In a lesson with one of my long time singers, my student turned to me mid-song and said “But I can’t riff!” And I was caught off-guard – sure she didn’t sing tons of riffing songs, but she for sure added the occasional turn or run. Was she doing that without knowing it? I asked her further, “What do you mean by that?” and she responded “I just don’t know HOW to riff. I sound ridiculous.”
I’ve heard this sentiment before. Is it magic? Are those incredible riffers just “born with it?” Sure, some might have a leg up – but in my experience that is more about what you grew up listening to and surrounded by rather than magical ‘born with it’ skills. I believe that with a little knowledge and some consistent and focused practice, we can all learn the basics of riffs and runs and improve our abilities!
Here’s a step by step plan to get started riffing today – or better yet, to take your runs to the next level!
#1 – Balance.
Set yourself up for success. Riffing and runs require flexibility and quick and accurate pitch changes, which means you need to have balance throughout your voice. Make sure your transitions are smooth by testing a glide through your vocal range. Is there a large break or crack in the middle? Do you feel tightness or tension as you ascend? Do you get breathy in some areas? It’s worth addressing these issues first (a qualified vocal coach can help!) and learning how to find ease throughout your range before jumping into the acrobatics of riffing.
Step 2 – Scales are your friend.
Most especially the pentatonic and blues scales. SO MUCH of what you hear singers do when riffing is based on these scales! Learn to sing them, try them on vowels, solfege and even numbers in every key – run them back and forth – INTERNALIZE them. Doing this will help you speak the language of riffs and runs. Next up…
Step 3 – Listen and learn from the GREATS.
Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Sam Smith, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Sia, Ariana Grande, Jessie J, Tori Kelly… the list goes on. Find your favorites and listen ALL THE TIME. Immerse yourself in runs and riffs. Take a new one every week and study it. Slow it down (Youtube has a helpful trick to slow the speed of videos, or you can use a variety of apps – our favorite is the Amazing Slow Downer), listen to each note, sing it back until you have it perfectly accurate and in time. This is the work and I promise you if you make time for this you will improve!
Step 4 – Improv!
You’ve set the foundation with balance and ease throughout your voice. You know the pentatonic scale like the back of your hand. You’ve learned all your favorite Beyonce riffs. Now what? Improv, my friend, improv! Take a chord progression, or instrumental track and just MAKE SOMETHING UP. No need for lyrics, just find yourself some melody lines that fit. Hit a wrong note? Good, you’re doing it right. Sound ridiculous? Even better. If you don’t practice and feel those sour notes along with the gorgeous ones, you’ll never grow. So put your critic hat away and get CREATIVE. After a while, transfer this skill to your next song. Throw something new in between the chorus and verse. Try adjusting a melody line in the bridge and add some riffing after a line or two. Make it yours!
I hope that helps to get your riffs and runs ENERGIZED. Remember – if you put the work in, you CAN make it happen! Now get singing!
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