What's In a Name - Variations on The Motifs of Rock: The Riff, The Lick and the Theme

Terminology can be a laborious, tedious ugly thing. Definitions can become murky at best, and as a result, language can break down into safe colloquialisms and double meanings. Nowhere, is this more evident than with the terminology associated with rock guitarists.  

At the risk of ruffling a few feathers, guitarists are often the least musically educated musicians, because unlike most other instruments, you don’t need to learn music theory to be a good guitar player. Will being able to distinguish between musical terms make you a better guitarist?  Debatable.  Will it make you a more knowledgeable all around musician and composer?  Undeniably!  In fact after reading this, you may have a sudden urge to go back and re-listen to things with fresh ears, and your findings may really surprise you!

So then, what’s with all this hullaballoo and big words?  Well one day, driving along with Dave on one of our many Boston-New York trips, we got into a discussion about the holy (or unholy) trinity of Riff Rock, Mssrs. Page, Blackmore, and Iommi.  We were talking about their catalog of material, the compositions that made them the great Lords of Heavy that they are.  We began pitting them against each other, riff for riff. While discussing some of the works of Blackmore and Iommi, it suddenly struck to me, that those riffs, weren’t really riffs.  They were something more, something more elaborate.  I began to explain to Dave as to why this was, and how it could be, and he said to me, “Amy, you need to write something about this for DRG.”  At the time, I said, “no one is going to be particularly interested by my foray into weighty terms and explanations.  I don’t think anyone would want some sort of music theory dissertation.”  Well, apparently I was wrong, so here we are.

Now mind you, while I am a professed EXTREME nerd, who has spent way too much time in Music Theory-land, I am not here to burden you with all that muck.  My hope is that by breaking down the differences between the most important motifs of rock music: the riff, the theme, and the lick, it might cause you to listen to all music with a bit more acuity, and perhaps even help you with your own compositions.

The initial stirrings of this discussion began on the forum where I described certain terminology as motifs, as opposed to riffs.  Well, I should have been more specific.  The riff, the lick, and the theme, are ALL motifs.  For the purpose of this discussion, and to better delineate the differences between these terms, we will use the work of Blackmore, Page and Iommi specifically.  Obviously, these terms are not limited to these three guitarists, or any specific musician, but I felt it would help to simplify what will undoubtedly be a rather complex and weighty discussion.  Let’s begin, by defining all four terms that are the crux of this discussion.

Definitions

A Motif is a short, yet thoroughly composed musical idea.  It is a notable recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition.  

So a motif describes any short, but fully fleshed-out musical idea.  From there, we can break down the distinctions between the types of motifs we’re here to shed light upon, namely the riff, lick, and theme as follows:

A Riff is a repeating motif that serves to set up a rhythmic construct.  It can be a repeated chord progression, pattern, refrain or melodic figure, often played by the rhythm section instruments or solo instrument, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition.  

When it repeats over and over again, it is based on a structure called an ostinato -- a musical term (derived from the Italian word for obstinate).  Examples include Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Glenn Miller's In The Mood, and the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction.  

So for our purposes, riffs are about rhythm. Whole Lotta Love is probably the best and most direct definition of a riff.  Riffs can also serve as a song hook, or sub-hook, if the pattern is so strong that it becomes instantly memorable.  Again, Whole Lotta Love's riff serves that function quite literally.  

A Lick is a pattern, a short phrase, or series of notes that is used in solos and melodic lines.

The dual guitar harmony breakdown section in Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town, is a good example of a lick, and in this case, a very memorable one too. Phil Lynott’s bass part between the chords on the intro section, is another good example of a lick.

A Theme is a motif that is the most thoroughly composed musical idea and is based on a repeating melodic structure. 

Sometimes, themes are the entire main melodic structure.  Like the riff, a theme can serve as the hook of a song.  Where themes differ from riffs are that themes are melodic in nature while riffs are rhythmical.  The guitar line in Satisfaction is a great example of the power of a theme.  Where the three masters mentioned in this discussion are concerned, Black Sabbath (the song), and Smoke On The Water are great examples of rock THEMES.  In addition, compositions can have multiple and equally important themes. Iommi especially likes to interchange riff ideas and thematic ideas, and he does so with a fluidity that makes it hard to distinguish between the riff and the theme.  In his case, riffs and themes can be separate ideas, and at other times, the riffs are the themes and vice versa!  For example, a song like Into The Void, has interchanging riffs and themes.  We’ll discuss Iommi’s clever use of interchanging ideas a bit later.  

So now that we have these definitions, we have a basis for discussion. Where this gets complex, is that the definitions as they apply to rock, can get interchanged depending on which musical genre and idioms we might be discussing at the time. Case in point, many refer to the James Bond Theme as a riff and others describe it as a theme.  Some call it a vamp! Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Sometimes the answer is that both answers can apply, and can in fact be a matter of opinion.  Other times, the differences are really quite apparent.  What’s important to remember here is that these are my personal interpretations of the rules and what I believe to be true, based on the definitions provided above.  Other people will undoubtedly have different interpretations.

The most famous craftsman of the thematic passage (and perhaps originator of the thematic riff) is Beethoven, who composed arguably the most famous motif of all time, the Fate Motif in his 5th symphony (dah dah dah duhhhhh),  Beethoven also recycled thematic motifs over and over again to compose the bulk of entire works. The 5th Symphony, again being a perfect example, where countless variations on the Fate Motif immediately follow the initial “dah dah dah duhhhhh.”  

Ritchie Blackmore

Since we’re discussing Beethoven and thematic motifs, the first of the Dino Rock Gods we should discuss is Ritchie Blackmore.  Blackmore, as a composer, is much more like Beethoven, than he is like Jimmy Page or Tony Iommi.  Not just because he’s surly, dramatic and has a penchant for German castles, but because of the three guitarists, Ritchie’s style is the most steeped in classical music.  As such, he is the most influenced by structures such as motifs.  Like Beethoven, Blackmore:

  • Created his genre’s most famous thematic motif. I contend that Smoke On The Water is the Beethoven’s 5th of rock, in that it is rock’s most famous theme.
  • Builds entire compositions on thematic motifs (Pictures of Home)
  • Often recycles his motifs to create other compositions (Lay Down Stay Down -> Nobody’s Home).

I know.  We’ve all been told, “Smoke on the Water is one of the most famous riffs of rock!  What is all this theme shit?”

When amplified in a rock song context, Blackmore’s works are commonly called riffs.  But, they are not riffs by the definitions we’ve established. Technically, Blackmore writes very few true riffs.  Smoke On The Water’s famous musical phrase is actually a thematic motif.  A short, thoroughly composed idea.  It does not set up a rhythmic figure, as riffs do but rather is repeated, as it’s own thematic passage.  And the same holds true for pretty much all of Blackmore’s signature dyadic 4th passages: Burn, Man On The Silver Mountain, Kill the King, All Night Long, and others.  They are all commonly called riffs, but they are actually thematic in nature. The only Blackmore compositions that come to mind as pure riffs, are L.A. Connection, Long Live Rock and Roll, Lay Down, Stay Down, and Stargazer

Jimmy Page

So if Ritchie Blackmore, a supposed riff king, is technically not a riff king at all, who is?  Of the three guitarists we’re discussing, it is Jimmy Page who is the riff purist -- that is, the creator of rocks most enduring and purist riffs.  The reason is that Page’s musical phrases set up persistent rhythmic ideas.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with Whole Lotta Love. Other Page monster riffs appear in:

Misty Mountain Hop
Heartbreaker
The Immigrant Song
Custard Pie
Trampled Under Foot
Communication Breakdown
Living Loving Maid
Bring It On Home
Four Sticks
Good Times, Bad Times
For Your Life
How Many More Times
Moby Dick
Dancing Days
Houses Of The Holy
Royal Orleans
Black Dog
(the purest riffs happen over the “oh yeahs,” the longer passages are themes)
Kashmir - a supportive droning riff

Jimmy’s work is not solely based on riffs; he uses the other motifs, such as themes quite elaborately at times.  These are featured in compositions such as Kashmir, The Rain Song, Friends, and of course the compositional juggernaut, Stairway To Heaven.  So, while his work contains all of the motif structures, because he is the most rhythmic of the three, the riff motif is his dominant compositional tool. 

Tony Iommi

So, what of the Godfather of Metal, the riff machine, Tony Iommi?  Of all the three, his work is the most mystifying, because he alternates between thematic motifs, riffs and licks, far more than the others.  It’s hard to pinpoint when he leaves one idea and begins another because he is so agile when doing so.  Tony’s songs also often contain so many parts that often you’re getting all three elements in one song. If Blackmore is the Beethoven of Rock, and Page is the Riff King, then Iommi is the Bernard Hermann, using supporting musical ideas to color the music, like a film scorer. Tony is rock/metal’s great arranger.  As Black Sabbath’s raison d’être of was to accomplish with music, what horror films did with images, it makes sense that he uses all the aforementioned motifs to create suspense, mood and drama. When discussing his work, I think you’ll find that he is in the middle between Blackmore, who writes mostly thematic motifs, and Page who writes mostly riffs.  The Iommi composition that best illustrates this combination of both ideas is Into The Void.  The intro is a wonderful thematic motif, which breaks into a song that has three great riff-based sections.  In addition, two of his classic compositions contain signature thematic motifs which have been confused for riffs, and these are Black Sabbath and Iron Man.

Iommi songs where the riff is the meat of the song

Electric Funeral
The Wizard
N.I.B.
Sweet Leaf
After Forever
Children Of the Grave
Lord Of This World
Tomorrow’s Dream
Snowblind
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Hole In The Sky
Symptom Of The Universe
Children Of The Sea
Lonely Is The Word
Heaven and Hell - Main part is a theme
Mob Rules

Iommi songs where riffs appear between other phrases, such as themes
Black Sabbath
Into The Void
Fairies Wear Boots
 A National Acrobat
Hand Of Doom
Sign Of The Southern Cross (droning supportive riff)
Die Young
Country Girl
- Theme/Riff
 Iron Man- Theme/Riff

LICKS

Based upon the definition listed earlier, here are a few examples of compositional licks from our three heroes:

PAGE
Rock and Roll
Dazed And Confused
- turnaround lick that is the basis for Paranoid
Black Dog
(over the “oh yeahs”)
Hots On For Nowhere (in between the verses)
We’re Gonna Groove
Wearing and Tearing

BLACKMORE
Lazy
No No No
Strange Kind Of Woman
Space Truckin
- Chorus (which is a pure ostinato)

IOMMI
Paranoid (intro)
St. Vitus Dance
Fairies Wear Boots
(intro)
A Bit Of Finger

So with that, I hope you’ve enjoyed this long-winded rant about terminology that I hope will make everyone’s life a little richer.  I hope to see tons of sparked debates on forum as the follow up to this.  For all those who think, I am crazy, you’d be right.

Signing off for now,
Amy D aka Queen Of The Dinos