Today’s Guitar Lesson: Licks And Riffs

May 10, 2024
min read

If you want to improvise with melodies or someday compose your own music, you must know how to distinguish between a guitar lick and a guitar riff. It is surprising to see how many guitarists who effortlessly play the guitar do not know what a riff or lick means, or they even fail to identify these two musical elements.

But if you have no idea about the two concepts, you need not feel discouraged or ashamed because we are here to guide you. Let us assure you that you are not the only one who lacks this knowledge.

So, in today’s guitar lesson, we will describe and differentiate between a riff and a lick so you can avoid confusion in the future with composing or improvising with music. Without any further adieu, let’s dive into the world of exploring music and, for once, figure out what guitar riffs and its licks are!

 

 

muscular arm holding a guitar with one hand

What Is A Guitar Lick?

In simplest terms, think of a guitar lick as a musical word. It’s a short musical phrase that is often combined to create phrases (musical sentences).

Guitar licks are performed by the lead guitar player and just like in a language, the words one uses starts to give their own personal style of speaking. Because of this you’ll find an artists style to often use the same licks or variations of their licks in their solos, but of course the greater ones “chops” the more more licks and phrases they will be able to use in their playing.

A lick is that expressive, colorful, solo short phrase of the entire melody that makes it stand out and apart amongst the rhythmic foundation which the song rests upon. The best part about the lick is the discretion of the guitarist to display their creativity.

When creating your own licks and phrases, keep in mind that licks are like words and your goal is to formulate musical sentences (phrases). If it sounds like you are “noodling” it is because you are perhaps playing random words that don’t flow very well. Be sure to analyze your favorite players and see how they are creating their licks and phrases and then add your own personal flare.

Licks can also be referred to as fillers, solos, and runs.

side pose of a guitarist playing while standing up and hitting a lick

What Is Guitar Riff?

Now that you understand, or at the least have a rough idea of what a guitar lick is, it will be easier for you as a guitarist to make sense of guitar riffs. In essence, a riff acts as the main musical idea of the song. It can also be said that it acts as the songs theme. Below I will have examples for you to play and also songs to look up and listen to.

Where we discussed that a lick is like a musical word, we can also think of a riff as a copyrighted piece of music that you can’t take and use for your own song. For example, you can’t go into a sports arena and announce “Lets Get Ready To Rumble!” Michael Buffer may want to sue you :). On That note you can’t take the riff of “Another One Bites The Dust, Eye of The Tiger, Back In Black, Crazy Train etc etc and use for your own song.

Generally, people who compose music tend to place riffs at the beginning of their song to set the tone that the entire song will follow and be based on. However, this is not a hard and fast rule; you can set the riff anywhere you like throughout the melody. Still, something that you should remember about riffs is that they are the main musical theme and must be repeated throughout.

Also, something interesting about riffs is that, unlike licks, if played independently, they would make complete sense and would not feel out of place or unable to be comprehended.

One of the best guitar riffs examples that will help you familiarise yourself with the concept is “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. This song is famous for its riff-centric tone, which is in a loop, repeated continuously, and because of this, the riff is easily recognized.

Riffs can be made using all sorts of compositional tools. For example, the can be as easy as single notes (think Another One Bites The Dust by Queen. They can use power chords, such as Iron Man by Black Sabbath, double stops (which are 2 note chords), think Deep purple’s, “Smoke on the water. Arpeggios, which are chords played one note at a time, such as in Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns and Roses.

Find out more about the guitar learning curve here.

Why Play Riffs And Licks?

Because they’re awesome duh! Joking aside, While riffs can be found in all genres of music, if you play electric guitar and like rock and metal music you want to play riffs. This is the heart of what makes up these styles of music. Learning riffs is also a fun way to build your coordination, all while learning parts of your favorite songs.

If you want to play lead guitar, solos, or improvise you need to be able to play licks as licks are combined to make phrases and phrases are combined to make solos.

playing riffs and licks outdoors

Greatest Guitar Riffs Of All Time 

Here’e are my top 10 most memorable riffs of all time

  1. Thunderstruck, AC/DC
  2. Beat It, Michael Jackson
  3. Master Of Puppets, Metallica
  4. Symphony of Destruction, Megadeth
  5. Sweet Child O’ Mine, Guns & Roses
  6. Back In Black, AC/DC
  7. Crazy Train, Ozzy Osbourne
  8. Iron Man, Black Sabbath
  9. Eye Of The Tiger, Survivor
  10. Smoke On The Water, Deep Purple

Honorable mentions

  1. Seven Nation Army, The White Stripes
  2. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
  3. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout’ Love, Eddie Van Halen
  4. Another one Bites The Dust, Queen
  5. Rainbow In The Dark, DIO

Yes I know I left off your favorite riff… There are thousands of killer riffs out there and I didn’t come close to listing all my favorites!

You’ve now read my take on the best riffs, care to find out my take on the best guitar brands.

Guitar Riffs Vs Licks

riffs vs licks comparison venn diagram

Beginner Guitarist Licks And Riffs

So now we’ve gone over what licks and riffs are, lets dive in and learn some beginner friendly licks and riffs and are easy to play and fun to learn!

Here is how to play the Seven Nation Army riff by The White Stripes

how to play the seven nation army riff

Yes this riff is played on the bass guitar but during the chorus the guitar players plays the exact same thing but simply turns these single notes into power chords as shown below:

how to play the seven nation army chorus

If you don’t understand how these diagrams work, check out my easy to understand guide for it.

In fact, this riff is so good it’s used in the guitar solo as well! We’ll get more into power chord riffs below but just be sure the thumb of your fret hand is low and on the inside of your index finger. If it isn’t your hands will have a hard time stretching to play them. You should be using your index finger for the bass note on the on the higher note use your ring finger.

Moving on, lets take a look at another killer guitar riff

Here’s how to play the intro guitar riff from Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne (riff written by Randy Roads)

intro guitar riff from Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne

As you can see, these riffs are relatively easy and fun to play! They are great for building coordination in your hands as if you’re a beginner to also stretch out your fingers. – No need for boring finger drills!

Power Chord Guitar Riff 

A bit of theory, a power chord consists of taking the 1st note of a scale and its 5th degree or 5th note in the scale. For example, in the C major scale the notes are C D E F G A B and if you number each one the G would be the 5th one. This is why when you see a power chord written it has a number 5 such as C5. All that means is the C note and its 5 note (in this case the G note) are being played.

The technical term is a 5th chord but for slang we say powerchord. Why? Because it sounds POWERFUL! All chords have a personality, flavor, or color (whatever you want to call it). Minor chords have a bit sadness, major chords sound bright and happy. Powerchords are just raw POWER! Which is why rock music and heavy metal genres loves these chords so much.

Lets learn some more guitar riffs, Here’s how to play the main riff of Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor

how to play the main riff of Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor

Don’t worry about the funny rest symbols. Just listen to the song and sort it out by ear.

 

Here’s another example. Below I have the guitar riff from Iron Man by Black Sabbath

guitar riff from Iron Man by Black Sabbath

Try playing the riffs with only the bass note. Notice how you can still hear the riff but but it lacks the POWER and kickassness that the power chord brings?

** Also, on this one those little diagonal lines are meaning to slide your fingers up/down instead of picking each chord.

Lets do one more, This guitar riff uses INVERTED power chords where we take the same concept as above where we talked about the C & G notes but instead of the C note in the bass we swap them so the 5th note is in the bass. It still sound rock and roll but it slightly less pure… Almost a bit raunchy sounding.

In this example, I have Smoke On The Water, By Deep Purple.

Smoke On The Water, By Deep Purple chart

Smoke On The Water is one of if not the most iconic rock riff of all time. It’s easy to remember and easy to play and is often the first riff anyone learns on guitar.

I should also mention, that this could also be considered a DOUBLE STOP riff. A double stop is when you play two notes at the same time. And yes, a power chord could be considered a type of double stop.

Next let’s look at a memorable guitar riff that uses Palm Muting. Palm muting is when you move your picking hand slightly forward so that it barely touches the string when you pluck. This will give sort of a muffled chug type sound. This is technique is extremely popular in heavy metal because it allows the guitarist to create the desired tone without all the noise. It essentially gets muted slightly.

Below I have Symphony Of Destruction by Megadeth

Symphony Of Destruction by Megadeth chart

The P.M. of course is referring to palm mute so to play this you will palm mute the notes under the PM and the play the power chords.

Notice that all these riffs are relatively short and are repeated through the song. Some riffs can be used almost through the entire song such as in Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes or Rainbow In The Dark by Dio. Other riffs would lose their potency and so they are used more sparingly.

If you like the idea of learning guitar and having fun while doing it, a strategic element in the Guitar GPS Method is what I call Guitar Riff Mastery. This is the most comprehensive system for learning guitar riffs in the world where I’ve taken over 200 of the most famous riffs and meticulously organized them into a leveled system that trains you hands, builds speed, rhythmic skills, aural skills, and learn music theory and more and yes, I’ve tested how my local students progress through it for over 15 years! It’s dope.

– Hell, you even get points for getting better so you can see how it’s all coming together. Beginners love it and intermediate players love how it finds and fixes all sorts of bad habits and holes in their playing – all while learning fun guitar riffs!

preston howards guitar gps method

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Now let’s move on to learning some guitar licks.

Easy To Practice Lick

The easiest guitar licks to learn and play are derived from the minor pentatonic scale. It’s also very common to not just play the notes but you add in lead guitar techniques to give the lick a bit more flare and emotion. Such as hammer ons and pull offs, bends, vibratos, and slides.

Check out this bluesy guitar lick. This is one of the most popular licks you can do on the guitar because it just sounds good!

bluesy guitar lick

This exact lick is being used in the solo in Nothing Else Matters, and the Unforgiven by Metallica, (although it’s in a different key). But this lick is used by all the greats from BB King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angus Young, Jimmy Page, Kirk Hammett, Slash you name it!

To perform this make sure when you bend the 3rd string 7 you perform a full bend. Meaning, it sounds like a full step higher (equal to two frets on the guitar). Sometimes you may see this written as 7(B)9. Play the 7 bend up so it sounds like the 9.

let’s do a few more!

See how this same guitar lick is used but instead of just repeating it the last part changes? To develop your own personal style you need to build your chops (ability to do different things on the guitar) but also its how you start to combine musical ideas that will give you you’re own flare and identity.

personal variation lick

In this variation see how instead of playing strings 2 and 3 the artist (in this case Chuck Berry) is playing those notes at a the same time. – As a double stop!

double stop lick

In this next lick variation you’ll bend with your ring finger then your pinky will play the note (the first string 8) underneath. This is also very common and is used in the solo for Thunderstruck by AC/DC and Every Rose Has It’s Thorn by Poison

Thunderstruck lick variation

We’ll do one more and this one isn’t so easy but with practice you can get it!

difficult to learn lick

This lick is used in Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns And Roses and Wasted Years By Iron Maiden. It’s a very cool lick as it almost throws your ear around bending on different strings. Notice the pull off from the 2nd string 8 to the 5 then after the 2nd bend you do a hammer on pull off then the lick repeats.

So we are clear, a pull off is when you strick the note then quickly pull your finger off so the note behind plays. Sometimes it can help if you snag it with your finger pulling it slightly down. For a hammer-on you will strike the first note and then slam your finger down so hard it makes a sound. You can only hammer on forward and pull off in reverse because you hammer on to a note above and pull off to a note behind.

Now, all these licks and lick variations are used in countless guitar solos and fills. It’s a great idea to make a list of your favorite artists and study their work and discover the licks they use and how they use them to make musical phrases and solos. It’s also worth noting to pay attention to the chord progression they are playing over.

 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS)

What’s the difference between a riff and a lick?

A guitar riff is a short, repeated musical phrase, whereas a lick is a short, improvised melodic phrase. With guitar riffs, you have to be very precise, such as you have to make sure that your riff fits the overall and main theme of the guitar solo and does not seem out of place. However, with guitar licks, you can improvise as much as you want to without worrying about the song’s theme.

Are licks important in guitar playing?

Yes, licks are important in guitar playing specifically lead guitar playing as they allow you as a guitarist to depict your creativity through improvising with notes. As explained above, licks are like musical words, we use words to create sentences (musical phrases) and then we combine musical phrases to make guitar solos.

Why are guitar riffs important for song themes?

Guitar riffs are important for the theme of a song because riffs add to a song’s essence. If the riff is significantly different from the theme of the song then the entire melody will seem disorderly and unorganized, dull, and not catchy enough to capture the audience’s attention or to keep them hooked to the song.

Where should I add a riff?

Most guitarists prefer to add the riff in the introduction of the song to make it more captivating and to give an idea to listeners of what they have tuned into. However, you can add it in the later verses as well.

Check out some of your favorite artists and see how and where they add their riffs. If you are into metal, check out Metallica and Megadeth. If you are more into hard rock AC/DC and Led Zeppelin would be a great place to start.

Riff Of The Decade: Vote For The Best Guitar Riff Of The, 56% OFF

Conclusion

After the insight you have gained from today’s lesson on guitar licks and riffs regarding how they are described as concepts, when they are played and, most importantly, on what grounds they are differentiated, surely now, your learning has opened up another avenue for you to experiment with- music composition.

However, just remember riffs are musical phrases that are to be repeated continuously and must be approached with caution, but for licks, you have all the freedom you want to improvise!

If you liked this article and found it useful be sure to like, share, and subscribe it really helps me out!

Your brother in rock and roll 🙏

About the Author

Preston has been a professional guitar instructor since 2010 and is the founder of SLC Guitar and the Guitar GPS Method. His holistic method helps players learn quickly and understand what they are doing musically, while his gamified learning platform make practice fun and effective. 

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