What’s the Difference Between Riffs & Licks?

Riffs are the song’s recurring fundamental melodies, while licks are the solo patterns used as additions.

At some point, every guitar player runs into the question, “What is the difference between riffs and licks?” It may come from a friend curious about the answer, or you may have wondered about it yourself when you first started playing guitar.

This is one of the most frequently asked questions in the guitar world, and it is also one that is commonly mistaken. As riffs and licks are common terms in the guitar universe, it is essential to know their difference. 

What is the difference between them?

Basically, a guitar riff is the prominent, repeated melody in a song. With its rhythmic and melodic construction, a riff is a hook that defines the structure of a song. So, as the main melodic idea, a riff is the core of a song and is the fundamental structural part.

On the other hand, licks are short phrases of musical sentences used to embellish and complement the melodic lines. A lick is not complete on its own; it is only a sentence in a bigger paragraph. They are not repeated or emphasized like riffs and are not one of the core structural parts in the song.

What is a guitar riff?

As mentioned before, a guitar riff is the main melodic idea and the base of a song. It is the heart that represents the vibe or the atmosphere of the musical piece. As melodic homes, riffs are many times repeated in a song. We often hear them in the beginnings of the songs, after the choruses or solos, and in the closures.

Think of it this way, when I say Smoke On The Water or Layla, the melody will immediately start playing in your head. That melody is the guitar riff of the song. Being easily caught by the ear and remembered whenever you think of it is one of the most important features of a guitar riff.

Generally, a good guitar riff is simple, memorable, and rhythmic. A good guitar riff can easily be remembered even if you have listened to it just once. When riffs get more complex, they are harder to remember, making the songs less memorable. As riffs are the musical identities of songs, creating a good riff is a big step towards composing a good song.

What is a guitar lick?

Guitar licks are short musical phrases that complement and embellish the songs. Licks are generally not as memorable as riffs and are used in solos, melodic lines, embellishment fills, and accompaniment runs.

Guitar licks do not stay the same throughout the song and do not have an essential role in the songs’ structures. They are not the main musical ideas of the song but rather are embellishments like the sprinkles or the strawberry on a cake. 

Unlike riffs, licks are only found in the terminology of the guitar world. The term riff can be used for other instruments, while licks are exclusive to guitars. As the guitar became a more dominant instrument in music, licks became more crucial elements of songs in which guitarists showed their skills. 

Let’s go with an example to understand the term ‘lick’ better. Think of Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits and how Mark Knopfler uses licks between verses to embellish the song. Those little phrases are products of improvisations, and they are played slightly differently in live performances.

Famous guitar riffs and licks

Riffs

Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple

Arguably the most famous riff in the rock world is the Smoke On The Water riff by the hard rock legends Deep Purple. Even if you haven’t heard the song, you surely have heard the riff. It is simple, catchy, and memorable, an excellent example of how a great riff should be.

Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes

Another globally known riff is featured in the piece Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. The riff got so famous thanks to its simple, memorable, and rhythmic style; it is used in many shows, events, movies, and commercials.

Beat It – Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s famous song Beat It houses one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in music history. The riff is slick and fun and is repeated throughout the song.

Licks

Sultans Of Swing – Dire Straits

If you want to hear plenty of iconic guitar licks, Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits is the way to go. The great guitarist Mark Knopfler plays his unique guitar licks between every verse as embellishments and in both of the two impressive solos of the song.

Thrill Is Gone – BB King

Some of the best blues guitar licks came from the legend BB King. Thrill Is Gone is a great example of how he uses his guitar to express his emotions with amazing licks here and there in the song. This version is particularly lovely as many great guitarists accompany him, showing their best licks and creating a unique atmosphere.

Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin

One of the most iconic songs of rock history is Stairway To Heaven by the great Led Zeppelin. The song’s solo is considered one of the most famous rock solos where Jimmy Page plays his beautiful rock-solid licks.

Conclusion

In short, riffs are the repeated core melodies of songs, while licks are the solo patterns used as embellishments.

Now, as the difference between guitar riffs and licks is clear in your mind, you have a more professional and efficient music vocabulary. There is massive confusion about these terms all over the internet, but now you are foolproof.

Riffs and licks are crucial elements in music that will help you progress as a musician as you learn to play some of the others as well as create your own. 

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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