Unlocking the Secrets of Forbidden Guitar Riffs: A Comprehensive Guide

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Last updatedLast updated: March 22, 2024
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As musicians, we constantly seek to explore new territories and push the boundaries of our creative expression. However, throughout the history of music, there have always been certain riffs and sequences that have been deemed forbidden. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve deep into the world of forbidden guitar riffs, uncovering their history, exploring the psychology behind them, and ultimately empowering you to embrace these enigmatic musical treasures.

History of Forbidden Riffs

Forbidden riffs have their roots in various cultures and musical traditions worldwide. This section will explore the origins of these mysterious riffs and how they have evolved over time.

Medieval and Renaissance Periods

In medieval Europe, the tritone, also known as the “Devil’s interval,” was considered dissonant and believed to evoke sinister feelings. This interval, which spans three whole tones, was believed to create an unsettling atmosphere and was often avoided by composers of the time. Similarly, specific scales and modes, such as the Phrygian dominant scale, have been associated with mystery and darkness due to their exotic tonal qualities.

During the Renaissance period, the concept of forbidden riffs evolved further as composers began to experiment with polyphony and complex harmonic structures. This era saw the development of more intricate and unconventional riffs, which continued to challenge the established norms of musical composition.

20th Century and Beyond

The 20th century saw a dramatic increase in the popularity and prevalence of forbidden riffs, thanks in part to the rise of new musical genres and styles. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, and later, heavy metal and progressive rock all embraced the use of unconventional riffs and dissonant intervals, pushing the boundaries of musical convention and challenging societal norms. With its powerful and versatile sound, the electric guitar became the perfect instrument for exploring these forbidden riffs, and musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Tony Iommi paved the way for future generations of guitarists to continue breaking the rules.

The Power of Taboo in Music

Taboo has long played a significant role in the world of music, as it helps to create intrigue, curiosity, and a sense of danger. Forbidden riffs often possess a unique allure that draws listeners in, inviting them to experience something unexpected. This sense of mystery is what makes forbidden riffs so captivating, as it pushes the limits of traditional musical conventions and encourages the exploration of new sonic landscapes. In this section, we will examine how taboo influences music and contributes to the allure of forbidden riffs.

Cultural Impact

The power of taboo in music can be traced back to the cultural significance of certain riffs and musical elements. In some cases, these riffs have been associated with religious or supernatural beliefs, such as the “Devil’s interval” mentioned earlier. In other instances, they have been linked to specific cultures or geographic regions, imbuing them with an exotic and mysterious quality that captures the imagination of listeners.

Rebellion and Counterculture

Another aspect of the power of taboo in music is its connection to rebellion and countercultural movements. Throughout history, musicians have used forbidden riffs to challenge authority and express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. This can be seen in genres such as punk rock, grunge, and heavy metal, which have all embraced unconventional riffs and dissonant intervals to defy mainstream musical conventions and create a unique sonic identity.

Famous Forbidden Riffs

Several well-known forbidden riffs have captured the imaginations of musicians and audiences alike. This section will explore some of these riffs and the genres they are most commonly associated with.

Classic Rock and Heavy Metal

  1. Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”: Often regarded as the birth of heavy metal, this iconic riff utilizes the tritone, creating a dark and ominous atmosphere that has become synonymous with the genre.
  2. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”: This legendary riff has become so famous that it’s often jokingly referred to as “forbidden” in guitar stores due to its popularity and frequent customer playing.
  3. Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: This groundbreaking riff showcases Hendrix’s innovative use of the Phrygian dominant scale, giving the song its distinct psychedelic and otherworldly vibe.

Progressive and Experimental Rock

  1. King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”: This complex riff, featuring an unusual time signature and dissonant intervals, exemplifies the experimental nature of progressive rock and its willingness to challenge traditional musical conventions.
  2. Yes’s “Roundabout”: This intricate and melodic riff showcases the band’s mastery of unusual chord progressions and unconventional song structures, making it a prime example of progressive rock’s adventurous spirit.
  3. Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato”: This instrumental epic features a multitude of unconventional riffs, odd time signatures, and intricate arrangements, demonstrating the band’s exceptional musicianship and willingness to push the boundaries of rock music.

Modern and Alternative Rock

  1. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: This iconic riff, with its distinctive dissonant intervals and raw, grungy sound, helped define the alternative rock movement of the early 1990s.
  2. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”: This ambitious and complex song features a multitude of unconventional riffs and chord progressions, showcasing the band’s penchant for pushing the boundaries of alternative rock.
  3. Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”: This energetic riff, which combines elements of surf rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal, demonstrates the band’s unique and diverse musical influences.

The Psychology Behind Forbidden Riffs

The allure of forbidden riffs can be traced back to our innate curiosity and desire for novelty. Humans are drawn to the unknown, and forbidden riffs provide a sense of excitement and adventure that can be difficult to resist. This section will explore the various psychological factors contributing to the forbidden riffs’ appeal.

Curiosity and Novelty

Curiosity is a fundamental human trait that drives us to seek out new experiences and explore the unknown. With their unconventional and mysterious qualities, forbidden riffs naturally pique our curiosity and invite us to delve deeper into their origins and meanings. This desire for novelty and discovery is one of the main reasons why these riffs continue to captivate musicians and listeners alike.

Emotional Impact

Another critical aspect of the psychology behind forbidden riffs is their ability to evoke strong emotions. Due to their unconventional nature and the cultural associations they often carry, these riffs can elicit feelings of excitement, intrigue, and even fear. This emotional impact is one of the main reasons why forbidden riffs are so effective at capturing the listener’s attention and creating memorable musical experiences.

Breaking the Rules: Embracing Forbidden Riffs

To truly unlock the potential of forbidden riffs, embracing their unique qualities and breaking free from the constraints of conventional music theory is essential. By incorporating these riffs into your playing, you can push the boundaries of your creative expression and develop a more distinctive sound. In this section, we will provide tips and strategies for embracing forbidden riffs and incorporating them into your music.

Study the Masters

One of the most effective ways to learn about and master forbidden riffs is by studying the musicians who have successfully incorporated them into their music. By analyzing the work of artists like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix, you can gain a deeper understanding of their techniques and approaches and use this knowledge to inform your own playing.

Experiment with Different Scales and Modes

Expanding your musical vocabulary by exploring exotic scales and modes is another important step toward embracing forbidden riffs. Some of the scales and modes that are commonly associated with forbidden riffs include the Phrygian dominant scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the diminished scale. By experimenting with these and other unconventional scales and modes, you can unlock new creative possibilities and develop a more unique and diverse sonic palette.

Embrace Dissonance

Dissonance is a key element of many forbidden riffs, creating tension and intrigue within the music. Rather than shying away from dissonant intervals and unusual chord progressions, embrace them to add depth and complexity to your compositions. This willingness to explore dissonance can help you create more distinctive and memorable music that stands out from the crowd.

Push Your Technical Boundaries

Forbidden riffs often require advanced techniques, such as alternate picking, sweep picking, or finger tapping. To fully unleash the potential of these riffs, it is vital to dedicate time and effort to mastering these techniques. You can develop the skills and confidence needed to tackle even the most challenging forbidden riffs by constantly pushing your technical boundaries.

Develop Your Own Style

Finally, use forbidden riffs as a starting point for creating your own unique sound. Combine them with other influences and experiment with different arrangements and song structures to make them your own. By forging your own musical path and embracing the unconventional, you can develop a truly original and captivating style.
playing guitar

Forbidden Riffs in Various Genres

While forbidden riffs are most commonly associated with rock and heavy metal, they can also be found in various other musical genres. In this section, we will explore how forbidden riffs have been used and adapted in different styles of music.


Jazz is a genre that has always been characterized by its willingness to experiment with harmony and dissonance. As such, it is not surprising that many jazz musicians have incorporated forbidden riffs into their compositions and improvisations. Artists like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonious Monk are just a few examples of jazz musicians who have embraced unconventional riffs and chord progressions, pushing the boundaries of the genre and creating new sonic possibilities.


The blues is another genre with a long history of incorporating forbidden riffs and dissonant intervals into its music. The use of the “blue note,” a flattened fifth or augmented fourth, is a prime example of this, as it adds tension and emotion to the music. Legendary blues musicians like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf have all used forbidden riffs in their playing, contributing to the rich and diverse sound of the genre.


While classical music is often viewed as more structured and traditional, numerous composers have incorporated forbidden riffs and unconventional harmonies into their work. For instance, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” features numerous dissonant intervals and complex polyrhythms that were considered groundbreaking and controversial at the time of its premiere. Similarly, composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich have challenged the boundaries of classical music by using unconventional riffs and harmonic structures.

World Music

Forbidden riffs can also be found in various forms of world music, as different cultures and traditions have developed their own unique musical vocabularies. From the microtonal melodies of Indian classical music to the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming, the use of unconventional riffs and scales can be found in musical styles from all corners of the globe. By exploring these diverse musical traditions, you can gain new perspectives on forbidden riffs and their potential applications in your own music.

The Role of Forbidden Riffs in Music Education

The study and practice of forbidden riffs can play an essential role in music education, as they encourage creativity, technical development, and a deep understanding of musical theory. In this section, we will discuss how forbidden riffs can be incorporated into music education and the benefits they offer.

Encouraging Creativity

By introducing students to forbidden riffs and unconventional musical concepts, educators can help foster a spirit of creativity and experimentation. This can encourage students to think outside the box and develop their unique musical voice rather than adhere to established conventions.

Developing Technical Skills

The practice of forbidden riffs often requires advanced technical skills and high precision. As such, incorporating these riffs into music education can help students develop their technique and improve their overall musicianship.

Building a Solid Foundation

While it is important to encourage creativity and experimentation, it is also essential for students to have a strong foundation in music theory and technique. By studying forbidden riffs and their underlying concepts, students can better understand harmony, melody, and rhythm, ultimately benefiting their overall musical development.

The Future of Forbidden Riffs

As music continues to evolve and technology opens up new possibilities for exploration and experimentation, it is likely that forbidden riffs will continue to play a significant role in the world of music. This section will consider potential future developments and trends related to forbidden riffs.

Technological Innovations

New technologies, such as digital audio workstations (DAWs), virtual instruments, and advanced guitar effects, are making it easier than ever for musicians to explore forbidden riffs and create unique sounds. As these technologies continue to advance, we can expect to see even more innovative and boundary-pushing applications of forbidden riffs in the future.

Evolving Musical Tastes

As musical tastes and preferences continue to evolve, it is likely that audiences will become more receptive to unconventional riffs and harmonic structures. This could pave the way for a greater acceptance of forbidden riffs and their unique tonal qualities, leading to an increased prevalence of these riffs in mainstream music.

The Continued Power of Taboo

The allure of the taboo and the mysterious nature of forbidden riffs will likely ensure their enduring appeal in the world of music. As musicians and listeners seek new and unconventional sounds, forbidden riffs will remain a powerful tool for creative expression and boundary-pushing experimentation.

Final Thoughts

Forbidden riffs have played a significant role in the history of music, challenging conventions and inspiring countless musicians to push the boundaries of their art. By understanding these enigmatic riffs’ history, psychology, and cultural significance, you can unlock their full potential and incorporate them into your own music.

Whether you are a seasoned professional or an aspiring musician, the study and practice of forbidden riffs can provide valuable insights and inspiration for your creative journey. By embracing the unconventional and pushing your own technical and creative boundaries, you can develop a unique and captivating sound that sets you apart from the competition.

As technology advances and musical tastes evolve, the future of forbidden riffs remains bright, offering endless possibilities for exploration and experimentation. So, pick up your guitar, embrace the unknown, and let the power of forbidden riffs guide you on your musical journey.

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