What is a riff? Seven things you need to know

We meet once again,

Oh, the guitar riff… the ever-popular, often mystified fragment of music that makes songs instantly recognizable. Or is it the musical phrase that can define a generation? Perhaps an immortalized series of notes you are proud to learn? Yes, yes and yes. A riff is all those things and so much more. But riff is not the same as a lick, they are different.

Part of being a guitar legend is to come up with those riffs. You could even make the argument that riffs are just as important to a guitar player’s reputation as his solos (if not more). And as a guitar player, you will definitely be playing lots of riffs. A riff might as well be the very first thing you learn on guitar. But… what exactly is a riff? There are many kinds and types. Here are the seven things you need to know…

A riff is a succession of notes or theme

 This succession of notes can be double stops, chord progressions and/or single notes. It often constitutes a central part of the song. Of course, a song might have more than one riff. A simple arpeggio pattern over a few chords can be a riff, like in “Paradise City” from Guns N’ Roses. An even simpler chord strum pattern can also be a riff, like in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana. In both cases, the riffs are instantly recognizable and could be considered a theme.

A riff can feature a combination of techniques

 Even though many riffs are composed exclusively of single lines or just chords, there are many others that feature both. As a matter of fact, you can basically use any infinite combinations of techniques to build a riff. For instance, the riff of “Back in Black” from AC/DC features a series of chords that alternate with two very specific single lines or licks. The first one on the high string and the second one the lower strings.

Another classic song that combines chords and single lines to form its main riff is “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. This happens in the very intro of the song. That riff, in particular, has become a popular choice for guitar teachers and students alike, as it is relatively easy, very recognizable and extremely cool as well.

A riff can also be a part inside a song

Let’s stick with “Paradise City”. Even though the main riff is a simple arpeggio pattern over a few chords, it is not the only riff on that classic song. Right after it happens, a new riff comes in:  a distorted series of simple power chords that step up the verse. This riff is not the “main riff” in the song, but it’s definitely a very important one as well.

This also happens in “Purple Haze”. That Hendrix classic employs different riffs throughout its structure, to create a guitar anthem and a must-know song if you play Rock guitar.

Riffs are a great learning tool

Riffs are a great educational tool for guitar players. Given that there are so many recognizable riffs, it should be fairly simple to pick something you like and that fits your playing ability. There’s also the immense added bonus of playing along with the original recording once you learn the riff.

This fact should not be understated, as it is a great tool to learn not only riffs but music in general. To play along with, say Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, or any other great artist, is a very useful tool. You can really try to emulate the players feel and intensity and play with an incredible rhythm section, if only for a moment. The benefits of doing this on a regular basis are immense.

You should learn riffs by ear

Because of today’s technology and the endless amount of information available, learning music by ear is not as common. This is quite unfortunate because the musician is missing out on great ear training. Learning riffs off a recording not only trains your ears but also develops the connections between brain, ears, and hands. The importance of learning by ear cannot be overstated.

Riffs also have a difficulty level

If you have never picked up a guitar before, try to steer clear from hard riffs. Trust me, if the first riff you attempt to learn is “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson, you will be very disappointed. Better start with something simpler and build up to the more complex stuff. Remember: to run, you first need to walk. And before that, you need to crawl.

Riffs can be found in all instruments

 Yes, yes, I know. At least in rock, most riffs are on the guitar. But that does not mean we have to stick to those exclusively. Take for instance the bass riff on “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. It is so instantly recognizable that Vanilla Ice decided to use it on his 1991 hit “Ice Ice Baby” (don’t kid yourself…you know that you liked it…).

For a more obscure reference, Dave Grohl does a killer drum riff at the beginning of Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice”. This makes the song instantly recognizable to any Nirvana fan.

Wrapping it all up

Riffs are the bread and butter of a rock guitar player. They are a crucial stepping stone for learning and getting better as a guitarist. They can combine several techniques, happen in different parts of songs and run the gamut from easy to complex. The best way to learn them is by ear. And one of the best ways to practice them is playing along to the original recording. Here's a list of 10 riffs every guitarist must know.

That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

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