Guitar Riffs vs Licks – The Differences

Whether you are a professional or a novice guitar player, guitar licks and guitar riffs are two such terms that you surely must have heard of.

They are the basics that everyone who wants to learn playing the guitar needs to know. It will help you produce great music, particularly in genres like metal, rock, and hard rock.

Many people, however, confuse these terms and begin using them interchangeably. There are also some who feel riffs and licks are two names of the same thing. The fact is that they do share some similarities but are actually pretty different.

A guitar riff, through its rhythmic and melodic construction, acts as a hook, and this represents the vibe of any song. It is that musical phrase that will always be memorable and stick to the ears of the audience.

Conversely, a lick is basically a musical idea that may be a part of the riff. But, on its own, it is incomplete. Now, this is the main difference between a lick and riff.

There are many others that we shall discover through guitar riffs vs licks comparison. But before that, let us learn what both these terms mean.

What Is A Riff?

Soundgarden-Flower guitar tab by JanuszLesPaul (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A riff is any musical composition’s base. And, it is designed to exemplify the kind of atmosphere any song will create. Musical riffs are just not always exclusive to guitarists and basically depends on the melody.

Nonetheless, riffs indeed are a part of a song’s instrumental section. And, many a time, it even is a part of a song’s rhythm section. But remember, this may not be the case always.

What you need to understand here is that the chief intention of a riff is to be something that will attract your attention instantly, and you will also remember it. Think of any popular song, and its guitar riff will begin playing in your mind right away.

Repetition, rhythmic emphasis, and simplicity are some of the factors that are used profoundly while creating a riff. Any riff that is successfully created is most likely to be there in the memories of the listeners forever.

It will produce this kind of impact even if someone listens to the song only once.

What Is A Lick?

The Lick E Minor (tabs) by Dreamy Jazz (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lick is one of those terms that have become popular because of the guitar. In the present-day culture, it is used solely by guitar players. But, what exactly is a lick?

Well, it is a musical phrase that may be complex or very simple. And, its purpose is to make the guitar stand out in a musical piece. A lick usually is not as memorable as riffs, though at times they can be.

They are used mostly in melodic lines, accompaniment lines, and in solos.

With the advancement of guitar-based music, licks started getting more eminence. It reflects the ability of a guitar player to show his/her expertise.

The key characteristic of any nice lick is its melodicism and the way it relates to the little quirks that can be added to it by a guitar player to make it livelier.

One of the most important things to remember is that licks cannot be used to prove how amazing a guitar player you are. Nor can it help show how quickly or nicely you know to play the guitar.

Licks are more like words. And what you need to do is to try and express yourself and show your levels of creativity through them.

Differences Between Licks and Riffs

Now that we have a fair understanding of what licks and riffs are let us proceed to the guitar riffs vs licks comparison and discover their differences.

Riffs In Itself Are An Entity, Licks, However, Are Not

A riff is basically a complete musical phrase. It has a structure, and there are repetitions to make sure that it attracts the attention of the listener, and they are able to comprehend its wholeness. This is the reason why it is said to be an entity in itself.

Contrarily, a lick is not a comprehensive musical idea. When it is placed with other licks, then it may be equal to a riff. To make it simpler for you to understand, you may consider a riff as a sentence and lick are those words that are used to create that sentence.

Licks Are Free But Riffs Are Copyrighted

As riffs are an important part of any song and are recognizable, they are copyrighted. You cannot create your own song by stealing a riff from another song and think people will never know about it.

Licks, contrarily, are little phrases that can be used by anybody as a part of their song. You can steal as many licks as you desire from other songs and then create your own piece. There will be no copyright issues whatsoever.

Riffs Are Composed Well, Whereas Licks Are Mostly Improvised

Licks, keeping in mind their nature, are generally used in improvising situations or during soling. Musicians usually put in efforts in learning licks so that when they have to go solo, they can use the licks that they leaned and draw some inspiration.

Whereas, as far as riffs are concerned, a lot of effort and time is spent on creating a nice one. The rhythm might need to be changed a bit, the notes may have to be altered slightly, and the tempo too may need some adjustments.

These are elements that are considered by composers to make sure they are able to create the best possible riff. This, in turn, ensures the ideal attitude and vibe for a song is achieved.


After going through the entire guitar riffs vs licks comparison, you surely now understand that guitar licks and guitar riffs are different and function in entirely different ways.

Both riffs and licks are very important for you to understand and learn if you want to play the guitar to perfection. This may take a while for you to develop.

But once you do, you will be amazed by your own music creation, and the impact that it will have on your audience will be more than satisfying.

Juan Stansbury
Juan Stansbury

I'm Juan Stansbury, author and owner of Homerecordio – your ultimate destination for everything about homerecording. With hands-on experience, courses, workshops, and industry research, I offer tips on selecting the best equipment, and mixing and mastering your recordings to achieve professional-quality results at home. Join me on this journey to explore the world of homerecording and music production.

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