When listening to a song, the most notable part is the riff. It’s the melody that gets stuck in people’s heads, and it’s usually what makes a song memorable.
The riff is catchy and usually the easiest part of the song to remember. It’s also one of the most important parts of the song, as it can make or break a song.
This post will explain what a guitar riff is, how to play one, and make note of the most popular riffs of all time.
What are riffs?
In music, a riff is basically a repeated note or chord sequence that stands out from the rest of the song. Riffs are usually played on electric guitar, but they can be played on any instrument.
The word riff is a rock ‘n roll term that simply means “melody.” This same thing is called a motif in classical music or a theme in musicals.
Riffs are simply repeating patterns of notes that create a catchy melody. They can be played on any instrument but are most commonly associated with the guitar.
It’s best to think of the riff as that memorable song opening or chorus that gets stuck in your head.
Consider the most famous guitar riff, Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, which is the kind of intro riff everyone remembers. The whole song is basically one big riff.
Or another example is the opening of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. That opening guitar riff is one of the most iconic and memorable in all of rock music.
A guitar riff is usually accompanied by a bassline and drums and can be the main hook of a song or just a small part of the overall composition.
Riffs can be simple or complex, but they all have one thing in common: they’re catchy and memorable.
Most rock n roll songs have a classic riff that everyone knows and loves.
Therefore, riffs are an important part of many songs, and they can make a song more memorable and catchy – this makes them ideal for radio play.
What does riff mean?
As mentioned above, the riff is a simple used in rock and roll jargon to describe a melody.
The term “riff” was first used in the 1930s to describe a repeated motif in a piece of music, and it’s thought to be a shortened form of the word “refrain.”
The first use of the term “riff” in relation to the guitar was in an issue of Billboard magazine in 1942. The word was used to describe the repeating guitar part in a song.
However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the term “riff” became widely used to describe a repeated melody or chord progression played on the guitar.
The term “riff” probably came into common usage in the 1950s because of the popularity of the electric guitar and rock n roll.
What makes a great guitar riff?
Generally speaking, the greatest guitar riffs have one thing in common: they’re relatively simple.
A good guitar riff is catchy, rhythmic, and straightforward. An excellent guitar riff is one that makes people hum a particular section of a song after hearing it.
Although it is possible to create effective guitar riffs that are not simple, the more intricate a riff develops, the less memorable it becomes. An iconic guitar riff must be simple so that it can be memorable.
Origin of riffs
The guitar riff is not unique to rock music – in fact, it originates from classical music.
In music, an ostinato (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, usually at the same pitch.
The best-known ostinato-based piece may be Ravel’s Boléro. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself.
Both ostinatos and ostinati are accepted English plural forms, the latter reflecting the word’s Italian etymology.
Strictly speaking, ostinati should have exact repetition, but in common usage, the term covers repetition with variation and development, such as the alteration of an ostinato line to fit changing harmonies or keys.
Within the context of film music, Claudia Gorbman defines an ostinato as a repeated melodic or rhythmic figure that propels scenes that lack dynamic visual action.
Ostinato plays an important part in improvised music, rock, and jazz, in which it is often referred to as a riff or vamp.
A “favorite technique of contemporary jazz writers,” ostinati are often used in modal and Latin jazz, traditional African music, including Gnawa music, and boogie-woogie.
Blues and jazz also influenced guitar riffs. However, those riffs aren’t as memorable as the Smoke on the Water iconic riff.
How to use riffs in your playing
Learning guitar riffs is a great way to improve guitar playing and musicianship. Many classic riffs are based on simple notes most people can learn to play.
For those looking to learn guitar riffs, Nirvana’s “Come as you are” is a good beginner-friendly song. The riff is based on a three-note sequence that is easy to learn and play.
Riffs are usually made up of a few simple notes or chords, and they can be played in any order. This makes them easy to learn and memorize.
The riffs can be played slowly at first to get the hang of them and then speed up as you become more comfortable with the notes.
Riffs can be played in a number of ways.
The most common is to simply repeat the riff over and over, either on its own or as part of a larger composition. This is known as a ‘rhythm’ or ‘lead’ guitar riff.
Another popular way to use riffs is to vary the notes slightly each time it’s played. This gives the riff a more ‘singing’ quality and can make it more interesting to listen to.
You can also play riffs using different techniques, such as palm muting or tremolo picking. This adds a different texture to the sound and can make the riff stand out more.
Finally, you can play riffs in different positions on the guitar neck. This gives you more options for creating interesting melodies and can make your playing sound more fluid.
For example, it’s possible to play guitar riffs like Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes in different positions.
Most of the riff is played with the 1st finger on the 5th string. But it can be played more than one way.
The riff starts on the low E string in the 7th fret. However, it’s also possible to play it in the 5th fret (D string), the 4th fret (G string), or even the 2nd fret (B string).
Each position gives the riff a different sound, so it’s worth experimenting to see what works best.
Also check out my complete guide on hybrid picking in metal, rock & blues (incl. video with riffs)
Best guitar riffs of all time
There are some legendary riffs that have become iconic in the world of guitar. Here are just a few of the great guitar riffs in music history:
‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple
The opening riffs of this song are iconic. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable riffs of all time and has been covered by countless artists.
Although the riff is quite simple, it has a punchy tone and is combined with a start-stop sound to create a memorable riff.
It was written by Richie Blackmore and is a four-note tune based on Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana
This is another instantly recognizable riff that defined a generation. It’s simple but effective and has a huge amount of energy.
This riff is built from 4 power chords and recorded in the key F minor.
Curt Kobain recorded the Fm-B♭m–A♭–D♭ chord progression with a clean guitar tone using a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal.
‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry
This is a funky riff that’s often used as a guitar solo. It’s based on the 12-bar blues progression and uses simple pentatonic scales.
It’s a blues guitarist’s staple guitar riff and has been covered by many artists over the years.
It is no surprise that Chuck Berry is by many considered one of the best guitarists of all time
‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones
This is one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time. It was written by Keith Richards and has a catchy, memorable melody.
Apparently, Richards came up with the riff in his sleep and recorded it the next morning. The rest of the band was so impressed that they decided to use it on their album.
The intro riff starts with the 2nd fret on the A-string and then uses the root note (E) on the low E-string.
The duration of the notes varies in this guitar riff and that makes it interesting.
‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses
No best guitar riffs list is complete without the famous Guns N’ Roses hit.
The tuning is Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb, and the riff is based around a simple 12-bar blues progression.
The guitar riff was written by Slash and was inspired by his then-girlfriend, Erin Everly. Apparently, she used to call him “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as a term of endearment.
‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica
This is a classic metal riff that’s been played by guitarists all over the world. It was written by Kirk Hammett and is based on a simple three-note melody.
However, the riff is made more interesting by the addition of palm muting and harmonics.
‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix
No best guitar riffs list would be complete without the great Jimi Hendrix, who is well known for his amazing riff guitar playing.
This riff is based on a simple three-note pattern, but Hendrix’s use of feedback and distortion gives it a unique sound.
‘Summer Nights’ by Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen plays this great riff in one of the band’s best rock songs. It’s not a simple riff like others on this list, but it’s still one of the most iconic riffs of all time.
The riff is based on a minor pentatonic scale and uses a lot of Legato and slides.
What is the difference between a riff and a chord?
A guitar riff is a phrase or melody that is played on the guitar. It’s usually a single line of notes that is repeated multiple times.
It can also refer to harmonies that are played simultaneously.
A chord progression isn’t usually considered a riff because it refers to sequences of power chords.
Guitar chords are usually two or more notes played together. These notes can be played in different ways, such as strumming or picking.
What is the difference between a riff and a solo?
A guitar solo is a section of a song where one instrument plays by itself. A riff is usually played with the rest of the band and repeats throughout the song.
A guitar solo can be based on a riff, but it’s usually more improvised and has more freedom than a riff.
A riff is usually shorter than a solo and is often used as an intro or main melody of a song.
The bottom line is that the riff is usually repetitive and memorable.
What is a Forbidden riff?
A Forbidden riff is a riff that has been created by a guitar player that has been officially banned from playing in music stores.
The reason for this is that the riff is so good that it’s considered to be way too overplayed.
This term refers to memorable riffs that people are sick of hearing because they’ve been played too much.
Some examples of popular Forbidden riffs include ‘Smoke on the Water,’ ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, and ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’.
These songs are in no way banned it’s just that many music stores refuse to play these famous guitar riffs anymore since they’re been played over and over again.
It’s hard to forget a great guitar riff. These phrases are usually short and memorable, and they can make a song instantly recognizable
There are many iconic guitar riffs that have been played by some of the greatest guitarists of all time.
If you’re looking to improve your guitar playing, learning some of these famous riffs is a great place to start.
Playing riffs can help you develop your guitar skills and techniques. It’s also a great way to show off your talents to other people.
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
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