So you want to learn how to sing riffs and runs. Maybe your favorite singer is Beyonce, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, or someone else, and you want to sound just like them, so you spend many hours learning how to sing the way they sing. However, it’s not their ability to sing a lot of notes in a short space that has won them fans all over the world. That’s why I want to talk about the five crucial skills you should be learning to improve your voice and become truly great.

What makes a singer great?

There’s one concept that you have to understand when it comes to singing or music in general; the ‘greatness’ of a singer or song is an opinion. What sounds good to some people can sound terrible to others. It all depends on your perspective. Pick any genre of music in the world and you’ll find that there is no uniform opinion on the quality. 

The same thing goes for singers who sing lots of riffs and runs. Many people think that the ability to riff makes you a great singer, while others think that singers who riff are annoying and that all those notes get in the way of the song. As a singer who can riff pretty well, I tend to fall into the second category, but there are reasons for that.

One of the reasons is culture. I grew up listening to R&B, Soul, and Jazz. As you know, R&B & Soul has its roots in Jazz and Gospel, and in those two styles of music, the ability to sing riffs and runs is a vital part of the music.

In jazz, knowing how to riff is important because sometimes the voice is used to replace solo instruments like trumpets, saxophones, and guitars, a skill known as „scatting“. In Gospel music, the ability to sing riffs and runs has deep cultural roots; personally, I don’t know a Gospel singer who can’t riff! Riffing as a form of musical expression can be traced back to these styles of music.

You see the same thing in many different musical styles, be it in Western classical music, where it’s called „melismatic singing“, to the many different singing styles that come from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. That’s partly where the problem lies. Over the years, this form of musical expression has become the only way that many young singers feel that they can express themselves, which is of course not true at all.

It’s not just about the notes

Being a singer means that you are, among other things, a storyteller. When learning about how to communicate, there’s an old saying: „Don’t use 10 words when six will do,“ meaning keep it short and to the point. This philosophy could also apply to singing. Sometimes, singing a bunch of notes in a limited space can take away from the ability to communicate the emotion of a song, not enhance it. There are other, in my opinion far more important things a singer should be concentrating on in order to be able to tell the story, so here’s my shortlist of things you should be focussing on when you sing.

Find your sound

You need to figure out how to tell the story of the song you sing or the words you speak in your voice. Copying the style of another singer is cool as a starting point, but you should always focus on being you. I modeled my singing style after a lot of my favorite singers until I eventually found a way to do it my way. Standing out is what will make people take notice of your vocal skills, so be authentic. The most successful singers are the ones who have their own sound.

Concentrate on your dynamics

Vocal dynamics is the combination of the notes you sing, the loudness at which you sing those notes, and the sound of your voice when singing them. I talked about vocal dynamics in a previous article about having a „3D voice“. It’s important to understand that a dynamic voice is constantly changing. Don’t just focus on belting, singing softly, or hitting those high or low notes. A dynamic voice does all of that.

Be honest with yourself

It’s very important to understand that liking a song is one thing; being able to sing that song is another. It’s always good to challenge yourself, but be careful not to confuse what you like to listen to with what you can sing. I’m not saying that you can’t sing your favorite songs when you practice. However, it’s very important that you learn to keep it real, especially if you want to have a career as a singer or trying for a singing competition.

I work with a lot of singers who come to me with songs that don’t fit their voices. Sing only those songs where you can comfortably hit the notes, and make sure that you literally understand what the song is about before you try to sing it. That will go a long way towards helping you become a better storyteller with your voice.

Quality is more important than quantity

To understand what I mean here, let’s use Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga as examples. If you look at the music they’ve become successful with, it doesn’t have a lot of riffing, runs, or other kinds of vocal gymnastics. Both have totally different vocal styles, but have one thing in common; the sound of their voices is what makes them unique, not the number of notes they can sing in a few seconds. The fact is that lots of people have amazing riff abilities, but the most successful singers out there are the ones who can move people while singing a few notes, not a lot of them

Don’t use 10 notes when 5 will do

Again, knowing how to riff is a valuable skill when it comes to singing. I riff quite a lot when I’m on stage. However, as with many things in life, too much of something can be potentially bad. It’s knowing when to riff that makes a singer more compelling. My advice is to concentrate on establishing your melody and vocal sound first, and if necessary, throw a run or two in there to enhance what you’ve already done so that the audience will be surprised by your skills. Never make riffs and runs the main focus of your singing.

So, how do you sing riffs and runs?!?

Now I know what you’re probably thinking: you’re probably waiting for me to give you some tips on how to learn how to riff. Now, as much as I’d love to do that, the point of this article was not to teach you how to riff but to think about why you should or shouldn’t sing riffs and runs and when you should sing them.

In the interest of keeping it real: Although I’m actually really good at singing riffs and runs, there are lots of tutorial videos online on the subject of riffing by singers and coaches who are a lot better than I am, with my personal favorite YouTube series being the older but still relevant „Breaking Down The Riffs“ series by Natalie Weiss.

So there you have it, my advice on singing runs and riffs. I hope it gave you a little bit to think about when deciding on taking the time to learn this valuable vocal skill. 

I’m all about helping people like you get stronger, healthier voices and bodies, so if you’re looking for a program that incorporates all of the vocal and fitness tips that I talk about here, please check out my VOXXBODY® workout. See you again soon!