In music, a riff is an ostinato figure: a repeated chord progression, pattern, refrain or melodic figure, often played by the rhythm section instruments or solo instrument, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition (though they are most often found in rock music, Latin, funk and jazz). Classical music is also sometimes based on a simple riff, such as Ravel's Boléro. Riffs can be as simple as a tenor saxophone honking a simple, catchy rhythmic figure, or as complex as the riff-based variations in the head arrangements played by the Count Basie Orchestra.

David Brackett (1999) defines riffs as "short melodic phrases," while Richard Middleton (1999) defines them as, "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework." Rikky Rooksby (2002, p.6-7) states that "A 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."


The term riff entered musical slang in the 1920s (Rooksby, ibid), and is used primarily in discussion of forms of rock music or jazz. "Most rock musicians use riff as a near-synonym for 'musical idea.'" (Middleton 1990, p.125).

Charlie Parker's 1945 recording "Thriving on a Riff" brought the term to more popular awareness.

The etymology of the term is not clearly known. Some sources explain riff as an abbreviation for "rhythmic figure" or "refrain" (). The term is also used in a similar sense in comedy where riffing may be the verbal exploration of a particular subject. Thus riffing on a melody or progression as one would riff on a subject by extending a singular thought, idea or inspiration into a bit, or routine.


Jazz and R&B

In jazz and R&B, riffs are often used as the starting point for longer compositions. The "Night Train" riff was first used in Duke Ellington's "Happy-Go-Lucky Local", which Ellington had recycled from Johnny Hodges' earlier "That's the Blues, Old Man".

The riff from Charlie Parker's bebop number "Now's the Time" (1945) re-emerged four years later as the R&B dance hit, "The Hucklebuck". The verse of "The Hucklebuck", which was another riff, was "borrowed" from the Artie Matthews composition, "Weary Blues". Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" had an earlier life as Wingy Manone's "Tar Paper Stomp". All these songs use twelve bar blues riffs, and most of these riffs probably precede the examples given.

Related concepts

A riff may be incorporated into a fill, which is a short instrumental passage played in the pause between phrases of a melody. A riff is different from the related concept of a lick in that riffs can also include repeated chord progressions; licks are usually associated with single-note melodic lines rather than chord progressions. Like riffs, licks can be used as the basis of an entire song. A riff can be a hook, if the riff meets the definition of a hook: "a musical idea, a passage or phrase, that is believed to be appealing and make the song stand out", and "catch the ear of the listener" (Covach 2005, p.71).

Neither the term riff or lick are used in Classical music; instead, individual musical phrases used as the basis of classical music pieces are called ostinatos or simply phrases. Contemporary jazz writers also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz.


  • Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
  • Horner, Bruce; Swiss, Thomas (1999). Form and Music: Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21263-9.
  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Rooksby, Rikky (2002). Riffs: How to create and play great guitar riffs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-710-2.

See also

External links

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