A Cool Blues Riff In E

A great sounding way to play backup guitar on a blues song is by using a riff. A riff is a simple rhythmic motive that can be played in the background all through a 12 bar blues progression. In this lesson we’re going to learn a simple riff and see how it is played over the different chords of a blues progression in E major.

The first figure below presents the basic riff pattern based around an E chord and some notes from the pentatonic major chord. This is a common way to create riffs, mixing a chord with a short single note phrase.


In the 12 bar blues that follows we are going to take this basic riff and play it on all the chords. As you’ll see the riff is modified slightly when we move the the A (IV) and B (V) chords. Again, this is a very common way of using chord riffs so they support the harmony. The modified riff is based on the same E chord shape played up the neck at the 5th and 7th frets for A and B respectively. You’ll have to use a bar position to play the chords on beat one.

e blues riff

You’ll notice that the riff varies slightly in different bars. This helps add some interest but is not absolutely necessary, the same one bar pattern could be used throughout. In bar four the riff is modified to finish on the 2nd fret of the B string instead of the open B. This note is a C which happens to be the major third of the A chord that follows. Notice how this sound sets up the A chord and makes the transition sound better. Try playing the unmodified riff on this bar to hear the difference this small change makes. Keep this trick in mind as you create riffs of your own – use tones from the next chord, the major third, fifth and seventh all work well, to lead in to chord changes a beat or so in advance.

Notice how this trick is used again in bars preceding the changes to E, B, A, and E chords in bars six, eight, nine and ten.

The progression finishes with a little turnaround riff in bars eleven and twelve. You can either play this kind of turnaround riff or just keep going with the usual pattern right through to the end, it just depends on the kind of mood you want to create with your song.

I hope you enjoy this lesson and the riff blues you can learn to play. When you’ve mastered it have a go at making up your own riff blues. Use the tips this lesson has shown you:

  1. Start with a blues chord shape on beat one
  2. Fill in to the end of the bar with a single note lick of three or four notes
  3. Move your riff to the IV and V chord
  4. Use the third, fifth and seventh of the next chord to lead into chord changes
  5. That’s all there is to it. Before you know it you’ll be a master blues backup player able to create interesting riffs from dusk ’till dawn down at your local blues club.