What Is a Riff: All About the Musical Phrase

Rock Concert
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In songs, the lyrical phrase that is repeated and summarizes what the song is about is called a "hook." In terms of the music itself, the series of notes, chord pattern or musical phrase that is repeated is called a "riff." Often, a riff is used as an introduction to a song, such as a guitar riff. Musical riffs are often found in genres like popular music, rock, and jazz. A riff is different from a lick in that, while a lick is a stock pattern or phrase, riffs may include repeated chord progressions.

Popular Songs With Memorable Riffs

An example of a song that has a memorable riff is "Smoke on the Water" played by Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple. This song has a rock riff that is played using the G pentatonic scale (G, A, B, D, E). It is memorable yet simple to play, which is why it's so popular and the reason most beginning electric guitar players learn to play it first. Watch Ritchie Blackmore as he shows how to play the "Smoke on the Water" riff to fully understand the sound.

Some additional songs with catchy riffs include:

  • “Day Tripper,” by The Beatles
  • "Satisfaction," by Rolling Stones
  • “Heartbreaker,” by Led Zeppelin
  • "Sweet child o’ mine," by Guns ‘n Roses
  • “Sunshine of Your Love,” by Cream
  • "Walk This Way," by Aerosmith

The Early Guitar Riffs

Several musicians transformed rock 'n' roll in the late 1950's with growing tempos and complex rhythm and blues. Some of the musical pioneers who created the very first guitar riffs include Chuck Berry, Link Wray, and Dave Davies.

 The riff has evolved and progressed since, through changing musical scenes such as punk rock, which allowed for choppy, spiky and powerful riff arrangements, like those from bands such as Gang Of Four and AC/DC.

Learning How to Play Riffs

Learning how to play easy and classic riffs is a great entryway into learning how to play music in a short period of time.

This is because riffs are often easier to play than chords and offer a more engaging experience with practice. Some of the easiest modern-day riffs to play as a beginner include "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes, "Californication" by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and "Do I Wanna Know?" by the Arctic Monkeys.

Classical Music Patterns

When we speak of classical music, we call the repeated musical phrase or pattern as ostinato rather than a riff. One of the most popular examples of this is "Canon in D" by Pachelbel, a German composer, organist, and teacher. "Canon in D" is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music and uses the chord progression D major-A major-B major-F# minor-G major-D major-G major-A major. Listen to Pachelbel's composition here.

Ostinato comes from the Baroque period and comes from the Italian word, translated as "obstinate." Composers have used ostinato since the 13th century until its popularity reached a peak in the Baroque period. Other famous examples of ostinato include "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel and "Suite in Eb" by Holst.