Definition of riff in US English:



  • 1A short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song.

    ‘a brilliant guitar riff’
    • ‘Barely a track begins without an ominous drum roll, or a chugging monster riff.’
    • ‘Listen carefully and you can hear even more familiar riffs.’
    • ‘"Used to Think " takes its impetus from the guitars, utilising a stuttering riff reminiscent of the Who.’
    • ‘The ad needs a shot of adrenaline, a killer riff.’
    • ‘Layering multiple streams of electronically generated sound, he interspersed sparse and sometimes repetitive keyboard riffs into the mix.’
    • ‘Yet in this way, we immediately understand the initial discordant keyboard riff.’
    • ‘The band's condensed rock riffs also sound stale.’
    • ‘Sick of hearing the same tired riffs and canned beats on the radio?’
    • ‘Longingly romantic " Live Line " is backed by a simple folk blues riff.’
    • ‘Catchy, jangly guitar riffs are slung about violently.’
    • ‘People naturally respond to the diminutive sax man's keening sound, funky rhythms and bluesy riffs.’
    • ‘He manufactures catchy guitar riffs with ease, and blends them with off-beat lyrics.’
    • ‘Effortless hooks and fantastical storytelling gave way to chugging riffs and darker lyrics.’
    • ‘After these first wan gags, subsequent riffs on the same themes fail to amuse.’
    • ‘Characterised by its undulating electronic bass riff it's one of the strongest tracks of the line-up.’
    • ‘Before long we get a nice piano riff and lots of ambient weirdness joining it.’
    • ‘They played the opening riff for a while, until Rocky tried a solo.’
    • ‘Why the silence, the sirens, the jazz riffs, the drumming?’
    • ‘Johnson said he had come up with the rollicking piano riffs and trademark rhythm backing Berry's lyrics.’
    • ‘You hear the opening riff to a song.’
    1. 1.1 A monologue or spoken improvisation, especially a humorous one, on a particular subject.
      ‘subsequent riffs on the same themes fail to amuse’
      • ‘Last week's riff on how the coming ubiquity of wireless networks could lead to a new and better form of digital rights management brought out both supporters and detractors.’
      • ‘A personification of the bomb appears near the end, portrayed by Sotor's cousin, in a satirical riff off an old cliché Sotor rewrote himself.’
      • ‘Her conversations are never completed, her ideas left unexplored, and her truths half spoken while Hatanaka indulges in another riff about the story.’
      • ‘"Detective work," someone mutters to an eager graduate student in A. S. Byatt's latest fictional riff on things Victorian.’


[no object]
  • 1Play musical riffs.

    ‘the other horns would be riffing behind him’
    • ‘It's like watching two nerdy kids on the bus riffing endlessly on their own inside jokes: it might be fun if you're bored, but pretty soon you'd rather just look out the window.’
    • ‘This is Shatner's milieu these days - riffing about love and pain in a sort of slow-motion white man's rap.’
    • ‘The secret may be that although rock 'n' roll is supposedly at its best when it's riffing on the pleasures and heartaches of youth, Springsteen edged away from that very early in his career.’
    • ‘The musicians in the band are just as comfortable thrashing out with The Misfits and The Ramones as they are riffing with Ted Nugent or KISS.’
    • ‘Steve Wilson's vibes are deep in the rhythm section's pocket, riffing or firing off spare, hanging chords.’
    • ‘The dubious wisdom of naming your record after a crumbling empire's capital aside, the band makes a noble effort, even if their search often leads them to simple power-punk or minor-key metal riffing.’
    • ‘Who needs six minutes worth of foreshadowing, ambient noise and one-chord riffing when you could surge straight into a noise as glorious as this?’
    • ‘His love jams are often trite and he spends far too much time riffing on the phrase ‘do it.’’
    • ‘Often times, Simmons' band sounds remarkably like the traditional Coltrane quartet, with pianist John Hicks riffing off propulsive drummer, James Zitro.’
    • ‘Fortunately, it turned out they too spoke the international language of prog rock or whatever musical abomination he was riffing on at the time.’
    • ‘So perhaps it comes as bit of a surprise that some of the best riffing to be heard on any album this year doesn't come from some retro-garage band, but from electronica outfit Ratatat.’
    • ‘While the band was riffing away, Fallon would unleash a torrent of lyrics about monster trucks, prison planets and yetis in his unmistakable throaty roar.’
    • ‘With Dave Grohl behind the drum kit and a bucket full of Sabbath style riffing, it certainly rocks.’
    • ‘In the same way that Twin Peaks was David Lynch riffing on the soap opera genre, so does Kurosawa riff on the family drama in Bright Future.’
    • ‘Stoppard further underlines the tension between perception and reality by riffing on Hamlet's ‘play within a play’ that catches the conscience of the king.’
    • ‘Gone are the wacky keyboard lines, the chunky punk ‘n’ metal riffing and polka/ska passages that have made this band a Canadian legend.’
    • ‘Even the former stars of soupy boy bands have taken up riffing.’
    • ‘‘He loves riffing about show business,’ says Williams, one of his famous friends.’
    • ‘Kaufman is riffing on well-connected dots from Wolfe's reportage, as well as having a little fun with Johnson's reputation for old-school bullying and sulking.’
    • ‘The whole disc is jumbled riffing and passages that are ham-fistedly smashed together, making each ‘tune’ come plodding out of the speakers like a wet, grumbly fart.’
    1. 1.1 Perform a monologue or spoken improvisation on a particular subject.
      ‘he also riffs on racism and the economy’
      • ‘He generally riffed a lot at weddings, making warm jokes about pets or the new wedding china.’
      • ‘The issue's highlight, however, is an inspired fashion spread riffing on the 1998 Danish film, The Celebration.’
      • ‘Sullivan excels at punditry, happily riffing off the news or essaying exuberantly off the top of his head.’
      • ‘Now the artist Jason Salavon has produced a set of images that riff wittily on the culture of the centerfold.’
      • ‘Building on Curtis's concept, you can begin exploratory sketching by riffing off of these three words or phrases.’
      • ‘It was all right there, everyone riffing off each other, remarking, critiquing.’
      • ‘Imagine my anxiety when Roger riffed today about the history of black music.’
      • ‘Vic starts riffing about how he has an eight year old daughter, just like the missing girl.’
      • ‘That being said, I would like to riff on some of the things I noticed in the film.’
      • ‘Speaking of Chinese translations, Harper's Magazine, once published a list of Chinese books riffing on Johnson's earlier classic.’
      • ‘Whatever myth or motif Svankmajer is riffing on - he's created a true gem here.’
      • ‘Given the tight theme, Hughes says he was greatly impressed with the "nice little gamut" the nine authors riffed on the subject.’
      • ‘And it's funny because riffing on Virgil is exactly how I thought of it myself.’
      • ‘Riffing on Digby's post earlier, I agree that Bush et al are too sanguine.’
      • ‘And the moment may come when he will riff on again.’
      • ‘When he is in a darker mood Jacobs likes to riff on abstract themes.’
      • ‘Today he's riffing about the immorality of being a porn star.’
      • ‘The structure of the show, especially in the first act, has a lot in common with the play: various characters take turns riffing on a common theme.’
      • ‘David Gayton is still riffing on John's situation.’
      • ‘By the end of the day, a number of commentators had riffed on this phrase.’


1930s: perhaps an abbreviation of refrain.