What Is a Riff on Guitar vs a Lick? Unravel the Magic

Last Updated on January 22, 2024 by Victor Estevez

The strings of a guitar have the power to captivate listeners, and much of this magic comes from the interplay of riffs and licks.Have you ever wondered what makes your favorite guitar songs so cool? 

A guitar riff is a repetitive sequence of notes or chords used as the main theme of a song, while a lick is a short series of notes played as part of a solo or fill within a song, often used to add expression or flair.

In this article, we’ll dive into the fun world of guitar riffs and licks, unraveling the secrets behind these awesome guitar parts. You’ll discover not just what they are, but also how they contribute to making a song sparkle and stick in your head. So, let’s begin our exploration and maybe even inspire you to create your own!”

What Is a Riff on Guitar vs a Lick?

Before we can go on to the differences between a riff and a lick, let us look at what they are.

What Is a Guitar Riff?

A guitar riff is a cornerstone in the structure of many songs, particularly in rock and blues music. It’s a repeated sequence of notes or chords that forms the backbone of a track, often simple yet catchy, creating a memorable hook.

Riffs stand out for their repetitive, rhythmic, and melodic nature, carefully crafted to be both rhythmically compelling and melodically interesting.

In songs like AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ or The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction,’ the riff not only sets the tone but becomes the defining element of the entire piece, often serving as an intro, a recurring theme, or a bridge.

What Is A Guitar Lick?

A guitar lick, in contrast, is a short series of notes that adds flair and personality to a song. Think of it as a musical phrase or a mini solo. They showcase the guitarist’s skill and style, like the expressive runs in Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’ or the memorable phrases in B.B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone.’

Licks are about embellishment and individual expression, often incorporating fast runs, bends, slides, and other techniques to create a unique sound.

The Differences Between Riffs And Licks

The primary difference between a riff and a lick lies in their structure, purpose, and how they’re used in music. While a riff, as a repetitive sequence, forms the backbone of a song, making it instantly recognizable, a lick is more like a flourish that adds spice to the song. Licks are less about forming the song’s structure and more about adding personality and flair.

Consider the iconic riff in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” – it’s a distinct, repetitive pattern that forms a major part of the song’s identity. It’s simple yet powerful, and most importantly, it repeats throughout the song.

In contrast, think of the quick, intricate series of notes that make up the solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” These licks are more about showcasing the guitarist’s skill and less about forming the song’s structure. They add layers of complexity and excitement to the music.

Where Do These Terms Come From?

The term ‘riff’ in music is believed to have originated from the shortened form of ‘refrain,’ used as a repeating melodic foundation in jazz and blues from the 1920s.

‘Lick,’ derived from ‘licking one’s chops,’ suggests savoring the music, first appearing in the context of jazz as an expressive and often improvised short series of notes.

Over time, these terms have adapted to the stylistic needs of each era, evolving across different music genres.

In jazz, a riff forms the basis for improvisation, while in rock, it’s the central, memorable part of songs. Licks, too, have found their way into the lexicon of rock, blues, and beyond, used to display technical prowess and add a personal touch.

Famous Guitar Riffs and Licks

When we talk about famous guitar riffs, there are several that have left an indelible mark on the world of music. For instance, the opening riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” is instantly recognizable and often one of the first riffs learned by beginner guitarists.

Likewise, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” features a riff that’s both powerful and rhythmically compelling. In the realm of guitar licks, Jimi Hendrix’s improvisational prowess in “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” stands out, showcasing his exceptional use of licks to add flair and expressiveness.

Now that intro is something to remember.

Another memorable lick is the intro of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” which has been a defining moment in the development of rock and roll guitar.

How They Left Their Mark

These riffs and licks have significantly influenced guitar playing and music. They have not only inspired generations of guitarists but also helped in shaping the sound of their respective genres.

For example, the riff from “Smoke on the Water” has become a defining sound of hard rock, while the lick from “Johnny B. Goode” has been foundational in rock and roll, influencing the genre’s guitar style.

The riff in “Smoke on the water” is probably one of the best-known worldwide.

These pieces have also contributed to the guitar’s status as a primary instrument in modern music, inspiring musicians to explore its potential for creating memorable and impactful music.

As a result, these riffs and licks have become more than just parts of songs; they are cultural touchstones that encapsulate the essence of their eras.

3 Easy Tips To Learn Guitar Riffs And Licks

1. Practice Techniques:

One of the most effective ways to master guitar riffs and licks is through consistent and focused practice. Start slow, focusing on accuracy rather than speed. Use a metronome to gradually increase your tempo, ensuring you maintain precision.

Break down complex riffs and licks into smaller, manageable sections, mastering each part before moving on to the next. Repeated practice of these sections helps in muscle memory development, making it easier to play them smoothly and naturally.

Remember, the goal is to feel comfortable and confident with each note before increasing your speed.

2. Listening and Analysis:

Listening to and analyzing famous riffs and licks can provide invaluable insights into guitar playing. Pay attention to how your favorite guitarists phrase their notes, the tone they use, and how they fit their playing into the overall context of the song.

Try to listen to a variety of genres to understand different playing styles. This will not only improve your playing technique but also enhance your musical ear. Playing these riffs and licks by ear can also be a great exercise in improving your listening skills and musical intuition.

3. Creative Application:

Once you’re comfortable playing existing riffs and licks, start experimenting with creating your own. This encourages creativity and helps in developing a unique playing style.

Play around with different notes, rhythms, and dynamics to see what sounds good to you. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as they are a crucial part of the learning process.

Your original riffs and licks might start simple, but with time and practice, they can evolve into something unique and expressive. If you need some inspiration or practice material you can also use an app like Riffler.


In summary, mastering guitar riffs and licks involves dedicated practice, careful listening and analysis, and creative experimentation. By breaking down riffs and licks into smaller parts, listening to a variety of examples, and trying your hand at creating your own, you can develop both technical skills and musical expression.

Remember, learning guitar riffs and licks is a journey full of exciting challenges and discoveries. Keep practicing and experimenting. Your efforts will not only improve your guitar playing but also deepen your connection with music. So, grab your guitar and start exploring the wonderful world of riffs and licks!

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