What Is A Guitar Riff?

Guitar riffs are an essential part of songs in many genres of music, but you’re probably most familiar with them if you play any type of rock. 

Every experienced guitarist has had to learn a riff at some point, but it’s important to recognize what a riff is and how best to attack this type of phrase in practice and performance. 

Want to learn more about music theory?
Check out our ultimate guide to music theory to find more jumping off points.

What is a guitar riff? 

A guitar riff is a musical phrase that serves as the backbone of a section of a song. It’s played with chords, notes, or a mix of both, and is repeated many times throughout the song during the verse, chorus, or a bridge. Riffs are one of many tools in the guitarist’s toolbox that can be used to connect with other musicians or write original material. 

Many guitarists will have a few stock riffs they fall back on during jams. These riffs will probably change and evolve over time as you listen to more music and get exposed to different genres. It’s a good idea to have three to five riffs in your back pocket to play if you need inspiration. 

Sometimes sharing a riff with another guitarist or a band can motivate you to write a song or take a jam session in a new collaborative direction. 

What is the hardest guitar riff to play?

There are hard riffs to play in virtually every genre of music so this question is a little difficult to answer, but Jimi Hendrix is universally recognized by guitarists around the world as a master of riffs and a pioneer in the world of rock and roll. 

Opinions vary widely but no one can deny that Jimi Hendrix played some of the hardest guitar riffs when you consider expression, skill, and outright emotion. 

Riffs in songs like Purple Haze and Little Wing are advanced not necessarily because of the notes and chords Hendrix plays. They are advanced because of the trills, slides, and other techniques he added to make them unique and hard to emulate. 

Hendrix was the only guitarist in a three-piece band, responsible for playing both lead and rhythm guitar. The fact that he wrote these riffs himself is also very impressive. 

What are the best guitar riffs to learn?

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There are an infinite number of guitar riffs out there and it would take several lifetimes to learn them all. So what guitar riffs should you know? 

This depends of course on your taste in music, but here is a list of songs with classic guitar rock riffs to learn if you are a beginner:

  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Foxy Lady
  • Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water
  • Led Zeppelin – Black Dog
  • Derek and Dominos – Layla
  • Van Halen – Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

It’s also worth noting that you can learn specific guitar riffs to work on specific skills. Here are a few guitar licks that will challenge your strumming skills:

  • The Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go
  • Queen – Crazy Little Thing Called Love
  • Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication
  • Pearl Jam – Ledbetter

If you take the time to really memorize these riffs and practice them until you’ve got them down perfectly, you will be well on your way to becoming a solid, dependable rock guitar player.

What are the best guitar riffs to practice?

The best use of a guitar riff is to be able to play along with others. It’s good to practice material that you can play at a jam session or an open mike to get people excited. It’s best to have a mix of fast, upbeat riffs as well as slower riffs. 

Some genres like hardcore also use breakdowns to emphasize a riff and get listeners pumped up. Breakdowns are sections of a song where a riff and sometimes the lyrics are repeated but more slowly for emphasis. The riff gets heavy and usually the drums get louder during a breakdown as well. 

Not every song has a breakdown, but you can feel free to use this method when you practice. Slowing things down to a crawl is a great way to gain mastery of the riff so you can play it any number of ways. When we slow down our playing, we’re able to master concepts more quickly. 

This is true for all players, even the most gifted. 

Are guitar riffs and runs the same thing? 

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Guitarists may use these two terms interchangeably, but guitar riffs and runs refer to different things. 

Guitar runs are popular in musical styles like Bluegrass and refer to running notes in a musical expression up the neck, usually at super fast speeds. 

A riff is usually a phrase that gets repeated, whereas a run is an ascending or descending flourish that adds flavor to the song. If you find yourself repeating the same run in a song over and over, you’re probably playing a riff. 

Guitar riffs vs. licks

Guitar riffs and licks are also different. 

Guitar licks are musical phrases that get played once, typically in a solo or over accompanying chords. Some licks are iconic and most utilize one or more important techniques like pulls, vibrato, hammer-ons, or bends. 

Licks are great to learn because you can (and should) incorporate them directly into your own playing. You can learn a lick and practice it in different keys, then use some or all of it in a solo. Jazz musicians have been doing this for decades. It’s like quoting other musicians in a language that all guitarists will understand. 

But don’t get too hung up on definitions. The average guitarist will probably refer to licks when he or she is talking about riffs, or vice versa. It’s not a big deal. 

Are guitar riffs copyrighted? 

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Many guitarists want to know if a riff is copyrighted and whether or not they could add a riff into their own songs. The answer is that a guitar riff cannot be copyrighted. 

A lot of times you will hear a song and recognize the riff or realize that the riff sounds very similar to one you have heard elsewhere. This is not uncommon as there are only so many notes and so many chords on a guitar.  

Plenty of people have tried to sue musicians for stealing riffs and using them in classic songs. A jury in Los Angeles even threw out just such a case against guitarist Jimmy Page for allegedly stealing the riff for Stairway to Heaven. 

This case is proof that it’s not possible to copyright a riff. 

That doesn’t mean you should steal any old riff you please. The best riffs are instantly recognizable and associated with particular songs or eras of music. You may think that audiences won’t recognize a riff, but you may be wrong. If you think you can add Tony Iommi’s famous Iron Man riff into your song and get away with it, think again. 

By doing this you’ll lose the respect of your audience and your fellow musicians pretty quickly. It’s better to take your favorite riffs as a starting point and use them as inspiration to build your own. Before you know it, you’ll have a library of riffs to fall back on, and each will be unique to you and your style of playing. 

What is the best way to learn guitar riffs? 

Learning guitar riffs is not really any different from learning anything else on the guitar. First, you’ll want to listen to the riff you’re trying to learn several times. 

If you can try to figure the riff out on your own this is a great method for training your ear. Listen and try to pick out the notes and chords, it teaches you to get familiar with the fretboard and also forces you to explore the instrument. It’s definitely harder but worth the effort. 

Another good way to learn guitar riffs is to watch Youtube videos. There are a lot of great teachers creating free educational guitar content these days and you can usually find the riff you want to learn for free online. 

Once you’ve found a good resource, you should practice the riff slowly. Be deliberate with your fingering on the frets and try to play clean, resonant notes. Once you have these basic steps down, you can speed it up or work on playing to the tempo of the song. 

Another good exercise is to play the riff in different keys, starting on different frets on the neck (learn how to find the key in the first place here). This is good training to learn chord changes and intervals. It also helps to know this in case a singer prefers to change the key to better suit their vocal range. 

How do I make good guitar riffs? 

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Good guitar riffs have a lot of qualities in common. Whether it’s Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin, Mark Knoplfer in Dire Straits, Brain May from Queen or any other number of iconic guitarists, they all knew the qualities that make a great riff. 

Here are some of the qualities that make a guitar riff good:

  • Memorable
  • Simple 
  • Easily repeatable
  • Great rhythm 
  • Iconic tone and feeling

Figuring out how to make a guitar riff memorable is a difficult task. But think about your own playing and practice. If there are riffs you find yourself coming back to again and again, that’s a sure sign that the riff is memorable. 

You can also revise your riffs over time. As you play and replay that segment, you might find yourself shortening notes, switching up the rhythm, or sliding between different notes for emphasis. This is a great way to let your material evolve and develop. Sometimes you don’t hit the jackpot right away. Part of being creative is revising and reworking your music until it really stands out. 

How to play guitar chords with feeling and a tone that’s instantly recognizable may be hard to put your finger on too. But think about the tone and feeling of guitar riffs on your favorite albums. 

As you listen to one track after another of your favorite album, you will begin to realize that the tone settings on the guitar are different and each song has its own feel. That’s a good thing. The best guitarists will change up their sound and sometimes even their equipment to suit the song. 

As far as how and when you write riffs, that all depends on your creative style. Some people like to jam with a drummer or another guitarist to come up with riffs spontaneously. Others can sit down and churn out two or three amazing riffs without thinking too hard. Still others will write their best riffs in their heads, before they even get a chance to sit down and play them on the guitar. Experiment with each of these methods to find which style best suits you

And as with all things in music, if you’re tapping your foot and enjoying yourself while you’re playing your riff, it’s a good sign that you’re on the right track.

One more suggestion: as you play more guitar riffs, also remember to record them or write them down. You’ll be amazed how much your playing has changed as you listen back to old recordings. Old or forgotten songs are also a great starting point when you’re bored and seeking inspiration.

Final thoughts on What Is A Guitar Riff?

Guitar riffs are one of the major building blocks of rock music and appear in many other genres. 

If you want to become a skilled guitar player, it’s a good idea to learn a few riffs from your favorite guitarists. Good luck on your journey and don’t give up. Learning guitar riffs is well worth the effort. 


  • Dan Eder

    Dan’s guitar journey began… on the bass. Which is a kind of guitar, right? He grew up playing in bands in the local NY hardcore scene and adding his signature mix of thumb thumping and deadly Drop D distortion. During that time, he managed to learn just enough about theory and songwriting to be dangerous, and slightly nerdy—in a good way.