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The riff from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" Play (help*info)
is characteristic of Rooksby's description: only four measures repeated, played low on a guitar as part of a heavy metal (rock) arrangement. Iron Man riff.svg
The riff from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" Loudspeaker.svg Play   is characteristic of Rooksby's description: only four measures repeated, played low on a guitar as part of a heavy metal (rock) arrangement.
Ostinato from Radiohead's "Creep" features modal mixture, common tones between adjacent triads (B between G & B, C and G between C+ & C-), and an emphasis on subdominant harmony (IV = C in G major). Radiohead "Creep" ostinato.png
Ostinato from Radiohead's "Creep" features modal mixture, common tones between adjacent triads (B between G & B, C and G between C+ & C−), and an emphasis on subdominant harmony (IV = C in G major).

A riff is a repeated chord progression or refrain in music (also known as an ostinato figure in classical music); it is a pattern, or melody, often played by the rhythm section instruments or solo instrument, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition. [3] Though riffs are most often found in rock music, heavy metal music, punk rock, grunge, reggae, Latin, funk, blues and jazz, classical music is also sometimes based on a riff, such as Ravel's Boléro. Riffs can be as simple as a tenor saxophone honking a simple, catchy rhythmic figure, or as complex as the riff-based variations in the head arrangements played by the Count Basie Orchestra.


David Brackett (1999) defines riffs as "short melodic phrases," while Richard Middleton (1999) [4] defines them as "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework". Rikky Rooksby states, "A riff is a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song." [1]

BBC Radio 2, in compiling its list of 100 Greatest Guitar Riffs, defined a riff as the “main hook of a song”, often beginning the song, and is “repeated throughout it, giving the song its distinctive voice”. [5]

Use of the term has extended to comedy, where riffing means the verbal exploration of a particular subject, thus moving the meaning away from the original jazz sense of a repeated figure that a soloist improvises over, to instead indicate the improvisation itself—improvising on a melody or progression as one would improvise on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine. [6]


The term riff entered musical slang in the 1920s (Rooksby, ibid, p. 6), and is used primarily in discussion of forms of rock music or jazz. "Most rock musicians use riff as a near-synonym for musical idea." (Middleton 1990, p. 125).

The etymology of the term is not clearly known. Some sources explain riff as an abbreviation for "rhythmic figure" or "refrain". [7] Use of the term has also misleadingly been extended to comedy where riffing is used to mean the verbal exploration of a particular subject, thus moving the meaning away from the original jazz sense of a repeated figure over which the soloist improvises, to instead indicate the improvisation itself: that is, improvising on a melody or progression as one would improvise on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine.

Charlie Parker's 1945 recording "Thriving on a Riff" brought the term to more popular awareness.[ citation needed ]

Usage in jazz and R&B

In jazz and R&B, riffs are often used as the starting point for longer compositions. The "Night Train" riff was first used in Duke Ellington's "Happy-Go-Lucky Local", which Ellington had recycled from Johnny Hodges' earlier "That's the Blues, Old Man"[ citation needed ].

The riff from Charlie Parker's bebop number "Now's the Time" (1945) re-emerged four years later as the R&B dance hit, "The Hucklebuck". The verse of "The Hucklebuck", which was another riff, was "borrowed" from the Artie Matthews composition, "Weary Blues". Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" had an earlier life as Wingy Manone's "Tar Paper Stomp". All these songs use twelve bar blues riffs, and most of these riffs probably precede the examples given (Covach 2005, p. 71).

Neither of the terms riff or lick is used in Classical music[ citation needed ]; instead, individual musical phrases used as the basis of classical music pieces are called ostinatos or simply phrases. Contemporary jazz writers also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz.

Riff driven

The term "riff driven" is used to describe a piece of music that relies on a repeated instrumental riff as the basis of its most prominent melody, cadence, or (in some cases) leitmotif. Riff-driven songs are largely a product of jazz, blues, and post-blues era music (rock and pop). [8] The musical goal of riff-driven songs is akin to the classical continuo effect, but raised to much higher importance (in fact, the repeated riff is used to anchor the song in the ears of the listener). The riff/continuo is brought to the forefront of the musical piece and often is the primary melody that remains in the listener's ears. A call and response often holds the song together, creating a "circular" rather than linear feel. [9]

A few examples of riff-driven songs are "Whole Lotta Love" and "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin, [10] [11] "Day Tripper" by The Beatles, [12] "Brown Sugar" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones, [13] "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple, [12] [14] "Back in Black" by AC/DC, [12] [14] "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, [12] [14] "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry, [12] [14] and "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks. [12] [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

Rhythm guitar Guitar used to provide rhythm

In music performances, rhythm guitar is a technique and role that performs a combination of two functions: to provide all or part of the rhythmic pulse in conjunction with other instruments from the rhythm section ; and to provide all or part of the harmony, i.e. the chords from a song's chord progression, where a chord is a group of notes played together. Therefore, the basic technique of rhythm guitar is to hold down a series of chords with the fretting hand while strumming or fingerpicking rhythmically with the other hand. More developed rhythm techniques include arpeggios, damping, riffs, chord solos, and complex strums.

Hard rock or heavy rock is a loosely defined subgenre of rock music typified by a heavy use of aggressive vocals, distorted electric guitars, bass guitar, and drums, sometimes accompanied with keyboards. It began in the mid-1960s with the garage, psychedelic and blues rock movements. Some of the earliest hard rock music was produced by the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In the late 1960s, bands such as the Jeff Beck Group, Iron Butterfly, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Golden Earring, Steppenwolf and Deep Purple also produced hard rock.

In music, an ostinato[ostiˈnaːto] is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions, such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997).

Groove (music)

In music, groove is the sense of an effect ("feel") of changing pattern in a propulsive rhythm or sense of "swing". In jazz, it can be felt as a quality of persistently repeated rhythmic units, created by the interaction of the music played by a band's rhythm section. Groove is a significant feature of popular music, and can be found in many genres, including salsa, rock, soul, funk, and fusion.

Bassline Low-pitched instrumental part

A bassline is the term used in many styles of music, such as jazz, blues, funk, dub and electronic, traditional music, or classical music for the low-pitched instrumental part or line played by a rhythm section instrument such as the electric bass, double bass, cello, tuba or keyboard.

Accompaniment Musical parts which provide the rhythmic and/or harmonic support for the melody or main themes of a song or instrumental piece

Accompaniment is the musical part which provides the rhythmic and/or harmonic support for the melody or main themes of a song or instrumental piece. There are many different styles and types of accompaniment in different genres and styles of music. In homophonic music, the main accompaniment approach used in popular music, a clear vocal melody is supported by subordinate chords. In popular music and traditional music, the accompaniment parts typically provide the "beat" for the music and outline the chord progression of the song or instrumental piece.

Lead guitar, also known as solo guitar, is a musical part for a guitar in which the guitarist plays melody lines, instrumental fill passages, guitar solos, and occasionally, some riffs within a song structure. The lead is the featured guitar, which usually plays single-note-based lines or double-stops. In rock, heavy metal, blues, jazz, punk, fusion, some pop, and other music styles, lead guitar lines are usually supported by a second guitarist who plays rhythm guitar, which consists of accompaniment chords and riffs.

Blues rock is a fusion music genre that combines elements of blues and rock music. It is mostly an electric ensemble-style music with instrumentation similar to electric blues and rock. From its beginnings in the early to mid-1960s, blues rock has gone through several stylistic shifts and along the way it inspired and influenced hard rock, Southern rock, and early heavy metal.

Lick (music)

In popular music genres such as country, blues, jazz or rock music, a lick is "a stock pattern or phrase" consisting of a short series of notes used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment. For musicians, learning a lick is usually a form of imitation. By imitating, musicians understand and analyze what others have done, allowing them to build a vocabulary of their own. In a jazz band, a lick may be performed during an improvised solo, either during an accompanied solo chorus or during an unaccompanied solo break. Jazz licks are usually original short phrases which can be altered so they can be used over a song's changing harmonic progressions.

"Gypsy Eyes" or "Gipsy Eyes" is a song written by Jimi Hendrix and performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the 1968 album Electric Ladyland. Subsequently, it was released as the B-side of the "Crosstown Traffic" single, which reached number 52 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 37 on the UK Official Singles Chart.

Song structure is the arrangement of a song, and is a part of the songwriting process. It is typically sectional, which uses repeating forms in songs. Common forms include bar form, 32-bar form, verse–chorus form, ternary form, strophic form, and the 12-bar blues. Popular music songs traditionally use the same music for each verse or stanza of lyrics. Pop and traditional forms can be used even with songs that have structural differences in melodies. The most common format in modern popular music is introduction (intro), verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus and outro. In rock music styles, notably heavy metal music, there is usually one or more guitar solos in the song, often found after the middle chorus part. In pop music, there may be a guitar solo, or a solo may be performed by a synthesizer player or sax player.

A modal frame in music is "a number of types permeating and unifying African, European, and American song" and melody. It may also be called a melodic mode. "Mode" and "frame" are used interchangeably in this context without reference to scalar or rhythmic modes. Melodic modes define and generate melodies that are not determined by harmony, but purely by melody. A note frame, is a melodic mode that is atonic, or has an unstable tonic.

In popular music, a fill is a short musical passage, riff, or rhythmic sound which helps to sustain the listener's attention during a break between the phrases of a melody. "The terms riff and fill are sometimes used interchangeably by musicians, but [while] the term riff usually refers to an exact musical phrase repeated throughout a song", a fill is an improvised phrase played during a section where nothing else is happening in the music. While riffs are repeated, fills tend to be varied over the course of a song. For example, a drummer may fill in the end of one phrase with a sixteenth note hi-hat pattern, and then fill in the end of the next phrase with a snare drum figure.

Candyman (Siouxsie and the Banshees song) 1986 single by Siouxsie and the Banshees

"Candyman" is a song written and produced by British rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees. It was released as the second single from their seventh studio album, Tinderbox.

Repetition is important in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated. It may be called restatement, such as the restatement of a theme. While it plays a role in all music, with noise and musical tones lying along a spectrum from irregular to periodic sounds,(Moravcsik, 114)(Rajagopal, ) it is especially prominent in specific styles.

Jazz improvisation

Jazz improvisation is the spontaneous invention of melodic solo lines or accompaniment parts in a performance of jazz music. It is one of the defining elements of jazz. Improvisation is composing on the spot, when a singer or instrumentalist invents melodies and lines over a chord progression played by rhythm section instruments and accompanied by drums. Although blues, rock, and other genres use improvisation, it is done over relatively simple chord progressions which often remain in one key.

Boogie rock is a style of blues rock music that developed in the late 1960s. Its key feature is a repetitive driving rhythm, which emphasizes the groove. Boogie rock is distinct from the piano-driven boogie-woogie music popular during the 1920s to 1940s, which was adapted for many early rock and roll and rockabilly songs.

Glossary of jazz and popular music List of definitions of terms and jargon used in jazz and popular music

This is a list of jazz and popular music terms that are likely to be encountered in printed popular music songbooks, fake books and vocal scores, big band scores, jazz, and rock concert reviews, and album liner notes. This glossary includes terms for musical instruments, playing or singing techniques, amplifiers, effects units, sound reinforcement equipment, and recording gear and techniques which are widely used in jazz and popular music. Most of the terms are in English, but in some cases, terms from other languages are encountered.

Progressive pop is pop music that attempts to break with the genre's standard formula, or an offshoot of the progressive rock genre that was commonly heard on AM radio in the 1970s and 1980s. It was originally termed for the early progressive rock of the 1960s. Some stylistic features of progressive pop include hooks and earworms, unorthodox or colorful instrumentation, changes in key and rhythm, experiments with larger forms, and unexpected, disruptive, or ironic treatments of past conventions.

Pocket symphony

A pocket symphony is a song with extended form. The term was popularized by English journalist Derek Taylor, who used it to describe the Beach Boys' 1966 single "Good Vibrations".


  1. 1 2 Rikky Rooksby (2002). Riffs: How to create and play great guitar riffs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. pp. 6–7. ISBN   0-87930-710-2.
  2. Capuzzo, Guy. Neo-Riemannian Theory and the Analysis of Pop-Rock Music, pp. 186–87, Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 177–199. Autumn 2004. Capuzzo uses "+" to indicate major and "-" to indicate minor (C+, C-).
  3. New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986) p. 708. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Middleton, Richard (2002) [1990]. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN   0-335-15275-9.
  5. BBC Radio 2 website
  6. "Definition of RIFF". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2019-09-30.
  7. "Definition of riff | Dictionary.com". www.dictionary.com. Retrieved 2020-11-09.
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  10. Fast, Susan; et al. (2001). In the house of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the power of Rock Music (1 ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 33. The song (Black Dog) represents a defining moment in the genre of hard rock, combining the elements of speed, power, an artful and metrically clever riff. ISBN   0-19-511756-5.
  11. "The Greatest Songs Ever! Black Dog". Blender Magazine . Archived from the original on May 30, 2009. Retrieved March 2, 2010.
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