Vocal Riffs, Runs and Embellishments
By Jeannie Deva
Extensive vocal riffing became ubiquitous with the popularization of contemporary R&B, but has been a vocal expression of Jazz and Gospel singers for a very long time. Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Yolanda Adams, James Ingram, Justin Timberlake and Luther Vandross are just a few of the outstanding singers who use vocal embellishment.
Even if you might think some of it is overdone, there is no denying their melodic creativity and dazzling performance. But vocal embellishments or improvisations have been in vogue - though usually much simpler - for a long time in a variety of different musical styles. Artists such as Bonnie Raitt (Album: Give it Up or Let it Go), Howlin' Wolf, Eta James, Aretha Franklin (check out her Gospel double album with the Cleveland Tabernacle Choir), 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. And, depending on the era and style or Rock, wails and screams are used for emotional emphasis as a form of vocal "embellishment" between words or at the end of a phrase.
What's a Riff?
Vocal riffs, runs and embellishments are melodic notes added by the singer to enhance the expression and emotional intensity of the song. 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 (no strain or muscle tension), regardless of tempo. 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.
To learn a riff, run or embellishment:
Get it Here
Several years ago I created a unique vocal workout CD entitled Riffs, Runs and Embellishments. Until now it was only available as part of The Contemporary Vocalist Volume Two. For the first time, it is available as a single CD Download right on this site! This is an exciting tool for achieving outstanding vocal skill while having a lot of fun.
The musical accompaniment is a band playing grooves in the various styles of the riff exercises. The groove loops so that you practice the embellishment four times in each key before it modulates (moves to the next key). Each exercise is a thorough work out moving up and down your range.
Riffs, Runs and Embellishments covers several musical styles and the skills you develop can be applied to many more genres. Some of the riffs use words while some use just sounds that are appropriate for that particular musical style. The CD Download comes complete with instructions.
You can listen to an audio sample of a Jazz/Blues Embellishment and a Funk Riff.