Turner certainly would qualify as a musical 'renaissance man.'"


TARGET AUDIENCE MAGAZINE says: "This ROCKS! Quality music ... diverse/original/catchy ... Dale Turner does SO MUCH on his own ... a shoe-in for our indie feature because of what he can teach the rest of us starving artists."


I AM ENTERTAINMENT MAGAZINE says: "Awesomelyuniquelyamazing (one word)! This is not for the music lover who likes to hear the typical repetitive Pop song ... Dale borders the line of musical genius."


G3 MAGAZINE says: "Technical finesse will appeal to the intellect, while emotion to the heart ... Dale Turner is a much-needed breath of fresh air."


CHARTATTACK calls Mannerisms Magnified: "A singer-songwriter ... debut album ... full of acoustic guitar virtuoso techniques."


ROCK N' ROLL VIEW calls it: "Thought-provoking melodic rock in the vein of Mr. Bungle, Queen, and Frank Zappa ... packed to the hilt with amazing creativity, captivating subject matter, unpredictability [and] high adrenalin vocal delivery."


MUZIKREVIEWS.COM says: "What is there not to like about this incredible one-man show? If you like rock and pop like Queen or The Beatles this guy is no brainer. Excellent music from top to bottom."


MUSIC EMISSIONS says, of Mannerisms Magnified: "Someone once said that there was a fine line between genius and insanity. This feels like the work of a genius, but I can't help thinking I've witnessed elements of the insane at the same time!"


INDEPENDENT MUSIC PROMOTIONS likens Dale to "A musical Salvador Dali." Adding that "Mannerisms Magnified comfortably borders on masterpiece territory ... Smart, catchy and sophisticated with dark undertones and 'down the rabbithole' surprises around every corner."


ROUGH EDGE says: "When you've got a stack of 100+ CDs on your desk and too many of them sound alike, the occasional surprise--like Dale Turner's Mannerisms Magnified--is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Unique, exciting and delightful ... it gets better with each listen. Its originality shines."


BIG SMILE MAGAZINE says: "As I pressed play for the first track, I was blown away. This album is nothing you have experienced. And the experience is not easily put into words. Not one song could fit into a genre category... Take the journey with Dale Turner and open your mind. Enjoy the ride."


NORTH COLUMBIA MONTHLY calls Mannerisms Magnified: "Incredibly weird, absolutely riveting music. Some of the most arresting vocal harmonies I've encountered, ever. A study in how to create an incredibly eclectic, orchestrated, pop-masterpiece."


MUSIC WORTH REVIEWING calls it: "A roller-coaster ride of moods and sounds. Dale Turner is an eclectic genius full of lyrical delights and intelligent musical sensibility. Musically, he's kind of a mix between Ben Folds, Sufjan Stevens, and Björk. But on many tracks, frankly, he’s better."


STRUM MAGAZINE says: "Dale Turner has one of those voices to which the ear is just naturally drawn."


MUSE'S MUSE says: "Truly brilliant vocal harmonies. Turner's voice ... will remind you of classic Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche) and Jeff Buckley, yet has a signature all its own that transcends [being] pigeonholed."


SKOPE MAG says: "A fresh & original piece of work here ... You really never know what to expect from track to track—some beyond-weird voice effects, unorthodox mode of tempos ... Get ready to hear something unique."


INDEPENDENT MUSIC AND MEDIA calls Dale: "A true visionary ... who really gives meaning to the word 'independent.' There is a lot to be said about a man that forges his own destiny ... who has the audacity to take on any idea his mind can conjure up. A true one-man band."


BLUESBUNNY (U.K.) says: "Colourful vocal delivery and precise instrumentation ... Evokes thoughts of Mr. Bungle ... Fans of Mike Patton should perhaps take interest."


ELITE VETERANS OF ROCK says: "Dale Turner is one of this decade's finest singers. This guy is fearless! A first class recording.""


GUITARINSTRUCTOR.COM calls Dale: "An ace guitarist with a vast stylistic palette."


JUNIOR'S CAVE says: "If you are looking for something in music that dares to be original, then the music of Dale Turner fits the bill."


TAXI.COM says: "Inspired and sophisticated. A distinctive style with quirky, inventive imagery and unexpected dissonance, unusual arrangements and a jazz/prog rock-influenced phrasing. An overall showcase of obvious talent on display."


MUTANTMALL.COM says: "The first time I listened to [Mannerisms Magnified], I was frozen in time and space as it took over my mind. I forgot where I was. Dale's music is complex, tricky, and unusual ... yet ... at the core, you can't escape the beautiful vocal melodies and well-crafted acoustic guitar. It's alive, like music should be." (Carl King, a.k.a. Sir Millard Mulch, a.k.a. Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk)


CRASHING SYMBOLS says: "At track two ["Bad Seed"] I feel as if I've started listening to the late Jeff Buckley's Grace. It's not so much the way Turner softly but effectively vocalizes, but even the intricate, mellow guitar work that so hauntingly marked "Grace" and "Last Goodbye" are apparent here. This isn't a case of an artist simply imitating Buckley, but rather showcasing his passion for such an influence."


INDIESHARK says: "This guy is a musical genius who locked himself away for a few years to deliver you this catalogue of music. It's highly worth an hour of your time to peer into Turner's world."

ABOUT THE ARTIST:
The former West Coast Editor (1996-2007) of the now defunct Guitar One magazine, in addition to working as a performing/recording musician and producing engineer, Dale Turner is an instructor at Hollywood's Musician's Institute (where he teaches Jimi Hendrix-style rhythm guitar improvisation, music theory/ear training, sight-reading, and rhythmic independence for the singing guitarist), and author of 50+ instructional books/transcription folios (his latest being Power Plucking - A Rocker's Guide to Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar). He also writes a monthly acoustic guitar column for Guitar World magazine, and is featured in their LICK OF THE DAY App. for iPhone/iPad.

Visitors Since July 22, 2001
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