What Is A Guitar Riff? – Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before!

I said Riff Not Reef!

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?

What is a guitar riff?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!

AC/DC Riff

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.

Nirvana Riff

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.)

Metallica RiffDon’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!





12 Replies to “What Is A Guitar Riff? – Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before!”

  1. Well, this site will certainly help me out when my grandson talks to me about his guitar playing! I did not know what a riff was, although once you explained it in simple layman’s terms, it made sense.

    I really love the way you explain things like we were sitting and talking together. You make these terms very understandable. Now I feel like I can be an “expert” when my grandson pulls out these phrases!

    Do you have any suggestions on a “phrase” or “term” book or website where I could find out more of these things? Are you creating that on your site? Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the comment Karin! I always try to break things down as simply as possible without losing meaning. The reason for this is two fold. It makes it approachable and easy to understand for visitors but also show me that I have grasped the concept. That is why i am open to correction to get the most accurate information from someone more knowledgeable than me on the topic.

      I don’t really have a phrase book but I am currently looking at making a chord library, but I think a glossary page may be useful. Thanks for the input, its exactly what i’m looking for!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post.  I have heard of a guitar riff before, but never really knew or understood what it really was, you have explained it well, and I have learned something.  I’m glad you gave some examples to help clarify it for me.  Now I have that Nirvana song stuck in my head.  

    1. Great! I hope next time you hear it or someone talks about Nirvana, that you remember what you learned so you can impress them with your knowledge. A small disclaimer though some musicians can be a bit, passionate when it comes to musical terms, so just tread carefully, lest they bring the full wrath of their musical knowledge upon you! 🙂

  3. Very cool!  There are riffs that I recognize, like Thunderstruck.  But, I apologize, every time I think of the word “riff” I think of Wayne’s World and the two guys playing their air guitars 🙂  

    Actually, one of my kids’ is really into music and is taking piano and guitar lessons.  I’m going to show him your site.  This will help him a great deal with his musical education.  He doesn’t have an electric guitar yet.  Someone made him a guitar out of a cigar box… pretty cool 🙂  But, I’ll show him this 🙂

    Thanks 🙂

    1. What? That’s awesome! I wish someone made me a cigar box guitar. This reminds me of watching Jack White (from The White Stripes) making an electric guitar from a piece of plank, some nails, an old glass coca cola bottle, one old guitar string and an old guitar pickup and then playing some slide guitar on it. Brilliant!

      I think the tips on this site are helpful (although i am obviously biased:). I hope to expand the site to the pint where it will draw musicians to talk about the posts and offer corrections or experience so that someone like your kids can come here and learn in a positive environment with accurate information.

  4. Hey Renton

    Thanks for clearing this up. I always just thought a riff and a lick were two words for the same thing. But I like your explanation and this makes sense to me. 

    So from my understanding a riff is almost like the theme of the song. It’s the thing that is repeated and recognizable – like the hook or the motif in some ways. Whereas a lick can just be a few notes played anytime – like some accent notes at the end of a phrase.   

    Not sure I’ve explained myself that well, but I think I’ve got my head around the difference now!

    1. Hi Nathan, thank you for commenting. I think that you are spot on about the Riff being the hook of the song. I guess a lick could be some accent notes but those notes are basically standardized patterns that many people know. It is a saying like “An apple a day keeps the Doctor away”. That’s what people mean by stock phrase or pattern. Its like a standardized pattern. I am glad you get the difference.

  5. Great site, and I am sure a great meeting ground for fellow guitarists. 

    Thanks for explaining a riff so well. I played piano, but I didn’t know what a riff was. Is riff exclusively for guitars? In the Queen song ‘We will rock you’ is there a riff at the beginning.  It is not a guitar playing though, more like clapping and drums. 

    Just wanted to double check if a riff can be done with any musical instrument or only a guitar?

    1. Hi Michel! Thank you for the comment. It is actually my hope for musicians who find value in this site to meet and discuss and correct me where I go wrong. A riff can be played using any instrument but i am a guitarist (or getting there) so my perspective is usually from the guitar side of things.

      I believe that Canon In D major by Pachelbel has an opening riff that can be played by any instrument and even a combination of instruments such as an orchestra.

      I guess Queens into to We Will Rock you could be a riff. It is synonymous with the song and chances are if you repeat that rhythm with the same timing people would think of this song. So while i may be wrong, I am inclined to think it is a riff.

  6. What a fantastic fun article.  I hear one of my favorite riffs in my head right now which is “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.

    A riff really is the calling card of the song isn’t it?  Like the musical hook.  You gave some really good examples to drive home the definition.   I notice a lot of jam bands use riffs in a different way sometimes.  i guess when you freelance a song for 20 minutes what’s the point?

    Super job…!  Love your site and this article made me smile…  Cheers!

    1. Hey Tim, thanks for the comment. There were tons of example jumping into my head including that one but thats a post on its own! A guy at work actually has that song as his ringtone, and it is really high pitched! Great song though I like GNR their song are fun.

      I am glad I was able to give you a smile, that is awesome.

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