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’t 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.


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