This lesson gives some tips on analysing riffs and how to create variations for your own use.

What Is A Riff?

A riff is a recurring musical motif used as a backdrop or even a main theme to a song or instrumental piece. Some riffs are easily recognisable as the main motif of a song – these can be played on bass alone or doubled up on guitar or keys. On the other hand, riffs can also be played in the background as a foundation for the melody to rest on top of.

Analysing riffs, licks and chord progressions is a great way to see how other songs work musically so you can create your own. It is important to remember that the main principles behind writing music are the same no matter what the style.

How To Analyse A Song

  • Work out the general key. Don’t worry if you can’t work this out straight away as it may be easier once you have analysed the whole piece. However, knowing the key will make it easier to work out what is going on.
  • Look at the chords being used. What notes are in each chord? Do they relate to the notes used in the riffs?
  • Are there any scales that stand out? This will give you the pallet of notes used in the song.
  • Find any chromatic notes that don’t fit in the scale. This will teach you how to use chromatic notes to create tension and release in your own songs.

Lucille – Little Richard 1957

  • Features a walking bass line that sits in the background although is used as a hook at the beginning.
  • The chord progression is a standard 12-bar blues.
  • Is in the key of C, but the chords do not provide enough information to characterise the song as major or minor. (This is because the 12-bar blues progression traditionally contains three dominant chords to create that ‘bluesy feel’.
  • The riff stays over a single chord instead of weaving between several. This makes it easy to pick up and move to a different chord.
  • The notes used are strong chord tones that outline the harmony perfectly.

Chord Progression
C7 | C7 | C7 | C7
F7 | F7 | C7 | C7
G7 | F7 | C7 | C7

I | I | I | I
IV | IV | I | I
V | IV | I | I

Chord Tones
C7 – C E G Bb
F7 – F A C Eb
G7 – G B D F 

Further Analysis

  • The bluesy feel is created by the flat 7 in the dominant chords.
  • Rhythmically, this riff is a consistent stream of eighth notes (quavers). This constant pump of notes gives the song its drive.
  • There is a slight accent on the notes that fall on the kick drum to emphasise the groove and tie the rhythm section together.


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