How To Write a Killer Guitar Hook

[Editors Note: This was written by Sarah Jacobs.]

The hook is basically what keeps you hooked on a song. It’s a selling point, that group of notes or that phrase that stays stuck in your head and makes you sing, headband, or rock out on your air guitar. Most of the time it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you mention a song’s title, and it’s what most musicians usually start out with when composing as it serves as the foundation for the verses of a song.

Consider the lines “We are the champions,” “I can’t get no satisfaction” and even “Ah, ha, ha, ha – stayin’ alive” – these are all popular hooks that have made their respective songs easy to recall. Of course, it helps that these are also part of the song titles, but not all hooks are in the titles or the chorus. Blur’s “Song 2,” for example, has “Whoo hoo!” that sets off the hook.

Writing for Gibson, Ted Drozdowski says that for guitar players, it’s wise to think of hooks as riffs. Riffs have the power to pull listeners right into a tune – recall the riffs of great guitar players in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and you’ll see what riffs can do to make a song a hit.

What makes a great guitar hook?

Before you go writing a hook, it’s first important to know what makes a hook a great one. If you listen to the most iconic hooks in music, you’ll notice that they’re all short and easily repeatable. When writing a guitar hook, keep in mind that the longer it is, the harder it is to remember, which defeats the purpose of a hook – so keep your hook short and simple.

Music producer Kim Copeland says that different music genres rely on different types of hooks to sell songs. Country songs, for example, almost always have a story and characters. Country music artists are storytellers, which is why their songs would usually have a hook at the beginning or end of the chorus, or at the beginning or end of each section of verse. A great example is country favorite “Always On My Mind.”

For pop music, a melodic hook is key. The melody is what makes people burst into song, (even if they don’t want to), and what makes earworms stay in our heads seemingly forever. Hooks in pop songs make lyrics singable and hard to get away from – Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is one song you probably can never shake off because of its catchy hook.

And for rock music, you’ll agree that the most hooky hooks are there at the very beginning, way before you even hear a vocal melody. Copeland mentions AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as a prime example of a song with a killer hook.

So how do you come up with a guitar hook that will get people hooked, keep them listening and make them invested in the song and your music? Let’s look into three different kinds of hooks and what you can do to create them. By the way, you don’t have to stick to just one type of hook in a song – experiment and see which ones work best alone and which would work well together. Let’s get started!

The Rhythm Hook

The rhythmic hook uses a combination of instruments and essentially establishes a beat-rhythm combo upon which a song is built. Many of Stevie Wonder’s hits in the Seventies are built on rhythm hooks, such as “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “Superstition.” Creating a powerful rhythmic hook involves these steps:

  1. Keep a steady beat by slapping your knee or tapping your foot.
  2. Improvise (sing or hum) a short, catchy 4- or 8-beat rhythm.
  3. Come up with a one- or two-chord progression that sounds interesting when repeated, such as C-Bb, C-Fm7, C-Eb and so on.
  4. Make a bass line where the end connects easily and smoothly back to the beginning of the line. Make sure that this bass line has a catchy rhythm, one that is ideally different in rhythm as the guitar or other instruments.

The Intro Hook

The intro hook is mainly a melodic idea that, as its name suggests, gets established in the first few bars of the song. It is then repeated throughout the song over and over but it isn’t always present – it appears then drops out. Some examples of songs with an iconic intro hook are “Smoke on the Water” and “Moves Like Jagger.” The following steps can help you write your own intro hook:

  1. Think of a catchy rhythm (4 to 8 beats) and base a melodic idea on it.
  2. Stick to the pentatonic scale notes C, D, E, G and/or A (in C major).
  3. Come up with three separate chord progressions to accompany the hook. These chord progressions should be able to function as chorus, verse and bridge progressions.
  4. Let the hook appear and disappear throughout the song.

The Background Instrumental Hook

“With or Without You” by U2 and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan are two fine examples of songs with great instrumental hooks. The instrumental hook is usually added to an already completed song, and it works well in combination with other types of hooks. Here’s how to create one:

  1. Make a short 2- to 4-beat riff (with a distinctive rhythm) on your guitar. The guitar riff should be able to be accompanied by most chords in the key you’ve chosen.
  2. Focus on using it mainly in the song’s chorus but instead of putting it on top of the chorus lyrics, fit it in and around the lyrics. Think of the instrumental hook as a counterpoint or answer to a chorus lyric.
  3. Let the hook stay in the background, complementing the other hooks you already have.

Now that you’ve come up with a hook (or at least an idea for one that you want to try), get songwriting! Remember to repeat, repeat and repeat – but not too much. Give your song a listen with different hook repetitions and you’ll know when it’s too much so you can adjust and make it just right. Change the rhythm between verses and choruses, or add effects like stuttering and pauses for variety. Lastly, make sure you highlight the hook. Again, the hook is the song’s selling point, so make it easy for listeners to pick out and sing or air guitar along to. Good luck and have fun!

Sarah Jacobs is a blogger at Know Your Instrument.

Make Your Guitars LOUD!!!

[Author: Chris Gilroy *]  
I love guitars. Something about them excites all my nerve endings. From softly picked acoustics to a mountain of amps at full blast. These nuanced instruments can be tricky to record. Luckily for you, I’m setting up for a session right now where we will be tracking distorted guitars for the next 3 days. Let’s talk a bit about getting some of the best results you can while recording and the things I will be doing for this session.

Before you even get into the studio to shred, find a few different examples of recordings where you, the artist, producer, or whoever is in charge of the project, are inspired by for this session. Guy Picciotto of Fugazi has a very different tone then Matt Pike of Sleep/High on Fire. Talk to your engineer about how these different sounds speak to you and how they were achieved. What amps, guitars, pedals, etc etc were used for tracking.

If you are engineering, you need to learn the different sounds between guitars. Why grab a Fender Stratocaster over a Telecaster? What’s the draw of a hollow body guitar? Each instrument sounds very different. Then there are amps! A Fender Deluxe sounds AMAZING when cranked, but very different from a Marshall JCM50. It is a never ending task for us to learn these differences. I’m not a guitarist (my mind was simpler and could only handle smashing two pieces of wood against a drum) so every session I work on I make sure we try a few amps and guitars. Mostly so we can make sure that we have a sound we are happy with in the room, but partially so I can listen to different combinations of instruments and amps, learning it and internalizing it.

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Luckily I am fortunate enough to work in a place that has a bunch of great sounding amps. When you turn the gain till the pre amp starts to clip, we reach a magical land. Which is emulated through so many pedals. To get geeky for a second, a lot of distortion pedals are trying to recreate the sound of tube amps distorting. Housed in much smaller and cheaper enclosures they are create to throw a few flavors in your bag for a gig.

But these boxes use transistors and diodes to compress and clip your sound, which will flatten your dynamics and take a ton of life out of your guitar. Live they totally rule, but if you are in the studio and have a Marshall Bluesbreaker, you probably also don’t need that OCD pedal on. Turn up the amp, and rock out.

A hard balancing act while tracking distorted guitars is not OVER distorting. When we play live we have the benefit of watching the player’s hands on the instrument. We don’t get that same luxury through a recording. Our guitar sound must be clear enough to make out all the notes and harmonies played. For listening example, blink-182’s Enema of the State is laden with giant and punchy sounding guitars that we hear everything Tom DeLonge is playing. Back a few albums to Cheshire Cat, it is much more difficult to hear exactly what he is playing. His sound is muddied and a bit too crunchy to full hear everything. When we are tracking back down the amount of distortion a little less then when we play live. The clarity will come through but we still have the amp growl.

Kurt Ballou of Converge is a master at getting an insanely aggressive sound while still maintaining note clarity. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE horribly recorded black metal records. But after a short period of time my ears get fatigued because the guitars basically almost white noise (which then I wonder why I didn’t put on a Merzbow record).

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When I double guitars I first make sure I know why we are doubling. Recently I finished mixing the new Nihiloceros EP. I wash’t involved in tracking, so during mixing I heard sections that I wanted a slight energy boost like after a bridge into the final chorus of a song. To solve this we tracked a meatier guitar sound to blend in slightly behind the rest of the guitar assault. Mixed in you can’t quite tell that there is another guitar, it just feels like the part swells a little more.

For another record, a new band from Philadelphia called Puriden, we wanted to have a massive wall of hard panned guitars. They had recorded an SG through a Vox AC30 as the main guitar. Since the guitarist has that rig as his tone, we didn’t want to lose the Vox sound so we doubled using the same amp and a Telecaster. This gave us enough sonic difference to know that we had two guitars, but have no phasing issues between the two.

Steve Albini spoke about this very eloquently in Mix with the Masters. In short, if you have a different initial sound source with a different timbre you decrease the chances of having phase issues. Even if it is a different amp, mic, etc, the initial harmonic character is the same. For the most clarity and less phase related issues down the line change your instrument. If you have the ability then change your whole rig but at the very least try a different guitar.

Micing amps is a whole other beast. This section alone can be a whole book so I will only briefly gloss over some ideas here. Or buy me a beer at a show and we can chat all night.

The placement of an amp in the room affects your sound dramatically. Having an open back amp against a wall will increase the amount of low frequencies in your sound. Having a small amp on the floor will increase first order reflections. Is the room large and live (reverberant) or tight and dry? Often the room sound will slip into your mics and affect your recordings. Speaking of mics, each type of mic responds differently and adds or subtracts to our sound.

The SM57, love it or hate it, will always be around and serve it’s duties wonderfully. Learn it and how to use it. Ribbon mics, like the Royer R-121, will add extra lower mids to your sound and often tame harshness. Condenser mics also sound incredible on amps. I love the sound of a Schoeps M22 (tube small diaphragm) on amps like a Fender Deluxe. Or a Soyuz 017 slays on guitar amps, as do so many other large diaphragm options.

Be mindful that each mic has a limit of how loud it can handle. If you have a Marshall Plexi at full blast some mics won’t be happy and give you thinner or distorted tones. You could also damage the microphone, like the sensitive ribbon mics, rendering them into very expensive door stops.

Placement of the microphone on the cabinet has a big change of sound. The more on the center of speaker cone you get, the brighter a sound you capture. As you move off axis, the sound gets a little darker, or warmer. How far or close your mic is will also change the timbre and room tone. Among other reasons, if you place a cardiod mic too close you will get a bass bump known as proximity effect. Listen to talk radio to hear this overused. Justin Colletti, of Sonicscoop, has this wonderful video exploring the different sounds we get with just this principle alone.

Originally I was hoping to get into mixing guitars, but that must wait till next time. The last point I want to drive home is that this is a skill set that we can always improve on. We are constantly learning. Go to conferences (AES), workshops, talks. Read magazines (Tape Op!) and watch videos. Talk to peers at all levels. Whenever possible I try assist other engineers. It lets me see how other people do things and handle situations. The amount I have learned from that or the conversations after the session about techniques and decisions used in the session has been monumental.

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*[This article was written by Chris Gilroy, producer and house engineer at Brooklyn-based Douglass Recording. Chris earned his degree in Sound Recording Technology from UMass Lowell. Chris has worked with a diverse range of artists including Ron Carter, Mike Stern, The Harlem Gospel Choir, Christian McBride, to name a few.]