Musicians use the terms ‘riff’ and ‘lick’ all the time. They are instinctual to us at this point and are as intrinsic to the music we play. But as we use the terms riffs vs licks, do we have a concrete idea of what we’re talking about?

We seem to have a fairly vague relationship with these terms, and many of us pick up our own understandings and examples of the terms as we go. 

One musician calls it a riff, one calls it a lick, and we just have to draw our own conclusions. With these loose definitions, the two terms have merged, and there now seems to be some real overlapping going on.

In this article, we are going to put this ambiguity to bed. I’ll equip you with some clear definitions so that we can be so much more professional and efficient with our musical vocabulary. Let’s dive right in!

What is the Difference Between a Guitar Riff and a Lick?

A guitar riff is a prominent repeated melody in a song, or possibly the only main melodic idea. Licks, on the other hand, are short patterns or phrases of music that embellish a song with fleeting melodic lines. Licks are not emphasized as the main melodic idea in a song.

What Exactly is a Riff?

A riff is a repeated melody that acts as one of, or if not the only main melodic idea in a song. A riff also helps to define the song structure. Often you may hear a riff section at the beginning of a song, which then repeats after the first chorus and finally recapitulates in the closing segment of the song.

guitar riffing

Riffs are thematic. In the same way John Williams might use a theme to lay out his principle melodic idea, riffs too are a melodic basis for a song. In this way, they can act as a melodic home in a song, providing resolution. For example, a song might open up with the riff, then go off on a tangent, but ultimately return back to the riff at the end of the song to resolve it and make it feel complete.

For me personally, the word ‘riff’ always gives rise to Eric Clapton’s ‘Bad Love’ in my mind, the riff marked by his brazen guitar entrance. But a maybe more iconic riff from slowhand would be found in ‘Layla’. 

In this song we can see how the riff defines the introduction, is abandoned in the verse, and then returned back to in the chorus as the main hook of the song. This is then emphasized more, via its recapitulation after the solo, acting as the resolve I previously mentioned. 

What Exactly is a Lick?

Licks are short patterns or phrases of music. They embellish a song with fleeting melodic lines and are not emphasized as a main melodic idea in a song. Where a riff is a structural section of a song, licks do not bear a structural responsibility and add to the pre-existing foundations of a song.

guitar lick

We can see how licks work, and essentially what they are, in a guitar solo.  A guitar solo can be broken down into lots of interconnected melodic phrases, and each one of these phrases is precisely what a lick is. 

In the example of a guitar solo, each lick may be interconnected through intermediary devices like pauses or sustained notes. 

Another example of how licks are used is through ‘fills’. This means that musicians will often embellish suitable parts of a composition, with a short melodic phrase. A vocalist pausing may for instance act as a cue for an instrumentalist to ‘fill’ the gap with a lick. 

Think of Jimi Hendrix, hardly a moment goes by without him adding a filling lick of the highest order. And take Albert or B.B King. They hardly get round to playing rhythm guitar at all once they’ve belted the blues and filled vocal pauses.

Musicians will also often use the same lick in lots of different performances when improvising in solos or playing ‘fills’. They’ll take a lick that they’ve acquired from somewhere, and transpose into different keys for different performances as they wish. 

Where Did These Terms Originate?

Music exploded in the 20th century, and so did its commercialization. It became an everyday form of art. Radio, television, advertising, and many more factors all contributed to unprecedented levels of accessibility.

Just as a cellist performing a concerto in a concert hall might use Italian expressions to describe their piece, the average Joe who now found he could create music of his own needed new terms that matched his colloquial language. 

A kid turning up at school in the morning wouldn’t talk about the “chugging riff” he heard in Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ on the radio last night. This terminology just wouldn’t fit with its musical context. However, if we wanted our vocabulary to be more congruent with classical precedent, we might talk about the splendid ‘ostinato’ that we hear in the piece.

Although where these terms originally came from is foggy, it is universally understood that ‘riff’ is an abbreviation of the musical expression ‘refrain’, and that ‘lick’ is slang for a ‘lick’ of melody. Referring to a small dose or ‘lick’ of music.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, now you know precisely what riffs and licks are, and how to contextualize them within modern music. 

Riffs are the main melodic ideas within songs and licks are short patterns that are used to embellish a song. 

Licks are often thought of as forming a player’s musical DNA, their individual voice a constant in all performances. However, licks can be composed in order to enhance a specific piece, and be entirely original.  

This is a practical distinction of a lick from a riff, as a riff is unique to the song it’s originally a part of, and therefore any use will always draw reference to that song. 

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