Riff Without Fear!

learning to riffRiffing, like any other musical skill, can be learned. Just like we learn to speak as babies by imitation, we can learn the scales that riffs and runs come from and then learn the language of riffs by memorizing and practicing some of the more common riffs. After awhile you realize that most of the riffs you hear are similar patterns of notes – a language of specific notes and musical phrases. Texture is adding musicality and with various interpretational devices to make those phrases portray emotion. In this step you are going to learn the language of riffs and runs and you will learn to sing emotionally by creating texture!

Let’s face it – it is very impressive to most of us to hear someone who riffs well – who chooses just the right notes and executes them with perfect intonation, flexibility and speed. Let’s talk about those three factors.


That means singing in tune. It doesn’t matter how fast you can riff if you are even slightly out of tune on some of the notes.

Being flat (under the pitch) or sharp (above the pitch), even just a little bit, is the surest way to evoke a “cringe reaction” in your listener. The best way to make intonation precise is to learn and practice riffs and runs slowly, then gradually increase the speed, paying attention to intonation.


Flexibility is a key component of riffing. Flexibility requires that you use a lighter coordination of the vocal folds and that you don not blow a lot of air. If you sing hard all the time it will be more difficult to develop the lightness and flexibility you need to execute fast runs. Back off on the volume and air pressure and riffing will become much easier.


Not all improvisation is fast, but dazzling bursts of high-speed runs are a large component of singing today. However, you don’t need only speed – you need speed combined with precision. A lighter approach will help – it’s harder to make a big and dramatic voice move quickly.

In order to develop precise speed you should practice fragments or sections of a run slowly, gradually increasing the speed. If the run is long, break it down into chunks or segments and practice each segment slowly, over and over. Finally, put all the sections together and practice the whole run slowly. Then, gradually increase the tempo.

If a run is complicated and hard to remember, it helps to assign numbers to each grouping of notes, or to come up with some kind of notational pattern of your own that will help you remember each section, and write a visual depiction on paper. Pictures, numbers, a graph with a line going up and down along with the melody – any way to use your visual skills as well as your auditory skills to memorize the pattern, will help. Some people use their hands in the air, or just their fingers, making patterns that go high or low, along with the melody.

Of course, doing a “take-down” – writing down the exact pitches used – is great if your musical skills are that good. Using a simple program like Finale Notepad can be very helpful for notation. If your music theory isn’t that advanced, just draw a simple picture representing the ups and downs, or hills and valleys of the musical excursion. Any graphic representation of the run will help you remember it. The more styles of learning you combine (visual, auditory, kinesthetic in this case, if you sing it, write it down, and use your hand motions) the faster and more effectively you will learn.

Sing Like A Star Studios offers private lessons for individuals of all ages and experience levels in East Cobb and Alpharetta, Georgia. To learn more about the studio and to schedule a class today, contact us online today!

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