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What is a Riff?

what is a riff

What is a riff? This simple, repeated musical phrase has driven rock music for over 50 years but what really makes a good riff?

What is a riff?

It is a simple question and I would guess that we would probably all think we know the answer to it.  But when you look into it a little bit deeper the simple riff is a lot more complex than you might think.

The riff is at the foundation of rock music and has been for at least 50 years.  Think about it, what is the bit you remember most from a song?  From Layla to Paradise City, Enter the Sandman to Chasing Cars that simple, repeating pattern of notes that drives a tune has often proven to be the make or break element in a song.  I can guarantee that most of us when we first started to learn the guitar tried to figure out the riffs to our favourite tunes long before we tried to learn the underlying chords.  Riffs are hard-wired into our psyche, they are a point of excitement for the listener, nothing quite gets the pulse going like a good riff.

So what is a riff?

There is an argument to suggest that the word “riff” entered the language as a slang term in the 1920s.  The dictionary definition of the word riff describes it as a “short repeated phrase in jazz and similar music”.  The riff was used in Jazz music as the root phrase upon which the soloist could improvise over.  It is far easier to solo over a repeated short riff than over a whole chord progression for example.  For Jazz music the riff was therefore in the background but rock music took this concept and pushed the riff to the front and made it the centre-piece of the composition.  Arguably it is in Rock music where the riff was really developed into the musical force it has become.

So what makes a riff so memorable?

Riffs are short repeated musical phrases and it is because they are short and repeated which makes them so memorable.  For example most riffs are usually 1 to 4 bars in length and will be repeated throughout the song perhaps with some minor alterations on the theme.  Another common theme amongst riffs is that they are often played on the three low bass strings on the guitar which lends resonance to the riff and drives them to the fore in a piece of music.  Riffs are also extremely rhythmic.  It is perhaps because they are often played on the lower bass strings of the guitar that drives the rhythmic quality of a riff and defines the energy of a song.

How do you put a riff together?

This is the really difficult bit because, although you can easily define the qualities of a riff, putting a good one together is a bit more difficult.  However, there is help and that comes in the form of a great book Riffs – How to Create and Play Great Guitar Riffs by Rikky Rooksby.  This is a great book which introduces you to the idea of the riff, demonstrates how some very famous riffs were put together and how these ideas can be used to create your own.  It is an interesting book with lots of fascinating detail so if you are looking to understand riffs better then this is the book for you.

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