What Is a Riff in Music?

The word RIFF means a repeated musical pattern that’s usually short, sometimes two or four bars long. The word RIFF entered ‘musical slang’ in the 1920s. As well as being a short series of notes (a melody or tune), a RIFF can also be a chord pattern, a bass line, or a musical phrase.

Have you ever listened to music and thought about why a song is so catchy and you can’t get it out of your head? Well, this isn’t just a coincidence.

Certain songwriting and composition formulas are implemented to create songs that immediately capture the listener’s ear. Most of them are repeated patterns which are called Riffs.

Often a Riff will contain one or more repeated patterns that the whole band plays together. Riffs can be almost anything as long as it’s catchy and stick in your head after you hear it! Some great examples are Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, Beatles’ Come Together, and Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary.

Key Takeaways

  • A riff is a short, catchy, repeated musical pattern, often two or four bars long, integral to many musical compositions. It can manifest as a melody, chord pattern, bass line, or musical phrase.
  • The term “riff” emerged in musical slang during the 1920s, with roots in jazz improvisation, expanding into various genres over the decades, including rock, R&B, funk, and more.
  • Riffs adapt to the distinct sounds of different music genres, from the deep bass lines in R&B to the high-pitched melodies in rock, showcasing their versatility and universal appeal.
  • Iconic riffs, such as those in Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” or Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water,” highlight the riff’s power to make a song memorable and instantly recognizable.
  • Riffs play a crucial role in making music catchy and relatable, aiding in song recall and connection between different pieces of music, demonstrating their enduring significance in music composition and consumer engagement.


The riff is a shortened form of “rifacimento” (Italian), or ‘repeat’ in English. A musical composition’s main body is made up of sections, each of which has a melody. Riffs are recurring patterns of notes found in songs.

The riff is a term with different meanings within the music. It can be a melodic phrase, a chord progression, or the basis of a song.

It is most commonly used in reference to a distinctive guitar melody played by an electric guitarist, but it can also refer to any single line of music that forms part of the rhythm section in a song, or to any single line of melody in an instrumental piece.

History of Riffs

The first major use of Riffs was during the 1920’s Jazz Age. Jazz music was very improvisation-based and riffs were a great tool for soloing over this period.

In the ‘50s, riffs started to get more and more used in R&B, Funk, and Rock. They were starting to get a lot of usage in Rock N’ Roll songs played by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.

Riffs in the ‘80s, during this time, were very widespread in all genres of music. During the 90’s they turned into a real thing and were regularly used by R&B and Rock musicians alike.

Entering the 2000s, riffs were mostly R&B and Rap. However, riffs today are very mainstream and used in most, if not all genres of music.

Riffs In Different Music Genres

Riffs come in all shapes and sizes depending on the music genre they’re in. In R&B, they are often very low, thumping bass lines provided by the electric bass.

A great example track for this is Erykah Badu – “Bag Lady”. Riffs in Hip-Hop can be of any variety depending on the artist. If you want to get a taste, listen to “Walk This Way” – Run DMC / Aerosmith.

Riffs in Metal are frequently comparable to Rock Riffs since they both originate from Rock n’ Roll. An example that fits the description would be “Holy Diver” by Dio. Riffs in Rock are by far the most popular and are usually very high-pitched and loud, like the Riff from the Beatles’ “Come Together”.

Riffs in Electronic Dance Music have a wide variety depending on what type of Electronic Dance Music it is. Some Riffs in Dubstep often include a wobbling bassline like Skrillex – “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites”.

Riffs in Blues are very simple and usually include a simple drum beat with an even simpler bass line. We don’t need to look far for the perfect example as we have B.B King – “The Thrill Is Gone”.

Riffs in Funk are usually very simple and a great example is Cameo with “Word Up!”. Another simple riff is used in Punk Rock such as The Clash – “London Calling”.

Most Popular Riffs

Great riffs recur at the very least twice in composition, with many songs employing similar motifs multiple times to outstanding effect. As stated, riffs are not necessarily just guitar, they can be on the bass as well. Some of the most popular riffs are based on a bass riff.

The perfect example of a popular bass riff is Queen – “Another One Bites The Dust”, with the bass line continuously riding throughout the song which makes it so memorable and famous. Another bass riff-oriented song that comes to mind is “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” by Yes.

An outstanding guitar riff can be found in a lot of popular songs throughout history. Some are “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, “My Sharona” by The Knack, “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top, and many more that fit this description.


A RIFF is a short, often two or four-bar musical pattern that is repeated. The Riff is a very important element in music which is why it is so widely spread and important throughout the course of history. Riffs are used to help you remember a song and to be able to relate it back to other songs if need be.

Riffs may be easy or they may take years for artists and guitarists alike, but they are the very reason that music is as popular as it is today. They help relate and connect songs and usually Riffs can be picked up by consumers very easily and unconsciously because, nowadays, we’ve heard them so many times we don’t think about it.

This makes riffs a great tool for artists who wish to make the next big hit and they help tie in songs back to other famous past songs and to entice consumers to buy your music. Riffs can be used by all genres of artists with many different riff variations making riffs one of the most diverse elements in music today.