Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Riff

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the musical term riff is probably an altered or shortened form of the word refrain, an ostinato (Italian, from Latin obstinātus, stubborn, past participle of obstināre, to persist, that is, to not go away) phrase repeated consistently at the same pitch throughout a musical number. Glen Miller’s hugely popular Swing tune, “In the Mood,” is a well-known example of a riff-based composition. A riff, though, is different from a lick in that riffs can consist of repeated chord progressions (The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), while licks typically consist of single-note melodic lines. They share a similarity though, in that licks, like riffs, can be used as the basis of an entire song, as in The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Question: What happens when a rock musician tries to overcome the opposition governing the distinction between the riff—consisting of a repeated chord progression—and the clean melodic line of a lick? Answer: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, that is, the Hendrix sound.

“Purple Haze” (1967)
“If Six Was Nine” (1967)
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun” (1970)

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