For many people there’s a huge gap between playing music and understanding the technical aspects of sound. But if you’re going to turn your music into a career you need to learn how to close the gap. A surprising yet common query many guitarists have is that they don’t understand the difference between a riff and a lick.
Understand the difference between a riff vs lick
A riff forms the base of the song. You’ll repeat it often, sometimes in exactly the same way, other times with slight changes or in a different key, but it will always set the tone of the song. These are the snippets that stick to your mind when you hear a popular song. So you end up humming the notes for days on end.
A lick of the other hand is the solo that forms a part of the riff. It’s a smaller section that may sound melodic on its own, but is incomplete without the remaining parts of the riff. As such it does not have a defining influence on the song or the audience and can be used in more than one piece of music.
Riff vs Lick Differences
- Riffs are whole; Licks are a part
Think of it like this. The lick is a collection of notes composed to sound a certain way. A lick combines with a verse, a chorus, and several other sections to form the complete song. But the riff is the repeating tone that gives a song its character. So you may use the same lick in two different songs and have them sound completely different because of the other elements used.
This is very different from a riff which is thematic in nature. So even if you try alternate variations or use different keys the basic theme will sound the same. The riff gives a song its distinctive nature so even when you hear it out of context your mind will try to recollect lyrics and other pieces of the song.
- Riffs have copyrights; licks are interchangeable
When a song becomes a big hit it is the riff that sets it apart in people’s minds. Take AC/DC’s Back in Black or Michael Jackson’s Beat It. That guitar that starts playing in your head; it’s the riff. There’s no way you could use that for a song and call it an original.
Every time people listened to your song they would be reminded of where they’d heard it before. And if you capitalized on another artist’s success it would be unfair to them. That is why riffs are copyrighted.
However, licks are a free domain simply because they’re unrecognizable when listened to in isolation. They serve the same purpose as a phrase or term that artists use to highlight a particular mood or instrument. And since they are a simple section of a much larger sound they’re interchangeable. You’ll find many artists using similar if not the same licks.
- Riffs are written; licks are often improvised
You pick up a guitar and jam out with your friends. If you have a beginner’s knowledge of instruments, composition and keys, chances are you’ll come up with a few licks. Often they will be bits and pieces you’ve picked up from other artist’s work. Or perhaps a series of notes that convey a specific mood.
Once you have a place to start you can work them around and generally improve your licks. When you’re composing a piece of music you may need a lick to tie different parts together, highlight a specific instrument or just add a certain feeling to the sound.
But writing a riff is very different. You have to compose it which takes time and reworking. Often you’ll spend hours slightly adjusting the rhythm or swapping out notes. Some days you’ll find that the tempo doesn’t work and you need to take the riff apart and put it back together. Speed it up; slow it down; try it in a different key.
Musicians are used to the process of composing a lick and know how much work goes into it. After all, it’s the foundation of your song. It has to carry not just the lyrics but the mood and tone the artist wants. Getting all that right takes time and personal investment.
All in all there’s a huge difference between a lick and a riff. They serve different purposes. The process of making one is completely different from the other. In terms of ideation, time and investment the gap is huge. So if you want to be taken seriously as a professional musician you need to be very clear about the various aspects that separate a riff from a lick.
How can you create a sound?
There are many different ways to create a sound. For example if you take one Pentatonic Scale you could mix and match notes to make multiple licks. But you could also build a single distinctive riff. These are two separate approaches that depend entirely on your song composition.
But regardless of which you’re working on there are a few skills you’ll need to develop as a musician before you can compose a great song.
- Hear the difference
Learning how to listen for small changes in notes and keys are the key to successful composition. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a riff or lick. You’ll need to identify changes between different versions, internalize them, replicate the sound and make a decision. Hearing the difference in notes, rhythm and articulation will take time since it is a learned skill.
- Move past the tabs
Developing that hand to ear coordination where you play a rhythm and are able to pull it apart in your mind takes time. But if you keep relying on tabs you’ll never get the chance to learn it. Sure tabs can make the process infinitely easier. But don’t forget to actually play each variation on your guitar.
- Enjoy the experience
Getting to the end and finishing a piece of music may be your ultimate goal but don’t forget to enjoy the process. Keep trying new things and experimenting with your sound till you land on something that feels truely unique.