What Is the Difference Between a Riff and a Lick?

As a guitar player, you have probably heard the terms riff and lick, but you may not know how to distinguish the two of them. In this article, we’ll take a look at the two terms, so you finally understand them. We tend to get the terms riff and lick mixed up from time to time. Both of these terms are quite different from each other, so let’s have a look at both of them,


Most popular songs are made up of a series of riffs. A riff helps to establish the beat or groove of the songs. A good riff is instantly recognizable, and it’s even something you may be able to hum along to. Think of songs such as Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones, Enter Sandman by Metallica, or Back in Black by AC/DC. You have probably hummed along to these songs many times before.

Sings Recognition by the Riff

What makes these songs instantly recognizable is that they all contain excellent riffs. A riff repeats many times throughout the song. Riffs are heard at the beginning, throughout the verses and chorus. A lot of songs have several riffs that make up the main theme of the song. Some songs will only have one main riff that is played throughout, but usually, there’s a couple of riffs that make up the songs.

Some bands are instantly recognized by their signature riffs. For example, most people think of the song Back in Black by AC/DC when they think of that band. The song contains a great riff. Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne is another example as everyone recognizes the riffs in that song.

The riff is the “hook” of a song as it draws the listener in and makes them want to listen to the whole song. Bands spend a lot of time coming up with great riffs to make their music stand out from the crowd. The riff is the rhythm and the groove of a song. Think of some of your favorite songs, and chances are they all contain some great riffs which make the song memorable.

Guitar Licks

A guitar lick is a bit different from a riff. It’s usually a short musical phrase that stands out in a song. A lot of riffs contain guitar licks. In fact, many licks are, in reality, a series of guitar licks that are strung together to make up the rhythm of the song’s riff.

In the song Back in Black by AC/DC, there’s a series of chords that are punctuated by a guitar lick at the end of the riff to bring the riff back to the beginning. This is an example of how riffs and licks go together. In the famous song Sunshine of Your Love by Cream, the main riff is a simple guitar lick, but it establishes a powerful rhythm in the song. Guitar licks, like riffs, can help establish the feeling of a song.

Guitar Licks and Solos

Guitar licks also serve another purpose. They are the building blocks of a guitar solo. All solos are a series of guitar licks that have been strung together to make up the solo. Take the famous solo Eruption by Van Halen. This solo is a series of super-fast guitar licks that are strung together to make up the solo.

Many guitar players have their own signature guitar licks, such as the fretboard tapping licks that are a signature style of Eddie Van Halen. These guitar licks are incorporated into his solos. Many players use the same guitar licks but may change them up a bit to make the lick a part of their own style. When you’re learning guitar, you’ll pick up guitar licks from your favorite players and then incorporate them into your own solos.


The guitar lick also allows for improvisation a great deal. You can improvise a band’s riff a bit, but it has to sound basically the same, or the song won’t sound right. With the guitar lick, you’re free to improvise on a lick to come up with new combinations, and this allows for free improvisation.

You can take your own favorite licks and then try to come up with an original guitar solo. By learning as many guitar licks from your favorite players, you’ll have more tools or “licks” at your disposal to create solos no matter what the playing situation may be. Guitar kicks become your “tricks” to make music more interesting. You may want to incorporate your own short licks in songs you already know to add a bit of interest to the song while still keeping the same riff and song groove.

Learn Plenty of Riffs and Guitar Licks

The more riffs and guitar licks you know, the better your playing will be. Try to learn entire songs and incorporate your own style into the music. Unless you’re playing it note for note, try adding in your own guitar licks and change up riffs you know a bit to add some interest to the song.

Make a library of riffs that you come up with. Use any modern recorder to keep these riffs. A lot of famous guitar players come up with riffs all of the time and then pick and choose the best ones to make up songs. You can do the same thing with guitar licks. Create a library of your favorite licks and add to this library when you make up your own licks.


Now you know all about guitar riffs and guitar licks. They have similarities but are quite different from each other. Try learning as many riffs and licks that you can. Once you have some songs down, try making up your own riffs and licks, as this will help you write songs. Keep a riff and lick library and add to this as you learn new material. Have fun learning guitar and coming up with your own licks and killer guitar riffs.

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