Welcome back to another guitar tutorial! In today’s lesson we’re going to be learning about two essential elements of guitar playing and song composition: guitar riffs and licks. I’m constantly amazed by how many guitar players are unable to differentiate or even define these terms.
Don’t feel discouraged if you have no idea what I’m referring to; you’re not alone. But believe me when I tell you that having an incomplete picture of these two concepts can often cause confusion, especially when you are trying to compose your own piece of music, or when you are attempting to describe to another musician what you want to achieve in a song.
Therefore, I’ve decided to do the right thing and teach this vital lesson to those who have no idea how to differentiate between a riff and a lick.
Throughout this lesson I will be referring to some cool guitar riffs and licks, for which I will also provide tablature so you can learn and paly a few guitar riffs and licks.
I highly recommend seeking out recordings and videos of the original songs so you can get a feel for the fluency and style of each.
With all that said, it is time for us to dive into the world of riffs and licks, and get this dilemma sorted out once and for all.
I won’t beat about the bush on this one, so let’s get straight to the point. A guitar riff, in essence, is a small section of a song, a main musical idea that is then established as that song’s identity. It is a collection of notes that are played somewhere in the song, usually in the introduction, that help to set the tone right.
In another post I mentioned Slash’s iconic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro, which became as iconic as the song itself and is one of the most recognizable musical patterns in the world of guitar-playing today. That is a guitar riff.
A riff helps to turn a simple song into something more memorable. That particular main theme of the song is neither improvised upon nor altered, because it serves the role of informing the listeners what they are tuning into.
Imagine someone playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” with a completely different intro; it’s just not going to work. Why? Because the opening riff is the soul of the song.
In another example, if you were to remove the spine-tingling riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” the song would die almost instantly.
Guitarists all over the world have used their creativity to come up with riffs that have gone out to hit the top of the charts and continue to remain there even decades later.
Check out this list of some of the greatest riffs ever created (I’ll mention few more later)
- “Voodoo Child” - Jimi Hendrix
- “Beat It” - Michael Jackson
- “Alphabet Street” - Prince
- “No One Knows” - Queens of the Stone Age
- “Killing In the Name” - Rage Against the Machine
- “Satisfaction” - The Rolling Stones
- “Seven Nation Army” - The White Stripes
- “Hero” - Skillet
Hopefully by now you’ve developed a fair idea of what exactly a guitar riff is; it is the heart and soul of a song, it set a musical theme, and is most commonly found in a song’s introduction (though not always).
You can compose your own riffs and place them wherever you please in your work. Just remember that it should be a short musical phrase or series of musical phrases that defines your song or takes it up another notch.
There is no reason to worry about having to improvise on your guitar riff; after all, no one will come over and tell you, “Hey, I’ve found a better way to play ‘Voodoo Child’s riff,” because it just wouldn’t sound the same.
Now let’s switch over to guitar licks and see how they differ from riffs.
No, I’m not referring to the act of physically licking your guitar like some famous guitarists have done onstage. It may be a cool thing to see, but it has nothing to do with the musical definition of a guitar lick.
Unlike a guitar riff that remains the same every time and serves an important role in establishing the main musical idea of the song, a guitar lick is an improvisation on the way the notes are played to make them sound a little different.
Licks can go by other names including solos, fillers, runs, and so on; no matter what you call it, it’s meant to vary.
Guitarists are often tempted to do something a little different especially during a guitar solo. This is especially true when they are performing before an electric crowd.
They will alter the solos, add in a flare or two, or play something short, sweet, and new. These are essentially improvisations, and improvisations are basically spontaneous licks.
However, there is one thing you should know: Not all improvisations qualify to be licks. Just can't just paly something and call it a guitar lick. Licks are designed to be used over and over again, but with slight variations each time on a multiple songs.
A guitarist may add a note or two, lengthen or shorten it, or change some other aspect of the lick. Because the lick is designed and has a structure to it, you and I can learn to play them to add in the extra flare to the solo. Playing the licks can really make big difference to your solo.
In the next few chapters, we will be looking at some classic examples of both licks and riffs to give you an idea of how they differ and how they are played. Just remember the key difference between the two; riffs are very rarely (if ever) changed, but licks are likely to change all the time.
Difference Between the guitar riff and lick
Just in case you didn’t catch it the first time, let me lay out the differences once more for you in case you skipped right down to this part without reading the first two sections.
Earlier we learned that a riff is a unique, repeated, and ear-catching musical phrase, and can draw attention to a song through its rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic structure.
We also learned that riffs can be used almost anywhere in the song, but generally guitarists prefer to use these in the introduction.
If done correctly, it is a memorable phrase of music that will strike a chord with the audience almost instantly.
On the other hand, a lick is just a musical idea that players can use to spice up and perhaps even change a small part of the song as they go along.
A riff, by definition, is complete on its own. If I was to play the introduction of “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, it would still sound complete. The same cannot be said for a lick. If I were to play just a lick on its own it would sound incomplete, abrupt, and it would not make any sense.
A riff can be played on a variety of instruments. A lick, however, is something that is exclusive to guitars. While a riff is designed to set the vibe, a lick is used to showcase the skills of a guitarist by standing out. Unlike riffs, licks allow a guitarist to perform solos or improvise on an established melodic line of the song.
While riffs go down as memorable, licks might not necessarily have the same staying power.
Example: If you were baking a cake, the icing would be the riff; it makes the cake unique, draws the eye to it, and the cake would be incomplete without it. In this metaphor, a lick would be the sprinkles or other tiny decorative elements; not vital to the cake’s flavor or design, but an interesting and worthwhile addition nonetheless.
The biggest difference between the two, however, is the fact that licks are always more prone to improvisations. Riffs are a musical idea usually written into the composition of the song, and not the result of a spur-of-the-moment improvisation.
Guitar Riffs V/s Licks
In the first section I mentioned a few memorable riffs that the world has been graced with. In this section I will list a few more of the finest riffs that every guitarist should listen to and draw inspiration from.
Some of these riffs are hailed as the fifty greatest riffs of all time (picture_freelance, 2012), which is why you should definitely tune into these and find out just how incredible they sound.
It’s also worth trying to visualize each song without its riff so that you can get a sense of how important the riff is to the song it goes with. Without further ado, saddle up, grab a pen and a paper, and log on to YouTube; you are about to create a completely new playlist for yourself.
Note that the following list is arranged in no particular order.
- “Brianstorm” - Arctic Monkeys
- “Johnny B Goode” - Chuck Berry
- “Paranoid” - Black Sabbath
- “Sunshine of Your Love” - Cream
- “One” - Metallica
- “Back in Black” - AC/DC (Hailed as the greatest guitar riff of all time by NME)
- “Pretty Vacant” - Sex Pistols
- “I Wanna Be Your Dog” - The Stooges
- “I Can’t Explain” - The Who
- “Cinnamon Girl” - Neil Young
- “Don’t Cry” - Guns N Roses
- “Marquee Moon” - Television
- “Get It On” - T. Rex
- “Alive” - Pearl Jam
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” - Nirvana
It’s time for you to grab your guitar and give some riffs a whirl! In this section we will be looking at a variety of riffs and licks that you can play along with, practice, and master.
All of these riffs are beginner-friendly, meaning that you do not need to have exceptional command of the guitar. You can be at any level and you should still be able to play these with some success, so long as you know the basics.
As we’re just practicing and playing around with these riffs, feel free to use them in your songs or modify them to your taste.
The following riff can be used with a few variations. It is a good riff pattern for practice, and can be used in a newly composed song, although I would suggest some minor changes here and there. While I encourage you to try out different combinations, I have found palm muting to produce the best effect. If you don’t know what palm muting is, no worries! While I won’t be covering it here, there are plenty of great tutorials on palm muting to check out.
The above uses E5, A5, and D5 power chords. To make it even more interesting, you can use this riff in the middle of the chorus as well. Of course, you’d want to make sure that the chorus of the song also works well with this riff.
Who doesn’t dig a funky riff? Everyone loves them, everyone wants them, but not everyone knows how to create them. Well, this riff may be perfect for you. As with the previous riff, and the one that will come next, feel free to modify these as much as you want to until you find the kind of riff you are happy with.
For this riff I encourage you to utilize the thumb on the hand you hold the neck with. The neck-hand thumb technique is convenient and effective, allowing you to gain muting effects more accurately and conveniently.
Unlike the previous riff, this one is meant to repeat in the verses of the song.
Then, transpose the above to G for the next bars. You can use these during the verses and then modify them during the song as you need to.
Don’t think I forgot about the acoustic guitar players! There are plenty of riffs out there for you, too.
Here’s an example of an excellent acoustic guitar riff for you to try. However, unlike the previous one, this riff is only used once in the introduction. This short but effective riff really sets the tone and tempo for the entire song.
Guitar Licks to Try at Home
Of course, where there are riffs, there are bound to be licks as well. Let’s dive into a few licks worth listening to and trying for yourself.
When it comes to licks, Joe Satriani is one name that you will come across often, and for very good reason. He is arguably one of the most technically sound guitarists I have ever come across. His performance, his execution, his style of composition, and his awe-inspiring, punchy performances are a dream to listen to and an excellent style to emulate.
Here’s an example of a lick inspired by his work. It captures some of the subtle tricks he uses coupled with a few techniques that might be a bit more advanced than previous examples. Don’t give up hope, though– with time and practice you’ll master them as well.
Ahh! Montgomery, the one-man army. If you do not know who he is or why he has made it onto this list, then you aren’t a true guitarist. To give you an idea of just how exceptional his work was, here is a lick that I created mimicking a few of his signature techniques and improvisatory elements.
After experimenting with the tabs you’ve learned here, you might be ready to jump right into the wide, wonderful world of riffs and licks.
Well, as it turns out, I have just the thing to help you on your journey into guitar stardom.
I happen to have written a book which includes even more guitar techniques, licks, riffs, and so much more.
If I’ve piqued your interest, “Soloing Techniques For Beginners” is what you’re going to want to read next.
With 100+ licks and riffs to learn and play, with quite a few written in the style of guitar legends, you will have months and months of fun, while improving your guitar playing skills as you go.
Go ahead shop now, give it a shot!