Riffs, licks, fills, shredding…
When you get into guitar, there are going to be all kinds of slang terms that can leave you feeling confused as to what’s even being talked about. It comes with the territory.
So, in this guide, we’re going to be looking specifically at what a guitar riff is and show you a few relevant examples so you can be confident in your lingo, and even begin learning and creating your own guitar riffs!
What Is A Guitar Riff? – Quick Answer
The term “riff” isn’t specific to guitar, as riffs can be played on most instruments. It is a relatively universal term among musicians.
The technical definition of a riff is a chord progression or refrain of music that repeats.
So, a guitar riff is a chord progression or segment of music that’s repeated. A song that features the guitar heavily will usually contain multiple guitar riffs to accommodate different sections of the song.
As for the slang term “guitar riff,” it is usually used to describe a series of notes (often a sequence of single notes) that are repeated to create a cool, bad ass, memorable segment of music (examples to follow).
What Is The Difference Between A “Riff” & A “Lick?”
The terms “riff” and “lick” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same thing, but from a music theory standpoint, they are different.
A lick can be a repeating phrase but is usually a short series of lead guitar notes to create melody, color, texture, flourishes of fancy, and sometimes accompaniment. A “fill” is a good term to describe most licks.
In the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing” guitarist Mark Knopfler moves fluidly between riffs (a repeating pattern) and licks (a series of notes that fill the holes between vocal lines). Have a listen and see if you can differentiate between the two!
A song like Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is also full of licks and fills.
Example #1: “Cochise” by Audioslave (Guitarist: Tom Morello)
There’s a reason why I wanted to include Audioslave’s “Cochise” on this list.
Tom Morello is a pentatonic and blues scale riff-king if there ever was one, and “Cochise” is a fine example of that. That said, there are a ton of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave songs that feature great riffs, which is why I had to bring up Morello.
“Cochise” starts off with some unique helicopter guitar noises that explode into a mean sounding pentatonic riff with some serious oomph. You can’t help but get into it.
Example #2: “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple (Guitarist: Ritchie Blackmore)
“Smoke On The Water” features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time, as guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had a knack for creating in other songs as well.
As with “Stairway To Heaven,” “Smoke On The Water” is in danger of being added to the “no fly” list, but that’s only because of how iconic that familiar intro has ultimately become. If you go to see Deep Purple in concert, guaranteed they will still perform it (and why wouldn’t they?).
The opening riff is great, sure, but what people often seem to forget is just how amazing Blackmore’s lead playing also is (so don’t forget to listen to the solo).
But so far as guitar riffs are concerned, there’s no way we can comfortably step over this one.
Example #3: “Get The Funk Out” by Extreme (Guitarist: Nuno Bettencourt)
I’m not going to lie – I’ve included several of my personal favorites on this list, but purely for demonstration purposes (wink, wink). I hate great guitar riffs getting overlooked merely because they aren’t as well-known as Zeppelin or Sabbath riffs.
Extreme’s “Get The Funk Out” better represents what the band was always about compared to their hit single, “More Than Words” (which was a romantic acoustic tune) – funky beats, big vocals, and of course, big guitars!
There are several great riffs in this song, but by far, my favorite is the chorus riff, expertly executed by guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, who somehow effortlessly outlines exactly what the entire band (including the horn section) should be playing. He’s like the conductor of an orchestra, except he himself plays an instrument!
Example #4: “Garden Of Eden” by Harem Scarem (Guitarist: Pete Lesperance)
Toronto-based melodic rock band Harem Scarem is probably best known for their second album Mood Swings and minor hit, “No Justice.”
But through the years, the band kept evolving, and each time they released a new album, you would hear an entirely new side of their sound. They always kept true to their AOE and hard rock roots but continued to bring fresh ingredients to their music (and still do!).
“Garden Of Eden” is one of Scarem’s more sanguine sounding tracks, and the opening riff is a great example of what modern melodic rock is all about. Lesperance’s guitar work carries some serious muscle here.
Don’t miss the “solo” section either. It’s got a bit of a “Cupid’s Dead” flavor (from Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story).
Example #5: “Your Great Escape” by Winger (Guitarist: Reb Beach)
Winger is one of those bands that got written off as 80s hair metal wankers early on (Beavis and Butt-Head didn't help). But through the years, lead singer and arranger Kip Winger kept proving himself as more than just a brain-dead stoner-surfer rocker, and the considerable body of work he’s built up to this point speaks abundantly to this truth.
Reb Beach may have played guitar on the epic “Your Great Escape” (and his playing is stellar), but it was Winger who led Beach to the summit of the mountain. And not surprisingly, that means this song is chock full of great riffs.
Specifically, I’ll draw your attention to the highly melodic and memorable chorus riff, and the powerful and intense closing riff, which some even say, “collapses interplanetary dimensions.”
Example #6: “Back In Black” by AC/DC (Guitarist: Angus Young, Malcolm Young)
There’s very little I can say about AC/DC’s “Back In Black” that hasn’t already been said, so I’m not going to try.
“Back In Black” was an especially important album for the band, as it was the first work, they recorded with new lead singer Brian Johnson.
The riffs are full of weight and impact. The intro / verse riff is the perfect example of testosterone-fueled overdrive, and the interlude riff is a nice reprise of the main riff. Take your pick, really. You can’t go wrong here.
Example #7: “Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream (Guitarist: Eric Clapton)
This one’s a classic.
In the early days, when our heroes like Hendrix, Townshend, Page, Beck, and others were just starting to lay the foundation for the electric guitar, Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” blew onto the scene and was later recognized as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And for good reason.
Eric Clapton’s playing on “Sunshine Of Your Love” is sublime, and the riff itself quickly became the template for what it means to play blues-based rock riffs (which there are now an overwhelming abundance of).
The subtleties are what make the song distinct though. Clapton isn’t playing mere power chords with the verse riff (they’re closer to dominant 7 chords), and his soloing on the track would come to represent 60s psychedelia to a tee.
Example #8: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” by Van Halen (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
Legend has it that Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” was written in response to boring, over-simplistic, two-chord punk rock songs.
Of course, you can count on Eddie Van Halen to make the style his own, as the finished product doesn’t resemble what was surely a less interesting genre to listen to.
Van Halen’s playing on this track is frantic, aggressive, and driving, and template wise, it follows a similar formula to “Runnin’ With The Devil” from the same, debut album.
Eddie Van Halen’s contemporaries all owe a great deal to his pioneering efforts, but even Musicians Institute legends like Paul Gilbert have been seen emulating this very song onstage. Chances are, he’s not the only one.
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” may have started out as a joke, but it grew into an unstoppable monster that continues to haunt modern day guitarists.
Example #9: “We Are Finding Who We Are” by King’s X (Guitarist: Ty Tabor)
In a world saturated with hair metal bands (especially in the 80s), King’s X took a decidedly different approach. Sure, they still borrowed liberally from the past. But they owed more to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and The Beatles than their peers, who seemed to play the same tired one-note of Van Halen (and not as well, we might add) mixed with teen-friendly pop.
That could be why King’s X didn’t quite find the mainstream popularity of a band like Poison, but their body of work is considerable, they continue to work today, and they’ve influenced the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pantera, Dream Theater, and others.
King’s X 1994 release Dogman cemented their role as alt-rock and grunge influencers.
In 1990, they had this little ditty – “We Are Finding Who We Are,” off their album, Faith Hope Love, which featured quite a bit of similarly inspired work.
With a huge, dirty, heavy bass, a unique midrange enhanced guitar, expertly performed drums, and three-part harmonies, King’s X stuck out like a sore thumb. The best riff in this song is the chorus riff, which alludes to their key influences.
Other Examples Of Guitar Riffs
Obviously, guitar riffs are not confined to a specific genre, playing style, or even guitarist. They exist across a wide range of musical styles, past and present. There’s simply no way to exhaust this list, as it continues to grow by the day.
But here are some other popular examples of riffs worth looking up on your own time:
- “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin
- “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
- “Come As You Are” by Nirvana
- “Day Tripper” by The Beatles
- “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
- “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie
- “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones
- “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith
- “Enter Sandman” by Metallica
- “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas
- “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard
- “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by Scorpions
- “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy
- “Beautiful Girls” by Van Halen
- “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne (played by Randy Rhodes)
- “Beat It” by Michael Jackson (played by Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen)
What Makes A Guitar Riff Great?
Music is highly subjective, and the same can be said for guitar riffs. What entertains one irritates another. And some riffs live on to the detriment of others that never had a chance to shine in the spotlight.
As you begin exploring the subject, you will probably find that most riffs are ranked based on 1) the influence they had on the direction of guitar or rock, 2) how popular the song was, and 3) the notoriety of the guitarist who wrote or played the riff.
So, if you want to make it to the top of any list, you’ve got to have some combination of the above ingredients. Just because you’ve written a riff that’s great to your ears, or great in theory, doesn’t mean it will be recognized.
Ultimately, though, the greatness of a riff is determined by the listener. If you think a riff is great, it is in your world.
What Is Riff Rock?
“Riff rock” (or sometimes “riff-based” rock” is a term that typically gets thrown around to describe music that’s built around single-note riffs. The term is sometimes used affectionately, sometimes to talk down to “lesser” talent (as if riffs were mere ear candy or just a gimmick).
It doesn’t describe any one artist or band, but there are plenty that have come to represent the movement, again either in a positive sense or negative sense.
Bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Children of Bodom, and even Rush sometimes get lumped into the category.
I don’t know how much credence there is to the whole notion of there being “riff bands” and “more talented and serious musical acts,” but it is true that some bands are more riff heavy than others.
What Is A Guitar Riff? Final Thoughts
Thanks for joining us on this fun ride through the world of guitar riffs.
We hope you feel a little smarter, a little more inspired, and ready to take on learning, and even creating your own guitar riffs. You might not reach the top of the charts, but you’ll never know unless you try.
Last Updated on November 9, 2021.
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