6 Steps to Learning Riffs

Are you a singer who really wants to get better at singing riffs? A riff (sometimes called ‘run’) is a stylistic melodic pattern of descending or ascending notes usually on one syllable (a vowel) at a fast pace.  Riffs in contemporary music have their origin in Gospel and Jazz and can be found in many contemporary genres.

In order to get better at singing riffs, you have to build vocal agility.  Vocal agility, simply put, is the ability to get your voice to move from note to note with precision, pitch accuracy, free from any tension.

Before starting the steps below, it’s best to warm up your voice (check out my vocal workouts).  Then practice basic major scale patterns moving from note to note on some pure vowels such as “ee” or “oh”.  So for example, take the C major scale and sing it on an “ee” or “oh” vowel. (ascending and descending) You can also practice the major pentatonic scale (eliminates the 4th and 7th degree of a major scale) which is more likely close to what riff patterns are based on in songs.

Then, you may be more warmed up to take on a riff from a song!

Find an easy and short riff pattern to start and follow these tips:

Step 1:  Pick an easy riff with not too many notes, from a song you like.  Play the riff on piano or guitar to make sure you have all the right notes. Or simply ‘break it down’ listening to it in smaller sections.  Count how many notes there are.

Step 2:  Sing the riff with a consonant on each note, such as  “no, no, no” or “nuh nuh nuh”.  Be sure there isn’t any tension and not too much volume when you are aiming for that precision in each note.  Sing each note slow with pitch accuracy and get the riff precise, and then slowly repeat it and start to speed it up.

Step 3:  Take the consonant out and sing it on a pure vowel (such as “oh” or “oo”)  Get your voice to feel that separation between each of the notes within the pattern. Don’t add a ton of volume yet, keep your volume at a medium level. And go slow....don't rush the riff until you have the accuracy and the notes are clearly separate.

Step 4:  Start to speed up the riff, slowly increasing the tempo until the notes are all clean.  Don’t merge any of the notes, if you have done that, then you have sung it too fast.  Try not to push too much air while singing the riff.  (This will help you keep that resistance of air pressure to be able to sing several notes in succession at a quick pace)

Step 5:  Repeat the riff many times until you have it smooth.  Repetition of the riff pattern will also build muscle memory on how to move from one note to the next with a clear separation of the notes. (versus clumping the notes altogether)

Step 6:  Then go back and sing it with the original singer to get the tempo down.

To get better at riffs, practice riff scales on a regular basis. And it's also so essential to get an ear for riffs. Keep listening to Gospel music , Motown, R&B, Jazz and artists who riff quite a bit.  (Callie Day, Karen Clark Sheard, Smokie Norful, Steve Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande, Usher, Tori Kelly, Jessie J, Demi Lovato just to name a few)   Even if you are a country, pop or musical theatre singer, listening to Gospel or R&B will help you gain a better ‘ear’ for riff patterns and the pentatonic scales.  

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