By Jeannie Deva

History of Riffing

Most Pop R&B singers I have coached want to sing riffs, runs, and embellishments like Christina Aguilera, Beyonce or Mariah Carey. These divas and other Pop R&B singers like Yolanda Adams, James Ingram, Justin Timberlake, and Luther Vandross are known for vocal embellishments. They are all outstanding singers who have made vocal embellishment a hallmark of contemporary singing. Where did they learn to sing riffs and runs? Well, vocal riffing developed a long time ago as a natural expression of emotion and creativity in Jazz and Gospel music right from their inception.

This blog post is an introduction to vocal riffing. I’ll teach you how to sing riffs in a later post. Vocal embellishments or improvisations have been in vogue for a long time in a variety of musical styles. You can listen to Bonnie Raitt on her albums Give it Up or Let it Go and Aretha Franklin on her Gospel double album with the Cleveland Tabernacle Choir for examples of vocal riffing. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Eta James, Anita Baker, Chaka Khan and Eva Cassidy each use vocal embellishments in their own way.

In the Rock genre, we find everything from an occasional word embellished (listen to Train or Soul Survivors) to more extensive embellishments used by singers in Yes or Journey. Depending on the era and style of Rock, even wails and screams are used for emotional emphasis as a form of vocal “embellishment.”

What’s a Riff?

Vocal riffs, runs, and embellishments are notes added by the singer to a written melody as a creative expression and emotional intensifier. To my taste, the best vocal improvisations are done to truly deepen the emotion and not just to show off. You will be known for extraordinary riffs, runs, and embellishments when you can sing every note with precision and ease. This means with no strain or muscle tension and in a variety of tempos. This, along with using them appropriately and musically, is the hallmark of a professional singer. When learning how to riff or when working on expanding your embellishment vocabulary, it is best to listen to good singers and practice what they are doing.

In a future blog post, we’ll cover some tips on learning to riff well. In the meantime, leave a comment if you have any specific questions about vocal riffs, runs or embellishments. Or get started right now with my Singing Riffs audio download. You’ll learn how to riff with my coaching and musical backing tracks from a full band.