There is often confusion about the difference between a Lick and a Riff. This is not unusual at all because the two are very close. In fact, it is safe to say that a lick or part of it may be used as a Riff, but a Riff isn’t necessarily a lick. Confused yet? Good! now that we are on the same page (the confusion page) we can do something about it.
“What Is A Guitar Riff?”, you ask. Let us find the answer together.
Riffs – What Are They?
Someone once told me a riff is a repeated piece of music. While this is accurate it is probably not very helpful to you! According to me ( which is the only according to that matters on this page:), a Riff is basically a group of notes, played in a specific sequence that defines the song and becomes synonymous with it.
This group of notes could be in the form of a part of a scale, a part of a lick or arpeggio notes (chord notes played individually). Riffs are usually not complicated but can be (like most things in guitar). The riff is likely to be the easiest part of the song to identify. A riff is like an audio version of an ID book. Hear the Riff, and you could possibly guess the song.
A Riff is the star of the song. You may believe that it is the guitar solo or some other aspect of the song, however, most people (non-guitarists) will not be able to tell you the song based on the solo (or any other part of the song).
That might be an oversimplification or just plain wrong, but that is my present understanding of the situation ( please feel free to edify me in the comments!)
Riff vs Lick – I’ll Do My Best!
In my head, it seems like this. A Lick is a common musical saying or phrase. Nobody has claimed these phrases as their own and therefore anyone can use them as they see fit. That means you can throw a Lick or two into your song (generally around guitar solo time) and the song will essentially remain unique.
A Riff is the catchy melody of the song that is generally heard multiple times throughout the song. A Riff Can occur anywhere throughout a song. Most famous songs have Riffs which are instantly recognisable and are essentially tied to that specific song. Imagine trying to use the Riff from Thunderstruck in your song – not gonna go so well bud!
A big reason for this is that the riff is catchy and memorable so if you remember nothing else about that song you may remember the cool “part” from it. Riffs are often repeated throughout a song which may help people remember it through exposure.
Example Time – A Couple Tunes To Ease Your Troubles.
If we are to take an example to try and solidify our understanding, we may consider Come As You Are by Nirvana. The first ‘part’ of the song is the riff. It is quite a famous riff and is quite easy to play when you know how to. This riff is played multiple times throughout the song.
Another example we could consider is Enter the Sandman by Metallica. This song also starts with the catchy iconic riff that we all know and love (and love to play -or is it just me?). There are only 6 notes played over and over. This just goes to show that a riff does not have to be complicated or fancy to be catchy and memorable.
Another one for good measure is the opening Riff of The Story by 30 Seconds to Mars. It is a very smooth and catchy riff. This riff is also repeated later on in the song multiple times. It is worth noting that a riff is not cliche (doesn’t lose its meaning through overuse.)
Don’t get me wrong, if 99 % of your song is just one riff they will either call you boring or genius! Timing a riff at key points in the song can really bring home a sense of completion. A song is like leaving home and going on a journey. That journey an have a good time and bad but eventually, you will realise, there’s no place like home.
This is why many songs start and end with the same riff (in my humble opinion anyway!)
How Do I Make My own Riff? – Keep It Simple Smiley (That’s you)
Your first guitar riff should be simple. Why? This is to get you used to the idea of keeping your ideas simple allowing for flawless execution and boost in confidence. Your Riff could be any random notes in a specific order that sounds good to you, notes of one chord or a few chords combined into a pattern or even a part of a lick or scale pattern.
The riff is the catchy or groovy part of the song. All you need to do is find a few notes that you like. Let’s say we take 5 of them for example sake. Experiment with sequences that sound good to you (try skipping notes, playing some notes twice etc. Once you have done this you have your Riff! Congratulations!
Leaving With A Solid Riff Understanding
Hopefully, I have completed the mission you gave me. I remember it like it was only a few paragraphs ago. You were asking me “What Is A Guitar Riff?” and me saying “Let’s find out together. Oh, what good times we have together! Alas, my dear friend every day has a sunset, and every post has an ending.
Hopefully, we will both walk away remembering what guitar riffs are, and who knows, perhaps one of us will make our own riff thanks to our new found knowledge. Please feel free to comment with any thoughts or questions.
Seriously though thanks for reading, and I hope it answered your question!