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What is the difference between a lick and a riff?
New Orleans, Lousiana
A lick is a short, formulaic phrase generally used in improvised solos. Licks tend to be common to an idiom: bluegrass pros recognize common bluegrass licks (like a Lester Flatt G-run), which differ from the licks a jazz cat would use. Many players string these licks together, letting their fingers remember what to do next. They instill their own personality in the solo in the way they play the lick or in the moments between the licks, as well as in the melodies they pull out of their head.
Some folks use riffing to mean jamming, but a riff can also be thought of as a clearly defined phrase that is unique to a song. The riff in "Day Tripper," for example, is instantly recognizable as an important part of the song; it's the hook, the musical catchphrase. In jazz, riff has a specific meaning: a short melodic phrase that is repeated, often over changing harmonies. It can function as the melody of a song or as an ostinato for a soloist to improvise over. Riffs likely are derived from the call-and-response patterns of African music, and the word itself is thought to have originated in New Orleans marching band music, from which it entered the jazz lexicon. Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" are two popular riff-based tunes. But the word riff has come to mean different things to different people.