Riffs and Runs For Beginners — ANYONE Can Do Them!
Let’s face it:
Riffs and runs are some of the coolest, most exciting, and fun parts of learning how to sing.
Depending on your vocal range, riffs and runs are also two of the hardest techniques for many people, including myself.
The truth is that singing riffs and runs are easy when you learn to sing with lots of flexibility and you know which scales to use.
But if you’ve been trying to sing riffs and runs but haven’t been able to, don’t worry.
I really had a hard time learning to sing them as well.
And hey, if I can do it, so can you!
Today we’ll go over the basics of riffs and runs, discuss the differences between them, and conclude with two exercises to help you use them in your own singing.
By the way, if you want a live-action demonstration of these exercises, please check out my full video on riffs and runs:
Riffs and Runs: What’s the Difference?
These two singing techniques are pretty much what they sound like.
The notes go up a scale quickly and come down quickly.
Witnessing an awesome riff or run during a concert can be a memorable experience, and is the sort of thing that might inspire young people to become singers in the first place.
Seriously, they sound super cool and everyone wants to learn how to do them!
While many people use the terms “riff” and “run” interchangeably, there are some important differences between them.
Here’s what you need to know:
While they sound really cool and can be tons of fun, they are also tasteful and somewhat restrained.
A riff is meant to fit seamlessly into the music around it, without calling too much attention to itself.
Think of the song Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran.
In both the verses and refrain of the song, Sheeran’s vocal range goes up and down through a series of notes pretty quickly.
That is, he’s singing riffs!
These riffs form the backbone of the song. Without them, it would sound totally different.
They are central to the song, they support it, and they don’t stick out that much.
This is what I mean when I say that a riff is part of the music.
Think of a vocal run as sort of like a riff’s attention-hogging twin brother.
Whereas riffs are part of the music, runs stand apart from the music.
They are featured in the song, by which I mean that other musicians pull back or drop out altogether, making room for the lead vocalist to carry the music by themselves.
During a concert, a run would play out something like this:
The band stops, the lights go down on stage, there’s a dramatic pause, and a lone spotlight strikes the lead vocalist.
Then the vocalist tears into an awesome run that catches—and demands!—the audience’s attention.
Think of the song Somebody to Love by Queen.
Near the end, at around the 3:45 mark, the other band members drop out to make room for Freddie Mercury to take full control.
He delivers an epic, show-stopping “somebody tooooo …. looooove!” that serves as the finale of the song.
You can almost picture Freddie at Live Aid singing this run before 72,000 people.
(Okay, Queen didn’t actually play that song at Live Aid, but you can imagine it.)
The point is, riffs blend in while runs stand out. And really, no singer ever stood out like Freddy Mercury, right?
Now that you understand the difference between riffs and runs, it’s important to understand how they are created so that you can sing them.
Here’s what you need to know:
Riffs and runs almost always use the major and minor pentatonic scales.
If you’re not familiar with pentatonic scales, no worries!
Let’s do a quick recap.
The major pentatonic scale is formed by taking the regular major scale and dropping the 4th and 7th intervals.
You’re left with the following notes:
1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 1 (octave).
Not counting the upper octave, this scale has five tones—hence the name “pentatonic.”
In solfege, it would go like this:
Do, Re, Mi, Sol, La, Do.
The C major pentatonic scale would go like this:
It use these notes:
C, D, E, G, A, and C (octave).
Often, a riff or run will quickly go up the major pentatonic scale, pause for a split second on the top note, and then go back down.
Thinking Out Loud is full of these little segments of the major pentatonic scale.
The minor pentatonic scale works the same way.
Start with the natural minor scale, but this time drop the 2nd and 6th intervals.
You’ll get the following notes:
1, b3, 4, 5, b7, 1 (octave).
The A minor pentatonic scale would use the following notes:
A, C, D, E, G, and A.
There are several ways to form riffs and runs, but the major and minor pentatonic scales are the most common and used a ton in blues and rock.
Our exercises today will all use the major pentatonic scale, but it’s good to know both major and minor versions for future reference.
How to Make Your Own Riffs and Runs
Here’s what you do:
1. Find the key of the song you’re playing.
2. Find the pentatonic scale in that key.
If the song is in a major key, you’d look for the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 notes of the scale in that key.
Again in the key of C, that would look like:
3. Experiment with a couple different combinations of these notes.
4. Try to quickly sing up and down these combinations in different orders and with different rhythms.
In experimenting with different combinations, you may have found yourself singing notes in little groups of three.
For instance, 3-2-1 or Mi-Re-Do is a very common grouping of notes in riffs and runs.
These little groups of three are the building blocks of riffs and runs.
Not every note in a riff/run has to be part of a group, but many are.
In music, groups of three notes just like to stick together. Who knew?
Find some riffs and runs in your favorite songs and break the notes down into groups of three.
Try creating your own groups and adding a little spice to whatever melody you’re working on.
Tips for Practicing Riffs and Runs
Before we jump into the exercises, let’s go over some basic tips that will help with vocal control and allow you to master riffs and runs.
1. Refine Your Vocal Technique
For example, a riff might start on a C3 and end on a high G4 note.
You have to know how to hit high notes quickly without a vocal break.
In other words, you need a good mixed voice!
Mixed voice is the ability to easily switch from chest voice to head voice and back without any noticeable break in between.
So, the first step in learning riffs and runs is to develop your vocal technique, practice your mixed voice, and get good at climbing up and down without breaking or flipping.
2. Warm Up
If you go into a riff or run cold, without doing vocal warm ups, you will probably feel a lot of vocal breaks and strain in your voice.
Just a few simple warm ups will smooth out your voice, help you sing without straining, and get you ready to practice smooth and fluid riffs and runs.
3. Use Pure Vowels
In fact, it’s better to sing with a very “pure” vowel sound when you’re first learning riffs and runs.
By pure, I mean that you’re singing one of the cardinal Italian vowels:
“Ah”, “Eh”, “ee”, “oh” and “ooh”.
I personally love to use the “oh” vowel for teaching riffs and runs. It’s a great ‘middle of the road’ kind of sound for practicing your vocal techniques.
Where the “ee” vowel is prone to flipping from chest to head voice and “Ah” tends to require a lot of chest voice, “oh” contains the perfect mixture of head and chest voice.
Out of all the vowels, “oh” is an easy and pure sound that will help you keep a strong and full tone while practicing riffs and runs.
4. Use Descending Patterns
Because of the way human vocal cords vibrate, it’s easier to sing on pitch and gain more flexibility in your voice coming down than going up.
When you increase the pitch of your voice, your vocal cords have to vibrate faster to hit the higher notes.
Most physical activities work this way, it turns out:
When you go jogging, it’s easier to slow down than to speed up.
It’s easier to go downstairs than back up, right?
Your voice works the same way!
Starting with descending notes will help you get used to the feel of riffs and runs without putting too much strain on your vocal cords.
In the case of singing riffs and runs, it’s often easier to start at the top and come down.
That looks kind of like this:
My Favorite Exercises
In both of them, you’ll slowly walk up the pentatonic scale and then do a quick run back down those same notes.
1. The Slide
Just like kids at the playground climb a ladder and slide down to the ground, we’ll walk up a series of notes and quickly descend back to the tonic, or the 1st note of the scale.
Here’s what you do:
1. Think about the major pentatonic scale and pick a note.
You might choose the 3rd, 5th, 6th, or upper octave of the scale.
2. Starting from the tonic, walk up to that note and pause when you reach it.
3. Then descend quickly back to the tonic.
If you’re going up to the 3rd, you’ll sing these notes:
1 … 2 … 3 … 2-1.
That might look like this:
Using a “Da” syllable, it would go something like this:
“Da … da … da … dada!”
If you’re going up to the 5th, it’ll sound like:
“Da … da … da … da … dadada!”
Just FYI, the bolded “da” above represents the highest note.
Since we’re using the “Oh” vowel, you’re going to sing like this:
“Oh … oh … oh … oh … ohhhhh!”
The “ohhhhh!” at the end is the run we want to practice.
Try to make these ending runs smooth, fast, fluid, and clean, like someone slipping down a slide.
Because these notes like sticking in groups of three so much, breaking runs into triplets is a great way to organize the notes and help them fit better with the music.
For example, the “ohhhhh!” you sing after climbing up to the 5th will cover the 3rd, 2nd, and tonic notes, and can be sung as a triplet.
That would look kind of like this:
If you’re going up to the 6th, you can think of the exercise as:
“Oh … oh … oh … oh … oh … tri-pl-et done!”
And that bad boy would look like this:
Once you’ve gotten the “Oh” under your belt, try these exercises with different vowels.
Continue practicing with whichever vowel works best for you!
For more details, check out the section of the video where I explain this exercise:
2. The “Gospel” Slide
Here we’re going to do the same basic thing but start from a higher position.
1. Think about the major pentatonic scale and pick a note besides the tonic to start on.
Let’s say the 5th scale degree.
In the key of C, that would look like this:
2. Walk up to another scale degree, like before.
We might climb to the octave above the tonic or the high 2nd above that.
In that case, you would sing the notes:
5 … 6 … 1 (octave) … 2 (octave) …
3. Now run back down to the starting note.
You’re singing the same notes as before but in a slightly different order.
A full octave of range would go like this:
5 … 6 … 1 … 2 … 3 … 5 (octave)… 3-2-1-6-5.
That would look like this:
And then you would just sing those descending notes as quickly and cleanly as possible.
The High Slide sounds kind of gospel-ly, if you ask me.
Maybe singing those higher notes makes it feel like the music is reaching up to heaven, or maybe centering the music on the 5th of the major pentatonic scale reminds me of southern gospel styles.
Either way, the High Slide is a great way to practice riffs and runs with a wide variety of different notes and groups of notes.
Feel free to check out my video demonstration of this exercise below:
Where Do You Go From Here?
These things won’t come overnight and require time and plenty of vocal exercises to master.
But after a while, you’ll be able to bust out an awesome riff or run whenever you want and sound wicked cool while doing it.
I can tell you, the first time my voice was able to just do a run without me having to think about too much beforehand…
…well, it was just such a thrilling and satisfying experience!
I hope this article will allow you to have that same experience.
If you’re interested, please check out my Master Your Voice course for more on riffs, runs, and everything else you’ll need to sing like a pro.