The White Stripes have been a huge musical influence of mine and I think that we can learn a lot about hit songwriting from Jack White. What better place to start than by learning how to play the Seven Nation Army riff and understanding what makes this song shine.
I’ll dig into the theory of this song below the video, but for now just go ahead and watch the lesson, then read on.
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Understanding the Theory Behind the Seven Nation Army Riff
Okay, so to get our first order of business out of the way, we need to look at the Key that this song falls into. To do that, we will look at the notes of the riff and the two chords used in this song that end every verse section. The riff goes E-E-G-E-D-C-B and the two chords that get used are G5 (that’s a G Powerchord just containing the root and 5th of G Major) made of notes G & D and the power chord of A5 filling the role of A minor, containing notes A & E. If we just put all these notes in sequence from G we have G-A-B-C-D-E. That’s just one note shy of the entire G Major scale (just F# is missing).
Now if you’re not familiar with musical keys then checking out that link there will help you get familiar. But every Major key also has a relative minor key (that means the exact same notes, just starting from the 6th scale degree of your Major key). In this case, we start from E, the 6th note of G Major, and spell E-F#-G-A-B-C-D-E. The reason I’ll say that this song is in E minor is because it has more of a somber feel and the riff starts on an E note. These are both helping lead your ear to hearing this Seven Nation Army riff as more minor than Major.
The last thing to really do is just look at the structure of this song. The riff gets played through the entire song, except for at the end of each verse when our two power chords get introduced over the lyrics “…And a message coming from my eye said leave it along”, etc, etc for each of the 3 verses. That is really all that is happening in this song.
What makes the Seven Nation Army riff work so well in this song is that at each point in the song new elements are introduced. The solo riff, the kick coming in, then the snare coming in halfway through the verse, then the two power chords hitting with the crash cymbals. Finally the song launches into the climax with White doing a variation of the main riff that adds in our missing F# note to use every note of the key and a heavy kick, snare, cymbal drum pattern.
Is the song simple?…Absolutely and that is where the greatest lesson from White’s Seven Nation Army riff can be had. Keep things simple, but build things effectively through structure so that the song keeps moving and building. Do you need a good riff, of course, but this lesson should show you just how simple a riff can be and how you can ABSOLUTELY do the same thing! So get on that axe and make up your own riff.
I hope that this lesson has been helpful and inspired you to start coming up with your own riffs. Leave me a comment below and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.