Why are Riffs Called Licks? | Unearth the Mystery

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When playing guitar, players may regularly mention the term riffs and licks. You may also notice that they are used interchangeably without much care. Why are riffs and licks?

Riffs are sometimes called licks, as they can be played as one. There are also guitar players unaware of the differences, so they use it interchangeably. However, riffs and licks are fundamentally – riffs are a complete musical entity, while licks are not.

In this post, we explore why some musicians call riffs licks. We explore what riffs and licks are before looking at their differences and why people use them interchangeably. Finally, we look at some tips to learn riffs and licks fast.

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Why are Riffs Called Licks? | Unearth the Mystery


What Are Riffs?

Riffs are short music phrases in guitar playing, usually strummed in chord form. Riffs are often played repeatedly and serve as background filler in a musical piece. It also serves as a building block to guide other instruments and the vocalists.

Have you ever found yourself headbanging and listening to a certain guitar sound repeatedly? If yes, you are probably enjoying a guitar riff being played repeatedly. 

Guitar riffs are short and distinct musical phrases played with a guitar. Riffs are often repetitive, played repeatedly to serve as a background or building block of a song. 

Riffs can be heard in many music genres but are especially prominent in rock, blues, and metal. Riffs in these genres can help define a song’s mood, vibe, and hook.

Different music genres may utilize riffs differently. Rock and Metal riffs can be powerful, heavy, and distorted, with palm-muted chugging or speed-picking plays. In Jazz and Blues, riffs can be more alive, with slides and bends for a soulful feel.

Riffs differ from a chord progression or strumming pattern in that they are more melodic and set in pattern. They are also usually shorter. Riffs can also serve as hooks to catch the listener’s attention or create memorable parts of a song. 

Some songs with very memorable riffs include ‘Walk’ by Pantera, ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple, and ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes.

What Are Licks?

Licks are short expressions of melodic playing, often serving as embellishment in a musical piece. Licks are usually played through improvisation and help show a musician’s technical and musical ability.

If you are listening to some music, and suddenly there are some interesting shots or solo plays from the guitarist, you may hear a lick. 

A lick can be described as a short ‘expression’ of melodic playing, usually not longer than a phrase or two. A lick is most commonly played on a solo instrument, such as a guitar, piano, organ, or saxophone. 

Licks are popular in many genres of music, but those who like individual expressions tend to have more licks played. These genres include Jazz, Rock, and Blues. Country music may have a lot of licks, too.

Many musicians particularly enjoy adding licks to their performance, as it allows them to showcase their technical prowess. Licks also show a musician’s ability to improvise and produce great-sounding licks on the fly.

As they play, musicians often develop their signature style of licks. These licks are often developed from a repertoire and played out whenever the chord progression or key is suitable. 

Songs with very popular and memorable licks include ‘Sultans Of Swing’ by Dire Straits, ‘La Grange’ by ZZ Top, and ‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry.

How Are Riffs Different From Licks?

Riffs and licks differ in composition, complexity, genre, role, and copyright. They serve different functions and should be referred to as separate parts of music. 

CompositionStructuredComposed beforehandLongerLess structuredTend to be played on the flyShorter
ComplexitySimplerMay rely on chordsMore complexUsually singular notes
RoleForms background, building blocks for the musicTo make the song memorable to manyEmbellishment in songsInstrumental breaks in songsFor musicians to show their skill
CopyrightUsually copyrighted, or with limitation in its reuseUsually no copyright


In most cases, riffs are pre-composed and developed during the arrangement process of a song. Guitarists often spend a long time playing and exploring the best riffs possible in a song. Once composed, the playing remains the same, unchanged.

Licks are the opposite. Generally not composed, they are usually played out on the fly. This means licks often come from improvisation. Licks are also shorter compared to riffs, usually only a single phrase. 


Riffs are generally simpler to play, as they are meant to serve as background music and not to catch attention. Generally, guitarists play a series of chords and then repeat it repeatedly. 

Licks are usually much harder to play, as they usually include single notes. Musicians also enjoy making their licks hard to showcase their technical ability and improvisation skills.


Riffs are common in genres that have strong background music. These include rock, metal, blues, and funk. Here, riffs are played repeatedly to fill the background of a song. Metal music is especially known for its heavy use of riffs.

Licks are more commonly heard in songs that enjoy improvisation. These music include jazz, country, and blues.


Riffs are commonly used as background filler. It is also the building blocks that guide the other instruments and vocals. Well-composed riffs can also make a song very memorable to listeners. 

Licks, instead, are used as embellishments of a musical piece to add flair and color to it. Licks also serve as a way for musicians to showcase their skills and improvisation ability.


Riffs are usually composed, meaning they are part of a copyright claim in many situations. This means you may not be able to reuse certain riffs without running into the risk of impinging copyright law. 

Licks are, instead, usually not copyrighted. This is because it is usually played on the fly, which means they are not part of a copyright claim in a musical piece. In many cases, you should be able to play and reuse licks.

Why Are Riffs Called Licks?

Riffs may be called licks by some musicians out of ignorance. Some guitarists may not know the difference between riffs and licks. In some cases, riffs can also be played as licks, usually in live performances.

When conversing with guitarists, you may be confused by how they use the term riffs and licks. Their casualness in throwing the term around may make it difficult for other guitarists to understand them. 

Players often use them interchangeably, making it hard to differentiate between them. This practice may come from several reasons, such as:

Some Guitarists May Not Know The Difference

Guitarists come at all sorts of levels, skills, and knowledge. Some have musical training and can read sheet music, while some can barely read chords. As a result, guitarists may have differing levels of knowledge on riffs and licks. 

This means not all guitarists understand that riffs and licks are fundamentally different and that, in most cases, they are not meant to be used interchangeably. 

However, since these guitarists cannot tell the difference, they just consider riffs and licks similar and use them together. 

Riffs Can Be Played As Licks

Another reason some players call riffs licks is that, in some situations, riffs can be played as some sort of lick to embellish a song. In some performances, guitarists may use a riff from a song and play it as a lick. 

This can be done in several ways. First, players may take the riff, change it slightly, and play it as a lick in a solo. Changes in the riffs may be subtle or dramatic, depending on how the guitarists improvise. 

In live performances, riffs can also play longer solos to allow vocalists to catch their breath. Guitarists also may use riffs as the base, playing them several times to prepare before launching into full improvised solos. 

Can You Call Riffs As Licks?

It may not be a good idea to use riffs and licks interchangeably. They are distinct and rather different concepts in music and should be used more accurately.

In general, using licks and riffs interchangeably may not be a good idea. This is because licks and riffs are fundamentally different in so many ways. It may be better to exercise more brevity and use the term more accurately. 

Aside from showing your understanding as a musician, it also helps when you communicate with other musicians. Plus, you also spare confusing new, up-and-coming players from confusion.

How To Learn Riffs And Licks Fast

Learning riffs and licks fast may help to spend more time listening to the actual playing. You can also use tabs to guide your playing, although you also want to rely on your instinct as a guitarist. Practice will help you learn faster as well.

You may have some favorite riffs and licks you want to learn if you read this post. If you are looking to speed up the learning curve, here are some tips to help you:

Use Tabs To Guide Your Playing

Not many of us have the musical ear to pick up riffs and licks by ear. You have to be very talented to do that. Fortunately, there are tabs to help us with that. 

You can look for tabs online and use them to guide your learning process. Well-written tabs are usually detailed enough to show which fret and string to press and the playing pattern.

The key is to look for accurate, well-written tabs that are error-free. This will shorten your learning journey and help you quickly hammer out those riffs and licks.

Listen Actively

You do need to listen to the riff and lick repeatedly and actively to help your learning. This is because tabs may be able to help you play, but listening gives you a lot more ideas. 

For example, you may be able to listen to things such as expression and intensity when the riff or lick is played. You may also be able to listen closely and see how the notes transition. In some cases, tabs may not be able to capture notes 100% at a time. 

As you play the tab, consider listening to the riff or lick when confused or unsure. Do them together with focus, and you should be able to pick up your dream licks and riffs fast.

Put In The Time And Effort

Finally, it would help if you put in the time and practice. Guitar playing is a skill that requires you to put in the time to master it. This means spending time listening, reading tabs, and practicing repeatedly.

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