Blues Riffs & Licks

Riffs or Licks – What’s the Difference?

Licks are short musical phrases used in jazz, blues and rock improvising. Some players have a memorised collection or repertoire of favourite licks that they will throw into a solo every now and then. Riffs, on the other hand, are usually licks or phrases that are repeated as part of a tune or improvised backings. These may repeat exactly over and over if they fit any chord changes, but very often they may be varied in order to fit the changes. This is either done by moving (transposing) the whole riff up or down with the chord change, or by just changing one or two notes – notably the 3rd from major to minor or vice versa. (See below Vertical/Horizontal riffs)

NB in blues the word riff is sometimes used to mean lick. Confused? Don’ worry, no jazz or blues musician is going to get upset either way.

When to use blues riffs

They can often be used in non-blues tunes, but usually only in progressions with key centres that do not change, eg I Got Rhythm (A section), Take the A Train (A section – but not bars 3-4). When using blues licks in non-blues standards, the blues phrases will often clash harmonically with the chord changes, so they should be used with discretion and not overdone.

The so-called blues scale was not used widely before the 60s, when it became popular with guitarists and film composers. This is really just a minor pentatonic with a passing note added. It is misleading to call this scale the blues scale, as there are several scales from which blues phrases are derived. I shall refer to it as the minor blues scale.

Ex 4: Minor blues scale (minor pentatonic with passing note)

Although this scale can be used over the entire 12 bars, it will sound boring very quickly, especially if used in scale runs; it is also better to use the scale in short motifs. It is not a problem that the minor third of this scale is sounding over a major third in a tonic chord; this dissonance is derived from original vocal styles where singers would use versatile intonation. Instruments capable of bending notes can also use flexible intonation to imply blues.

The use of minor thirds in a major key is much more effective if juxtaposed with major thirds. It is also useful to use the major pentatonic (major blues scale), once again to formulate some nice licks rather than being used in its entirety as a scale.

Ex 5: Major blues scale (major pentatonic with passing note)

This scale can also have a passing blue note. Note that although both scales can be used over one key, this scale contains the same notes as its relative minor (Am in this case). As this scale contains a major third it can obviously be used on a tonic major chord. However it should not be used on a IV7 chord as the major third of the scale becomes the major seventh of the F7, and is not a useful dissonance (unlike the minor third on a major chord which is a useful dissonance).

When making up blues licks it is also useful to draw from other scales or combinations of the two mentioned above.

Ex 6: Major pentatonic with flattened third

Some basic blues riffs (or licks):

Ex 7:Motif starting on 6th

Ex 8: Extended to flat 3rd (with tritone interval)

Ex 9: Motif starting on 6th, final note could be minor or major 3rd

Ex 10: Contrasting major and minor 3rd

Ex 11: Major pentatonic with flat 3rd

Ex 12: Blues riff with 4th (3rd could be minor or major)


Vertical and Horizontal Riffs

These are terms I made up, not “official” as blues players tend to often just do things intuitively rather than following rules.

A vertical riff is one that repeats, but transposed to follow the chord roots. These work best on a more basic blues with a 5 – 4 chords in bars 9/10 rather than 2 – 5 chords. This is because they work best when all the chords are major type chords:


Lucille - vertical riff
Lucille – Little Richard


vertical riff
Vertical riff ex 2

A horizontal riff repeats at the same basic pitch, but some notes are changed slightly to fit the chord sequence:

Horizontal riff
Horizontal riff

This example shows the very typical change from the major 3rd (E natural) of the I chord, down a semitone to the flattened 7th (Eb) of the IV chord, which is , of course, the same note as the b3 of the I chord or basic key of the tune.

Subscribe To Our (very occasional) Newsletter
Subscribe to our email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, tutorials and special offers!
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.
Frequently Asked Questions
I did not receive the email with with my download link

Please check your spam folder.

NB: Purchased downloads are also available to download directly from your customer account area.

I am having a problem downloading to iPad or iPhone

This is a common issue and affects all downloads, not just our products. In order to download anything to iPad etc. you will need an app that can handle .zip .pdf and .mp3 downloads.

See this article and/or this app

It may be easier to download to your desktop and then transfer to your tablet.

Download expired, reached its limit
  • The download may actually have  expired. Download links are valid only for a certain number of days and have a limit on number of downloads - please contact us with your order number and date of purchase to reset it. (Ideally reply to your order confirmation email)
  • Download manager/accelerator  software or browser plugin is interfering with the download. If so try disabling it.
  • The files did actually  download, but very quickly and you did not realise. Please do a search of your download destination directory before contacting us.
Do you sell outside the UK?

Yes, we sell internationally. Your currency will be automatically converted at the current exchange rate.

Saxophone Instruction DVD region compatibility

This is a PAL all region DVD so will not require you to reset your DVD player/computer region.

However as it is PAL format it may not be compatible with some older U.S. TV sets which are NTSC only, please check if your TV and/or DVD player is compatible with PAL format.

If not, it should still work on any computer with DVD drive (anywhere in the world). Please note we have only tested the DVD by playing on DVD systems or playing on computers with standard DVD hardware and software. We cannot guarantee that files extracted (ripped) from the DVD will play successfully. Sharing of copied DVDs or ripped files is illegal.

How much will postage cost?

After adding an item or several items to your cart, click on the Calculate Shipping button and choose your location from the dropdown menu. This will give you the postage options available to your country.

When will I get my stuff?

Products in stock

We usually post within 3 days of receiving an order. We are unable to give exact delivery times, but generally packages to Europe can take 2 - 7 days, outside Europe 4 - 14 days. Under exceptional circumstances (weather, strikes, customs delays) it can take longer.

Out of stock (backorders) or special orders

Out of stock books and DVDs are generally restocked within a week. Out of stock or special order mouthpieces can take between 6 and 10 weeks for manufacturing.

From time to time we have a holiday, in which case items will take longer, look out for any notices at the top of the page re:holidays.

How do I find out the price in dollars, yen, euros, dirhams etc?

The checkout pages shows prices in GBP (£). Your bank, credit card company or Paypal take care of the actual conversion, so you can pay with your normal account in your own currency. We don't publish actual rates in different currencies as this is constantly changing so we advise you check with a live currency conversion site such as

Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.