Three Ways to Develop Your Riffing Skills

Happy man with ukulele
It’s time to stop saying, “I can’t riff” -says Jaime Babbitt

Many singers have found that riffing is a mysterious, elusive butterfly. Others say it’s as simple as breathing. 

What’s up with that?

Riffs, runs, melismas, melismatic phrases… call them what you will. They all refer to singing a single syllable on different notes in a musically pleasing scale or pattern. They’re used mostly in pop and R&B. Sometimes, they’re rehearsed and sometimes they’re made up on the fly. Here’s some riffing for you:

*Riffing is not to be confused with scatting, which is wordless sound-making to (mostly) jazzy melodies, usually improvised or sometimes inspired by a lead break from a famous jazz standard. Check out the amazing Camille Bertault scatting along with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. If you didn’t hear it, you wouldn’t believe it:

So how can we hone this skill, you ask? And how is it that some people do it so well? 

Firstly, stop saying, “I can’t riff!” As I-forget-who said, “Whether you think you can or can’t do something…you’re right.” Thinking you can’t is sealing the deal before you try. I tell my students what my voice teacher told me: Don’t tell me how you can’t do it, tell me how you’re gonna do it…

(It was Henry Ford who said that, btw)

I’ve found that many of the people who are good at riffing grew up listening to serious riffers in their childhoods. Some of the best riffers I know had a steady listening diet of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, two of the earlier melisma queens. Hear me now: if you didn’t have that background, that doesn’t mean you can’t riff. It just means you’ll have to work harder at it. So, put on your big girl/boy pants and:Start riffing! 

1. Start Riffing

But, start with easy riffs. Most riffs are based on the pentatonic scale…a five-tone scale. The note intervals are going up and then down:

1 – flat 3 – 4 – 5 – flat 7 – 5 – 4 – flat 3 – 1

So, if we start on middle C, a C pentatonic scale is:

C – Eb – F – G – Bb – G – F – Eb – C

Sing this relationship to yourself (using the numbers if you can) by starting with just two notes (the 1 and the flat 3); then, add the next note (the 4) to the others, and the next note (the 5) to the other three, etc., until you can go all the way up and down smoothly. 

*Oh, yeah, don’t just do it for one key. Start on C#. Then D…you get the idea.

Then, build up some speed going up and down the scale. Use an easy syllable like OH, OO, EE or something percussive like DAH; AH and EH are harder. (If you don’t play an instrument, see if a friend who plays can help you out by recording all the pentatonic scales for you…in a comfortable range, of course.)

2. Listen to Some Singers Who Riff

Don’t go straight to Mariah or Tori Kelly, now; you’ll want to quit singing altogether. There are plenty that move more slowly: Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Christina Aguilera (sometimes) and old school stars like Aretha Franklin or Annie Lennox.

I’ll also highly recommend watching videos by singer/coach Natalie Weiss, queen of “Breaking Down The Riffs”, a YouTube sensation. She spends her videos showing singer friends how to sing ridiculously hard riffs. *Note: All of Natalie’s friends are professional singers; she even has one episode with Ben Platt, the original star of “Dear Evan Hansen”.  Here you go:

3. Use an Easy Riffing Tool

Get yourself an app that slows down songs so you can figure out the riffs waaaay more easily. Anytune (iPhone) is one; Audipo (Android) is another. These are my faves but there are others, too. You can change pitch, create loops…amazing. When I think of the thousands of hours I spent trying to break down Mariah Carey riffs…(head bangs on desk).

Other pointers to remember:

*When you riff, you’re lightly skimming over the notes; it’s not a huge sound at all, so don’t worry that you don’t have a big, bombastic sound.

*You want to be on a narrow vowel to start with (OOH or EEE), and then perhaps go to a DAH or BAH…

* RELAX your face, jaw and lips. The more tension you have, the harder it gets to execute proper riffs!

* Keep your larynx in a neutral position by not craning your neck in any direction. Make sure you’re not straining to look at a phone/computer screen. 

* Practice, Practice, Practice!

*Don’t be afraid to mess up. Like I tell my students, if you mess up, mess up LOUD. Create an “I can suck” practice zone in a designated room/are in your home. You have my permission to suck at riffing; give that same gift to yourself! It’s the only way we learn, y’know…

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