Many of the best licks and riffs by artists like the Beatles and Neil Young are really just made up of bits and pieces of easy chord shapes. You can use these same basic chord shapes to create cool riffs for your own songs.
When you look at a simple D chord, you may not see all the potential within that three-fingered shape, but you can find countless great riffs within this chord—the Beatles crafted the instantly recognizable lines to “Norwegian Wood” and “Here Comes the Sun” based on the first-position D chord. Keep this shape rooted in your mind while you explore Example 1, which first shows a D chord, and then shows shapes you can access from this position by moving around just one finger at a time. Many of these shapes have slightly different names—for instance, the first one to the right of the D chord is a Dsus4. But we’re not worried about the names here; we’re more interested in how we can create interesting-sounding parts by embellishing a chord shape. Strum through each one and practice switching between them.
Once your fingers are comfortable with the shapes, you can use them to create melodies. Example 2 shows a melody to start with, focusing on single notes. The key to now making Example 3 sound like this melody instead of a bunch of chords is to highlight those melody notes from Example 2 as you play through the riff. Notice how you’re strumming through four strings in the first and second measures, but in the third and fourth measures, only two or three strings are strummed—that’s because the melody notes are focused on the second and third strings in the later measures, so strumming through the whole chord (especially the higher notes on the higher strings) at those points would obstruct the melody.