Vocal runs are popular in contemporary music but have been around since the inception of gospel and jazz traditions. Many of the biggest names in pop, rock and R&B are expert in these skills and use them to make songs their own. It’s a surefire way to create a totally unique interpretation, even if it’s been sung many times before.
This is often known as artistic licence or creative liberty – where you add in fresh elements to turn out something brand new that deviates from the norm. Watch this video to see how easy – or difficult – these Tik Tokers found riffs and runs!
What are vocal runs and riffs?
Vocal runs are fast melodic sequences ‘running’ up or down a scale. A riff is similar but lasts on average between two and four notes. They are musical enhancements used to add emotion and intensity, rather than purely showcase the voice (if used for the latter, the performance will feel quite empty and shallow).
The ability to sing up and down a scale, around the topline and over the melody, can have spine-tingling results. But how can you achieve these and what do you have to do to prep the voice?
What is the easiest way to do riffs and runs?
Some singers will sing runs and riffs instinctively, particularly if they’ve been exposed to them since childhood. If that’s not you and it doesn’t happen automatically, the easiest way to achieve them is to follow our simple steps to success.
#1 Learn the melody first
You have to know the rules to break them. So make sure you’re note-perfect throughout an entire song before messing about with it. This is important, as when trying runs for the first time, there is a risk of going off the pitch or clashing with the topline. Along with this, you should get to know the tempo and rhythm at al sections of the song.
We recommend you practice with a metronome at this stage. This will be key in slotting in your flourish, so it fits in a way that is sonically cohesive. If you have a very strong innate musicality this will stand you in good stead. But if not, it’s vital you have the basics down before moving onto advanced effects.
Riffs and runs vocal training
So now you know your song inside out, what’s next?
#2 Become vocally agile
If you read our articles regularly, you’ll already know how important the foundations are. To develop any new technique, you’ll need to have worked on correct breathing as well as always warming-up and warming-down. Vocal runs require control and – usually – a good range. While it’s possible to produce them with a limited register, the more access you have, particularly to your upper range, the more room you’ll have to play around. You should also be used to sliding your voice up and down. So in practical terms, this means lots of scales, sirens and breathing exercises.
Riffs and runs exercises
You’ll need more than your basic exercises to get to grips with riffs and runs. Here are your next steps.
#3 Speed up your scales
Now it’s time to try those scales again, but much faster. You should build up speed gradually rather than suddenly to keep the clarity. As you get faster, the notes ‘run’ together as one. This is the start of your vocal runs. Try gradually slowing down too. You’re aiming to speed up and slow down at will. This adds to your vocal toolbelt in terms of what’s within your control and what you can do.
#4 Use Ng
It’s important to keep your vocals safe while you experiment. You can do this by practising your runs on an Ng sound. This forces your tongue up to your soft palate and protects the throat and vocal cords in the process. You don’t want to perform like this, but it’s a good technique to employ while you’re picking it up.
Vocal riffs and runs exercises: download and tutorials
This guide outlines simple steps. But if you struggle to pick up musical techniques by yourself, it can help to download vocal riffs and runs exercise programme. Or you can use a video tutorial like this one from Tyshan Knight to help you. These provide a more in-depth guide perfect for those who have less singing experience.
There are two routes to a run.
- You sing a run already created by another singer. This is just a case of listening and copying the movement of the notes and is a good way for newbies to get the hang of it. Try their runs very slowly, then use a metronome to gradually move up in speed.
- Craft your own. This may be off the cuff if you’re very experienced (more on the risks associated with that shortly). Or pre-prepared and possibly even written down, so you know exactly what notes you plan to hit and where you’re going with them. This is a useful way to approach it as an intermediate singer.
Crafting vocal runs
Your vocal runs must be crafted. If you go too far with them, you can end up oversinging (using runs, riffs, whoops and vibrato to excess). If you plan on making your own, bear this in mind, especially if going for an off the cuff approach.
#5 Understand pitching
You will have already got to grips with the pitch of the song you’re singing. This will be your starting block for pitching your riffs and runs. If you plan on coming up with your own runs, it will help to be able to play your notes on a piano when experimenting. Here’s a guide for how to do this.
The best vocal runs
#6 Rehearse them to sound improvised
While many runs may sound improvised – and there is a place for that in live performance – it’s better to have rehearsed them thoroughly beforehand. You could even write down the notes once you’ve established them through some experimentation. Once you have an abundance of on-stage experience and have nailed this technique, then and only then, can you risk a little improv. So the trick is, to make them sound like they’re off the cuff, when in fact you know exactly what’s coming and what you plan to do (and so do your backing band/singers).
#7 Listen to other singers
Often the best way to pick something up is to see it in action and to some degree, copy. The caveat is, you must only imitate those who are very good at what they do! With that in mind, we’ve compiled some videos of great songs and singers featuring impressive vocal runs.
Songs with vocal runs
You might be curious to see and hear some of the best vocal runs out there. And this forms one of your steps to success. There are so many great singers from which to take your cues. Here are just a few and some great songs you might like to try out with some vocal runs of your own.
Feeling Good by Nina Simone
Let’s begin with a classic. Many female singers have taken inspiration from the likes of jazz heroines like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. They’re also handy case studies for those with lower voices, proving that you don’t need to have a whistle register to be able to pull off amazing runs.
Dangerous Woman by Ariane Grande
This is a great one to watch because it’s totally stripped back, leaving nothing but Ariane’s incredible vocals laid bare. The a cappella version of Dangerous Woman really enables you to hear the mechanics of those runs and how perfectly on the note and in time Ariane is at all times.
All of Me by John Legend
As John accompanies himself, he has room for a whole lot of licence when playing live. Some of his riffs are almost imperceptible as his style is so smooth and fluid. If you play an instrument this will be a great help in allowing yourself plenty of room to manoeuvre. If you’re using a backing track or performing with other musicians, just be sure to stick within the tempo of the song and you’ll be fine.
R&B vocal runs
More emphasis is placed on the vocals than the lyrics in this genre. So it’s a great area of study for the singer wanting to understand runs and riffs.
7 Days by Craig David
Not all vocal runs have to be big and dramatic. This enduring hit from Craig David demonstrates a gentler approach to the technique, that’s hugely effective in a very different way.
Fallin’ by Alicia Keys
It can be useful to watch live performances, such as this one by Alicia Keys at the Apple Music Festival, especially if you plan to vamp your runs. There’s a huge amount of vocal dynamics going on in this piece, as she goes from loud to soft and back again, as well as adjusting the tempo.
Georgia On My Mind by Usher
This may not be how you’re used to seeing and hearing R&B singer Usher, but this cover of the Ray Charles hit is a great showcase for his beautiful runs and riffs. Hopefully, you’re now inspired to get started experimenting with some vocal runs of your own. Not only do they create a great ornamental effect in your sets, practising them helps increase your vocal flexibility. If you’ve ever felt intimidated at the prospect in the past or are unsure where to start with riffs and runs, follow these 7 steps and you’ll be crooning like Mariah Carey in no time