How to remember a riff

"Dum dee dah dum doo doo" - that's it! You've found the next chart topper but, far from being in Abbey Road studios, you're sat on the bog in Burger King. Now how are you gonna remember that?

The music gods are renowned for sending down cool riffs at the most inconvenient of times - haven't they heard of email?! You need to record, memorise or write it down fast. Here are a bundle of tips for saving that moment of inspiration.
  • Don't go thinking that you'll remember the tune for later. Keep humming it until you can write it down or make a recording - you might get some funny looks in the street but it's worth it for a number 1.

  • Who hasn't got a mobile phone in their pocket nowadays? Call your own number and leave a musical answer phone message! Those with the latest models could photograph the weird chord shapes or even make a quick video! There are also some great little MP3 style dictaphones around these days that can hide in your pocket until the moment arrives.

  • It can be quite embarrassing when you can't work out your own playing from a recording. Write it down in some form even if it's just the position on the neck.

  • Your scribbles don't need to be understood by anyone else so you don't have to write out a beautiful orchestral score. Use whatever doodles you feel may help. They'll be worth a fortune on Ebay when the track goes Gold!

  • Stumbling across a weird chord can mean you've got no idea what it's called. You could draw out a neck chart but perhaps a quicker way is to write it down as a bunch of numbers that indicate the fret on each string e.g. an open D Major chord would be 'X, X, 0, 2, 3, 2'.

  • Most of us are familiar with reading TAB so use it to write out your own stuff. Check out the regular TAB guide section in the mags.

  • Writing down rhythms can be tricky if you're not familiar with traditional music notation. Start by figuring out whether the notes fall on the beat or somewhere in-between. Perhaps you can relate it to the rhythm of an existing song. Doodles again can help - long lines for long notes, dots for short notes. Or just write "Bah Bah Bah Baaaaaaaaaaaaah" (Beethoven!).

  • No pen and paper? The 21st century comes to our rescue again. Text yourself. You'll probably have a cheaper option to just store a message in the mobile phones memory. Word processors can make reasonable TAB pads too. Type some rows of dashes in for the strings then turn on 'Overwrite' (usually by pressing 'Insert' once) and you can type the numbers directly onto the lines.

  • Theory can help! To help memorise a riff try to work out the key, chord names, intervals, timings etc. Anything that gives you another way to file ideas in your head will improve your chances of retrieving them later.

  • Practising aural perception will help you remember tunes when you're away from your beloved (the guitar). If you can sing intervals and hence recognise them in a melody, there's more that you can write down.

  • If you do forget it, don't panic. Chances are it'll pop back when the next inconvenient moment arrives. Try to be prepared this time. Use association to try to jog your memory. Think about where you were and what you were doing - this might be enough to get the nugget back.
Andy Ellis
February 2004

Last updated 6/25/2020