Riffs Vs Licks – What Is The Real Difference Between Them?

Guitar riffs and guitar licks, whether you are a beginner or a master guitar player, you have surely heard those two terms. They are the foundation of learning guitar and creating awesome music, especially in genres such as rock, hard rock, or metal. 

A lot of people confuse these two terms and use them interchangeably, or even think they are one and the same. This is understandable due to the similarities they might share. But in reality, they are actually quite different. 

So, riffs vs licks, what is the real difference between them? The real difference between a guitar riff and a guitar lick is that a riff, through its melodic and rhythmic construction, is designed to be a hook that represents the vibe of a song. It is a memorable musical phrase that will stick to your ears. A lick, on the other hand, is a musical idea that can be part of a riff but is incomplete on its own. 

There are many small differences between the two of them, but before we jump into these differences, let us describe what a guitar riff is. 

What Is A Guitar Riff?

A guitar riff is the base of a musical composition that, as I mentioned before, is designed to embody the atmosphere a song will have. Musical riffs are not exclusive to guitarists, it depends on the song. However, riffs are part of the instrumental section of a song, and a lot of times it will be part of the rhythm section of a song, this is not 100% the case every time.

What is important to understand about a riff is that its main intention is to be an entity that your ears will easily catch and remember. If I say “Smoke On The Water”, you will immediately start listening to the guitar riff in your head. Factors such as simplicity, repetition, and rhythmic emphasis are heavily used in the creation of a riff. If a riff is successful in its creation, you will most likely remember it after having listened to it, even if it is just once.

What Is A Guitar Lick?

The term licks is a term that has been popularized by guitar and in modern culture, it is almost solely used by guitar players. A lick is a musical phrase that can either be very simple or complex and it serves the function of making the instrument stand out in the musical composition. A lick is not necessarily as memorable as a riff (although it can be) and it is mostly used in solos, accompaniment lines, and melodic lines.

As guitar-based music progressed, licks became a more important element in a guitar player’s abilities to be able to show their level of expertise. However, the main characteristic of a good lick, is its melodicity and how that relates to all the small quirks a guitar player can add to it to give it life. B.B King is the ultimate example of a master guitarist who is able to use simplicity and mix it with emotion through its technical expression on the guitar. He is a true example of someone who can make his guitar “sing”.

And that is the most important to remember, guitar licks are not some sort of way of proving your status as a guitar player and how “well” or “fast” you can play. Licks are like words and your main motivation should be to be able to speak the language of music and express your creativity through them.

3 Differences Between Riffs And Licks

Riffs Are An Entity Of Its Own, Licks Are Not

Essentially a riff is a full musical phrase with a structure and repetition to ensure the ear catches and understands its wholeness. That is why it is an entity of its own. On the other hand, a lick is an incomplete musical idea that, if put together with other licks, can amount to a riff. Think of it as a riff being a sentence and a lick being the words used to form that sentence.

Riffs Are Copyrighted, Licks Are A Free Domain

Since riffs are recognizable and crucial elements in a song, they are included in the copyright claim act. You couldn’t get away with making a song with the riff from “Beat It” and call it your own creation without people knowing better.

On the other hand, since licks are small phrases that everybody uses in their playing, you can “steal” as many as you want to create something of your own without any fear of copyright infractions.

Licks Are More Prone To Improvisation, Riffs To Composition

Due to the nature of a lick, it will most likely be used in a soloing or improvisation situation. The way this usually goes for musicians is, they spend time learning licks so when the time comes to solo, they draw inspiration from the licks they learned.

Alternately, in order for riffs to achieve their goal, there is usually time and thought spent on crafting a good riff. Changing a note here and there, changing the rhythm, the tempo. All of these elements are things composers consider to ensure they make the best version of the riff and that it conveys the right vibe and attitude for the song.

3 Easy Tips To Learn Guitar Riffs And Licks The Right Way

Actively Listen To The Riff Or Lick

It’s quite a simple thing to do, to enjoy listening to music. Yet our lives are so fast-paced that we never take the time to actively listen to music. We want to translate as fast as we can from our ears to our fingers into the guitar that we do not spend enough time internalizing in our brain what we just heard. 

So, what I would recommend is to put down your instrument, take a deep breath to focus your mind, and listen to the riff or lick at least three times. The challenge comes when you have to list or internalize something new about said lick every time you listened to it. So for example, the first time you might focus on the notes, the second time on the rhythm and the third time on the articulation. Doing this will help your brain really capture and store the information you just consumed and will do massive things for your musical ears and creativity.

Don’t Rely On Tabs Forever

Once again, I get it. Finding tabs for whatever thing you are trying to learn is the fastest way for you to achieve the payoff that you are looking for. That payoff is to hear that sweet, rockin’ riff/lick come out of your hands. And I would say, go for it! Experience the satisfaction of playing that musical phrase. 

However, in the big picture, you are missing a great opportunity to expand your musicianship in terms of ear development, rhythmic comprehension, and figuring out where things are on the guitar. You will regret this in the future, trust me.

This is what I offer to you, learn your favorite lick/riff through tabs, but then take some time to really know which notes you are playing, how do they relate to the key you are in (if you are interested in music theory, which I’d recommend), and the rhythms used to create that riff/lick. This will most surely give you a more satisfying payoff in the long run.

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For more information about guitar music theory check out my post Guitar Music Theory In-Depth Basics

The Joy Is In The Journey, Not The Destination

Pretty deep, huh? And I’m sure you have heard this before, but there is such a powerful truth behind it. We want to learn everything out there and we want to do it as fast as possible. Whether it’s impatience or a fear of being left behind, we do not want to slow down, ever.

But I’ll tell you this right now, you will never stop wanting to learn more, to achieve more, to play better. That riff/lick might satisfy you for a couple of hours or even days, but you will certainly get bored of it and want to learn something new. Enjoy that, enjoy the process of learning something deeply and fully, and don’t waste time thinking about what will come next. Out of all the tips I gave you, this is the most important one. Having a clear and relaxed mindset to learn something will drastically improve the chances that you transform information into knowledge. Knowledge is power, information is just a bunch of useless words put together.  

3 Easy Famous Guitar Riffs – Tabs Included

Rock and roll music is filled with amazing riffs, here are easy riffs to learn on guitar. I’ve decided to include not the most familiar riffs since there may be a chance that you don’t know how to play at least one of them.

Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know

If we talk about new waves of rock bands, Arctic Monkeys have to be on their list. Lead singer and guitarist Alex Turner actually plays this riff on a 12-string guitar live to give both octaves its space. However, this will sound awesome when you do the low riff.

Do I Wanna Know Guitar Tabs

Kings of Leon – Sex On Fire

The Followill brothers were for sure born in the right family. Having formed the band in 1999, Kings of Leon are one of the most revered modern rock bands today. In this case, lead singer and guitarist Caleb also play this iconic riff.

Sex On Fire Guitar Tabs

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If you are interested to learn more awesome riffs you can check my following posts.

Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker

Ok I know I said modern riffs, but I just couldn’t resist adding a riff from one of the guitar Gods in rock mythology, the great Jimmy Page. So many riffs that became legendary from this incredible band. This one is one of their easiest ones and is a must for any rock n roll lover.

Heartbreaker Guitar Tabs

3 Guitar Players To “Steal” Licks From

I think in the case of licks, it is better for you to listen to guitar players do their thing, find a phrase you really like, and learn it. Or better yet, learn their whole solo! Either way, here are the best guitar players to steal licks from:

B.B King

B.B King is without a doubt the best teacher for the blues. He plays so simply that it is easy to learn the notes in his licks. Where the real gold is, is at figuring out his rhythm, his articulation techniques, and if interested in soloing over a 12-bar blues, what notes he relies on depending on which chord in the progression he is in.

David Gilmore

Pink Floyd is one of the absolute greatest rock bands that the UK brought to us. One of the main reasons is David Gilmore’s simple yet tasty take on how to express on a guitar. Spoiler alert, you will do bends…a lot.

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If you want to learn more licks check out my list 50 Famous & Easy Rock Guitar Licks For Beginners

John Mayer

Arguably the best active guitarist out there and definitely one of the best of all times. His mix of blues and modal soloing is what gives him a particular style that sounds fresh and modern. John Mayer is an excellent choice to learn some cool things.


As we discovered, guitar riffs are very different in the function they serve as opposed to guitar licks. Both guitar licks and guitar riffs are crucial elements in developing your skills as a guitar player. However, it is important for you to remember that regardless you are trying to compose a riff to set the tone and vibe of a song, or you are developing your improvisational skills, always remember to trust and follow your ears and to always look for melodic content over speed or flashiness. Keep on rockin’ as always.

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I have been playing guitar since 2004. As long as I can remember I always had a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. Helping people on their rock journey is what drives me to keep on playing. Read More About Me

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