Monday, 10 October 2016

Golden Ticket: Create Instrumental Hooks (Ticket 3)

The rhythm's in the guitars 
- Paul McCartney


Don't let the vocals be the only source of melody in your song. Share it around the instruments. Don't let every gap between singing be 'dead space'. Fill some with compelling instrumental melodies. Write a part that will make the listener break off from the vocal melody to 'sing' some other part (as Frank Sinatra literally did in his cover of Something (3:58 and 4:06).

Skippable Theory

One of the most common ways to introduce an instrumental hook is to build your song around a riff. (A riff, or ostinato, is a repeated musical figure). In rock and metal the riff is so central that it often displaces the vocal line as a the main element (think of how 'un-melodic' the chorus melodies of Smoke On The Water, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction or Walk This Way are compared to their riffs.

A second way is to write a fill or lick (which usually occurs once per song, or once per section) in holes left by the vocal melody.

A hook is an intrinsic part of the song and usually the most popular part. Compare the original and unplugged versions of Layla. When Eric Clapton replaces the opening lead guitar melody with a few strummed chords the heart of the song is lost.

Beatles Application

The Beatles generally preferred chord progressions over riffs, but early covers like Twist And Shout (0:00), Money (That’s What I Want) (0:00) and Words Of Love (0:00) had strong, simple riffs that paved the way for classics like I Feel Fine (0:06), Hey Bulldog (0:00) and Paperback Writer (0:06). A riff doesn't automatically have to open the song – think of the choruses of Helter Skelter (0:42 and 0:45) and Get Back (0:43*), and simple riffs derived from underlying chords can be effective, as in the case of Ticket To Ride (0:00) and In My Life (0:00). A riff doesn't have to be played on guitar. The Beatles riffed on harmonica (Love Me Do) (0:00), piano (Lady Madonna) (0:00) and horns (Got To Get You Into My Life) (0:11 and 1:05).

The Beatles created some memorable instrumental fills from fragments of the vocal line (see ticket 4) but others were 'original' – like the breaks that end the choruses of Here Comes The Sun (0:23), and Let It Be (1:41*) and the chord-based fills that punctuate the verses in Please Please Me (0:12 and 0:19) and Yer Blues (0:24).

Counter melodies are another source of hooks, ranging from simple descending notes on piano in Hey Jude (0:51) and guitar in Help! (0:01) to the elegant string lines in Eleanor Rigby (0:04, 0:31, 1:08 and 1:21).

It's no surprise that a supremely melodic band produced so many 'hummable' solos; simple - And I Love Her (0:00), rhythmic - While My Guitar Gently Weeps (0:00), harmonically complex - Michelle (1:25) and technically challenging - And Your Bird Can Sing (0:51).

Lastly they highlighted the hooks with unusual instrumentation and recording techniques; mellotron and swarmandal - Strawberry Fields Forever (0:00 and 1:18), french horn - For No One (0:49), piccolo trumpet - Penny Lane (1:09), harpsichord – Piggies (0:00 and 1:06), sped-up piano - In My Life (1:28) and sped-up piano/guitar - A Hard Day’s Night (1:19).

Featured Song And Recommended Artists

In I'm A Believer by The Monkees there are two distinct hooks; on organ (0:28) and electric guitar (0:46). These are highlighted in three ways; by occurring where there are no vocals, by the instruments being kept low in the mix at all other times and by being put 'front and centre' – introduced together at the opening of the song (0:00). The electric piano solo (1:37) is another memorable hook, it's sound buried in the mix till that point.

All rock bands employ riffs but Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Black Sabbath are masters of the art. And anything can be a hook, from drum fills (In The Air Tonight (3:40) - Phil Collins) and intros (Run To The Hills (0:00) – Iron Maiden) to bass lines (Another One Bites The Dust (0:00) and Under Pressure (0:00) by Queen), from keyboard lines (The Final Countdown (0:13) - Europe and Tainted Love (0:03) - Soft Cell) to horn parts (Sir Duke (0:00) – Stevie Wonder and Baker Street (0:23) - Gerry Rafferty). Unusual combinations work well like the sampled strings on Bitter Sweet Symphony (0:17) by The Verve and the electro theremin on The Beach Boys Good Vibrations (0:25).

Reader Application

  • If you are someone who primarily creates melodies by singing, try giving a melody line to an instrument instead of writing lyrics for it. Eric Clapton's lead guitar melody on Wonderful Tonight (0:57) could have become a 'chorus' e.g. “You look so good, You look so nice, You look so Won-der-ful To-night”... but thankfully it didn't! Don't automatically 'give' every melody you compose to the vocalist.
  • If you are an instrumentalist write some riffs! You may have to simplify your chord progressions or your vocal lines to make room, but it will be worth it.
  • Experiment with fills that are not just 'noodling' – melody is not exclusively the singers domain.
  • If you have some 'chops' on your instrument and are prone to overplaying when you write try humming a riff, or restrict yourself to playing guitar or keyboard with one finger.
  • Once you have a hook consider how to make it stand out. Having other instruments drop out is one way. An unusual instrument or sound is another possibility. Indeed trying out an unusual instrument can often inspire you to create a hook in the first place.

*timings are from the Let It Be album version

Further reading

Ticket 3: Create Instrumental Hooks
Gary Ewer: Exploring a Deeper Definition of a Song Hook

Join the mailing list to get the free, exclusive, Beatles Songwriting Academy podcast!


  1. intense post Matt, my head hurts at the thought of all those numbers :)

    also, good to see you and Gary have 'hooked up' ;) (funny how your take on the acoustic Layla went in a totally different direction)


    1. Thanks Lee - do you think the timing thing is too much? Was thinking about not including them where it's just the start of the track 0:00 - thoughts?

  2. Being something of a metal man in my past (NWOBHM anyone?) I totally agree with every word. I shan't ramble on (see what I did there?) about the million and one riffs I could namecheck, but instead point you in the direction of two quite delicious covers which all but dispense with the riff from the song they're aping and, in so doing, bring something totally magical to the table.

    The first one you'll know - Devo's take on the Stones' Satisfaction.
    And then, for my money, for one of the best cover versions *ever* - you really should check out White Wedding by Whip. You'll listen to it, get to the end and realise the image of Billy Idol didn't spring into your mind once.

    1. White Wedding:

    2. Kind of a cool cover but to me this is almost a new song with Idol's lyrics kind of like Macca's 'cover' of Golden Slumbers.

  3. One of the most famous bass riff songs is Come Together!

  4. Yesterday has Paul McCartney humming the string melody at the end of the song.