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Sam Bell - Extended Range Guitar Part 14: Steve Vai Style 8-String Guitar Riff

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 32 **

Hello Extended Guitar Rangers! In this issue’s Extended Range metal guitar lesson, I am going to take you through a Steve Vai style 8-string guitar riff that uses some really cool chord voicings and legato phrases to really kick start some inspiration in your 8-string metal riff writing. Be sure to check out the downloadable tab that comes with this guitar lesson as either a PDF or Guitar Pro 6 format. In this write up I won’t be explaining note for note as the tab demonstrates that very well, instead I will be explaining the harmony, guitar techniques and concepts behind this riff. For this riff I am tuned standard from Low 8th string F#, 7th String B, and E standard from strings 6 to 1. Let’s take a look at the harmony behind this guitar riff first.


This riff is based around a drop root voicing of a sus2 chord, the basis of the riff is around this harmony:

F#sus2 G#sus2 and A#sus2.

The chord riff mainly goes between the F#sus2 and G#sus2 using the A#sus2 as a passing chord. These chords sound ambiguous, fresh and angular but they are based around an F# Lydian tonality. The chord types are replacing the traditional diatonic voicings that are built on 3rds within a scale which would leave us with these chords:

F#maj7 G#7 and A#m7:

I chose to stick with the ‘Sus’ chords however to get a certain feel for the riff that I wanted. I voiced the chords on the 5th, 2nd and 1st strings originally however I moved the same inversion down onto the 7th 4th and 3rd strings (see transcription). The riff uses these chord shapes to jump between the 7th string and the 3rd and 4th string pair to create a low riff that highlights the main harmony. Technique wise this creates a challenge for the picking hand, try and keep it relaxed as possible. A lot of this playing style requires the same strumming technique that funk players use to get those syncopated percussive rhythm parts you hear on tracks such as Good Times by Chic.

Another challenge with these particular chord voicings, especially on an 8-string, is keeping unwanted string noise at bay. I fret the 7th string with my middle finger and bar the 4th and 3rd string with my index finger. Keeping my middle finger slightly flat mutes the 6th and 5th string which I am not aiming to play. I also find adding pressure to the chord and moving the pressure away between stabs keeps the string noise down, this is something to experiment with on your own guitar with your own hands of course as everyone is built differently!

On the 3rd quarter of this riff I utilise some diatonic 4th and 3rd intervals that descend, this was really inspired by one of my favorite soul/R&B guitarists Paul Jackson JR (of Michael Jackson fame). He is famous for using small chord chunks to create more melody around his rhythm sections. See the tab for more detail on where I place these rhythmically and from a positional perspective. This turn around lick however is harmonically based around an A#m7 tonality. Now let’s take a look at the other turn around ideas I use in this riff.

7th and 8th string turnaround:

There is a ‘tag’ within this riff that is used as a turn around and an intro. This melodic fragment takes place on the 7th and 8th strings. Highlighting the #4 interval that gives us a characteristic Lydian tonality, using bending to raise the #4 up a semi-tone to the 5th before dropping back down to the #4 and down further to the 8th string to play intervals 3, 2 and 1 from an F# Lydian scale. This turnaround tag changes at the end of the riff slightly but still uses the same intervals and rhythm. Once again see tab for further details of fingering.

Vai Style Run:

You may have noticed this riff has a ‘Steve Vai’ style run in the middle of it, this run is based off a C#maj7 arpeggio, descending through a diatonic sequence. The sequence lands on an F# note on the 5th string, highlighting various major arpeggios on the way down to get a very modal sound, highlighting the F# Lydian tonality from our parent C# major scale. I chose to play this riff using triplet phrasing, keep an eye out for which fingers I use on this lick as this makes the position changes and slides a lot easier. Be sure to check out the video and transcription. You could play this without the slides however I feel the slides give this run its own personality, and it really ‘pops’ out and gives the whole riff section some exciting energy.


One of the important aspects behind the sound of this riff is the pick up selection that I am using. My guitar has traditional Ibanez switching, which means I can use pickup position 2 which gives me a parallel wired pickup sound which has a lot more ‘spank’ and high end than the same pickup in humbucking mode. This gives me a significant output drop, but a lot more clarity. If you have a 3 way switch or your guitar isn’t wired for parallel you can get a similar effect by rolling back your volume control, selecting bridge position and dialing a little bit more treble on your amp. Having the pickups at a lower gain setting helps us dial the ‘tightness’ of this riff. Lots of distortion would make this a very hard riff to keep clean and articulate, especially with the string skips, position changes and up pace tempo of the section.

I hope you have enjoyed this issue's look at Extended Range Guitar. We have experimented with mixing chord voicings, smooth runs, low turn arounds and even some funk/soul techniques to create a truly unique style riff. I highly encourage you to try mixing more influences in your extended range writing, no matter what it is, you never know where it might lead you. So until the next issue, good luck and keep creating!

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