Distinguishing Between Licks & Riffs

Lick vs Riff

The difference between a lick and a riff is a topic that interests many music enthusiasts. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct characteristics that set them apart. A lick is a short musical pattern or phrase played by one musician, often serving as an improvised solo. A riff, on the other hand, is a recurring musical pattern that is usually rhythmic and serves as the main theme of a song. To better understand the differences between the two, let’s take a closer look at each term.

What is a Lick?

A lick is a stock pattern or phrase used by musicians, typically in genres such as rock, jazz, and blues. It consists of a series of notes and is usually played by one musician, acting as a soloist’s unique musical innovation for a specific point in a song. Licks can be used in multiple songs, although they may be modified or developed further. They do not make up the entire musical theme of a song, so they can be transferred to other songs without drastically changing their original character.

Famous licks can be found in the works of renowned guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and his song “Red House.” Licks are used by soloists to give a song style and an extra bit of musical appeal. They can be modified or removed from a song without significantly altering the overall composition. Licks are generally not repeated often, and if they are, it is minimal.

What is a Riff?

A riff is easier to identify than a lick, as it serves as the main theme of a song and is a recurring musical pattern throughout the piece. Riffs are catchy and memorable, often played or tried out at music stores or performed by cover bands. They can be developed or varied during a song, but the main theme remains recognizable.

Iconic riffs are often associated with specific songs, such as “Back in Black” or “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. Riffs are considered musical quotes since they are often linked to the original song due to their popularity. Like licks, riffs are most commonly found in rock and jazz genres. They are characterized by chord progressions or a mixture of single notes and chords, serving as a background to the main melody. A riff is a core part of a song.

Key Takeaways

  • Licks consist of single-note phrases, while riffs are typically repeated chord progressions.
  • A riff is the main theme or idea of a song, whereas a lick is a short solo or component of a song that is often not repeated.
  • Licks can be transferred to other songs, while removing a riff would drastically change the original song.
Dmitri Ivanov
Dmitri Ivanovhttps://whats-different.com
Dmitri Ivanov, a writer and managing editor, was educated in Canada and holds a BS in Science. Dmitri loves doing research, writing, and teaching various courses.


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