What are riffs? You probably already have an idea of what they are. Technically speaking, a riff is not specific to the guitar. It can be played on any instrument. It is a musical phrase that repeats over and over (also known as an ostinato). Usually, an instrument will repeat a short phrase (riff), while other instruments play different melodies over the top.
This is a very simple explanation and in reality, riffs vary widely in use and context. These days, riffs are commonly associated with the guitar and many different types of examples fall under the ‘riff’ umbrella.
So why are riffs important? For starters, they are very fun to play. So far, in this lesson series, we’ve learnt some important things about the guitar and played some technical exercises. You know how to read guitar tablature and have used it to develop some basic technique, using some technical exercises. While these things are necessary, they’re not overly exciting. The great thing about riffs is that they are usually simple, relatively easy to learn and fun to play. They provide a great balance between enjoyment and technical challenge for beginners.
Because of the simple and repetitive nature of riffs, they are incredibly catchy. They usually involve a short amount of material, that is repeated over and over. For a listener, they are fun and engaging. For a guitarist, they are fun to play, and also provide a great opportunity to develop technique, rhythm and ‘feel’.
If you want to be a rock star, all you need is one catchy riff, and you’re on your way ;)
Examples Of Riffs
The best way to demonstrate what guitar riffs are and how they are used is to list a few popular songs:
Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) – This is a classic guitar riff. It’s one of the first things many guitarists learn to play. It is simple, catchy and is the famous ‘hook’ of the song.
Sunshine of Your Love (Cream) – This is another classic riff. Most people would recognise this riff, even if they’re not sure where they’ve heard it.
Beat It (Michael Jackson) – This extremely catchy riff was used to help propel the album ‘Thriller’ to the highest selling record of all time. It is also a good example of how guitar riffs are used in pop music and not just rock/metal.
Day Tripper (The Beatles) – This is one of The Beatles’ most famous and catchy riffs.
My Sharona (The Knack) – Play the first few notes of this riff to anyone and they will tell you exactly what it is.
My Girl (The Temptations) – Another good example of a riff that is used in a style other than rock.
Come as You Are (Nirvana) – One of the most famous riffs of the 90s. Come as you are was one of Nirvana’s most popular songs.
I have listed these examples so that you can understand the general concept of riffs based on songs that you are most likely already familiar with. If you’re not familiar with these songs, research them and have a listen. I could list hundreds of songs with riffs that you probably already know, but these riffs should give you a good general understanding of what riffs are and how they are frequently used in music.
We’re not going to learn those specific riffs. Of course, you can most likely find transcriptions of them and learn them yourself. I recommend doing so if you wish. What we are going to do instead is learn riffs that I have created.
Five Short Riffs
The first five riffs that we will look are short, 2-bar riffs. Riffs can vary in length and how they are used. Some songs use a 1-bar riff from start to finish, without the riff changing or developing at all. Other songs use longer riffs that change or develop during the song. Sometimes the riff is only used in certain parts of the song (such as the chorus). There are many variations. They come in all shapes and sizes. We are going to start off with five 2-bar riffs. As I mentioned earlier, the benefits of learning riffs is that they strike a great balance between simplicity, enjoyment and technical challenge.
Each of the following riffs is played four times (from the start repeat sign to the end repeat sign). Accompanying each riff are two audio recordings. The first recording is a band recording, with the riff being played at full tempo. If you can play along with this, then you have mastered the riff. The second recording is a much slower version of the riff, being played on an acoustic guitar. Use this recording to master the riff at a slow tempo, then move on to the faster recording.
Short Riff 1
Short Riff 2
Short Riff 3
Short Riff 4
Short Riff 5
As I mentioned earlier, riffs come in all different shapes and sizes. The riffs above are all 2-bar riffs. We’re now going to look at some longer pieces of music based on riffs. Not only are there more bars in these examples, but the riffs themselves develop more.
We are going to look at two riffs from my book Easy Guitar Riffs. The advantage (and challenge) that these riffs possess is that because they are longer, they will require more practice to master. Up until now, in this lesson series, we have learnt to play short excerpts of music, such as technical exercises, and the short riffs that we have just done. This has been necessary, to introduce you to the fundamentals of playing the guitar. In reality though, learning to play songs and pieces of music usually involves learning larger pieces, which require time and practice. You shouldn’t expect to master everything the first time that you sit down to play it.
In summary, we’ve learnt some fundamentals and now we’re getting a little more serious. Have a listen to the audio for each riff and then begin learning each one. There are two audio files for each riff, just like the ones that we have just done. Remember, as with anything that you attempt to learn, you don’t have to master it on the first day (or even the first week). You can and should practice anything that is technically challenging over a period of time and make gradual but steady improvements.
Easy Guitar Riffs – Riff 1
Easy Guitar Riffs – Riff 2
Learn More/Become a Rock Star
One of the great things about learning riffs is that there are so many out there. After this lesson, you should have a good understanding of what riffs are, but more importantly, you should feel confident enough to seek them out yourself and learn ones that are interesting to you. Playing riffs is relatively easy, but very fun, which is why I have introduced this lesson so early on in the series. If you can play riffs, you’re ready to be a rockstar.
Next lesson we’re going to change direction slightly and enter the world of chords.