pete thomas

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Rock'n Roll Saxophone


By Pete Thomas

 Part Two - The Rules of Riffing

Before getting onto the main topic of riffing, I'm going to define two different types of 12-bar blues chord progression. There are more, but these are two that are common in rock & roll. These are the 5/4 and the 2/5. This refers to the chord changes at bars 9 and 10.

The 5/4 12 bar progression

The 5/4 is generally derived from simpler Chicago and urban blues forms that evolved from country blues, and in the key of C the chords are C C C C7 F7 F7 C C G7 F7 C C. (Sometimes this is even simpler and stays on G7 in the final G7 F7 C C instead of going down to the F7)

The 2/5 12 bar progression

This is derived from boogie woogie and jazz swing of the 30s. A typical sequence would be C F7 C C7 F7 F7 C C Dm7 G7 C

There are two types of riff I'm going to talk about, and I shall call these the vertical riff and the horizontal riff.

The vertical riff

I call this the vertical riff because it closely follow the notes of each chord in an upwards or downwards direction. The riff also follows the roots of the chord, i.e. you transpose the entire riff to suit the chord. Little Richard’s Lucille soundclip is an example of this:

This is made up of the root, 3rd, 5th and (flattened) 7th of the chord, along with the 6th as a passing note between the 7th and 5th.

It’s very common to use a vertical riff in a rhumba style:

Here’s a rule that I tend to stick to: “Only use vertical riffs on a 5/4 progression.”

I’m sure it can be broken quite usefully, but the main reason I stick to it is that if a minor chord just happens to come along (as has the habit of doing in a 2/5 progression), this type of riff just doesn’t seem to work so well, especially if it has the 6th in it as with the example above. These kinds of riffs usually work best played in unison or octaves.

The Horizontal Riff

This is often made up of a single note, but can also be quite complex. It can be played in unison but also works very well in 3- or 4-part harmony. Unlike the vertical riff, this sort is not usually transposed along with the chord roots, but individual notes are adapted to fit the chord changes when necessary, as in this example:

A very obvious (and typical) change is the major 3rd (E) which changes to Eb on the F7 chord. Of course as a “blue” note, very often the actual pitch may be ambiguous and could be half way between E and Eb, possibly with a bend, so in the real world of actual playing things aren’t always as clear cut, especially when you try to apply music “theory” to a style of music like rock and roll that evolved without notation.

When Not To Riff

Riffs are such a solid part of rock & roll, it’s easy to think that you should riff constantly. There are no rules here as far as I know beyond your own taste. There are interesting aspects to listen out for when the different instruments are playing different riffs that work together, e.g. the way the saxophone and guitar riffs “interlock” on Little Richard’s Rip It Up.

Very often a saxophone riff alternates with a vocal line, e.g. Bill Haley’s or Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle and Roll. This makes sense as it could otherwise get in the way, however it can also work to riff all the way through (Little Richard’s Lucille) [from the album, “Here’s Little Richard”, Specialty label]. This works best when recording or on a big stage so that the riff behind the vocal can be brought down, either by the player using dynamics, or with a mixer.

prev Part One: Rules of the Road

next Part Three: The Rules of Blues Scales

Pete Thomas is a leading UK music producer, saxophone recording musician and composer of film & television music. His comprehensive website provides many online saxophone lessons and jazz theory tutorials, with links at the top of each page to audio clips, videos, biography, tutorials and resources for any musician, saxophone player or producer of modern music. His latest, multi-format, CD is "Mr. Lucky".

Pete is an active member of the Sax of the Web Forum.
Created: December 1, 2006.
© 2006, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors