What Is Guitar Riff And How It’s Different From Guitar Lick?

For us guitarists, there’s nothing like a powerful, heavy and intricate guitar riff. Guitar riffs are instantly the most recognizable parts of songs (apart from choruses, perhaps). They’re also fun to play and definitely great to hear live.

But have you ever wondered what a riff is? Where does it come from? How do you tell the difference between a riff and a lick? These are the things we’re going to discuss in this article, much like when discussing best beginner electric guitars. What is a guitar riff guide, go!

What is Guitar Riff?

First off, there is no strict definition of a guitar riff. Different sources provide different explanations for this term. However, the idea itself is still the same.

I personally love the definition given by BBC Radio 2 during their Top 100 Greatest Guitar Riffs rundown – it goes like this.

Definition 1

Guitar riff is “the main hook of a song and must be played principally by a guitar. It often begins the song, but is repeated throughout it, giving the song its distinctive voice.”

Other sources offer a slightly different explanation, yet it still revolves around the same key things.


Definition 2

Guitar riff is “a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song.”

Here I would like to mention that we use the term “riff” mostly in the context of rock, metal or punk music (and their countless combinations and crossovers). There are hardly any riffs in jazz, classical or pop music despite the fact these genres can have guitars in their song arrangements.

Next time someone asks you to play a riff on the saxophone, you are granted the official right to make fun of this person. Read on for more answers on what is a guitar riff.

Definition 3

Guitar riff is a completed sequence of notes that serves as a main musical idea for a song. It’s usually the most recognizable part of the composition.”

Here are some prime examples – all these songs start with a guitar riff.

Deep Purple – “Smoke on the Water”

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Chuck Berry – “Johnny B. Goode”

Now that you’ve got the initial idea of what a guitar riff is, let’s see what makes a guitar riff.

What makes a Guitar Riff?

Up next on our guide on what is a guitar riff is the structure of the riff itself. If you look past all the guitar effects and wizardry, there are four essential components of a guitar riff. A typical guitar riff is…

1. Short

No guitar riff should be longer than 10 seconds; otherwise, it’s guitar doodling. In fact, most famous guitar riffs are usually 3 to 5 seconds long. Guitar riffs are just like lighting – bright enough for everyone to notice and short enough to impress.

2. Catchy

Yeeeees. All great guitar riffs are super catchy. Unfortunately, there is no exact formula of “catchiness,” because if there were such formula, you and I would have probably been guitar heroes already.

However, one of my friends, a musician, came up with his own explanation of “catchiness.” He said, “When you hear or play a catchy riff, you get that undeniable ‘I’ve already heard it before’ feeling even though you hear it for the first time ever.”

Catchy riffs seem familiar to you from the very first listen. They tend to pass on the emotion, the feel of the song right from the start. When you first hear that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” guitar riff, you already know you’re in for something good here.

3. Repeated

Guitar riff is not just some one-off trick. By its definition, guitar riff serves, as a basis for a song, be its meat and bones.

It should be prominent throughout the song and featured at least a couple of times – in the intro, verse or chorus. Otherwise, it’s something else.

4. Memorable

It’s not the same as catchy. Memorable musical pieces have that special “earworm” quality about them – once you hear them, you can’t get them out of your head for at least a day.

Great guitar riffs are sure memorable as hell and make you want to hear the song again and again. But the real magic comes when you learn the riff and play it on guitar – even a small amp is enough to get you jumping.

What’s the difference between a Riff and a Lick?

Just like any guitar riff, guitar lick is a musical piece, but, unlike riff, it’s usually incomplete and is barely recognizable outside of the song’s context.

Another difference is that the lick is usually a one-off thing and does not repeat throughout the song. It can be a part of the solo or simply a tasty lead over the main guitar riff.

If guitar riffs are typically meaty and heavy sounding, guitar licks are more delicate and intricate. We use them as the icing on the cake rather than the dough.

Blues-rock is full of various guitar licks. Just listen to this Stevie Ray Vaughan classic to get the idea. Here, the bass plays the main riff while lead guitar provides bluesy licks all over it.

You can check this article to understand what a guitar lick is: 50 rock guitar licks you need to know


And that sums up our guide on what is a guitar riff. We hope you enjoyed the ride, stay tuned for more!

Natalie Wilson

I've been an avid guitar fan for as long as I can remember and the day I embarked on my six-string journey at the young age of 5 truly defined the course of my entire life. I work as a professional musician, session guitarist, and guitar teacher, and would like to use this blog as a personal outlet to share my six-string knowledge with the world. Welcome to MusicalAdvisors.com

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