Master 10 classic synth riffs in an instant

10 synth riffs
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

SYNTH WEEK 2024: The invention of the synthesizer turned out to be the gateway drug for countless new music makers. Bored by guitars and rock conventions, annoyed by the necessity to learn and play, and spooked by the cost and inflexibilty of bulky band kit, late '70s and early '80s music fans were delighted to find a whole new route to greatness.

The post-punk attitude of 'anyone can do this' and 'you don't need to play' clashed perfectly with the arrival of of affordable synths and drum machines. Thus the real, new, raw, street sound of the eighties turned out to be purely electronic.

It's therefore no surprise that many of the signature keyboard melodies from some of that decade's biggest global smashes, don't exactly require piano grade eight-skills to bash them out. In fact, the early '80s is a goldmine for wannabe players looking to impress… 

So we've picked out some classics below, with all you need to get you started.

Many of these hooks owe as much to the sound they were performed with as they do to the notes themselves, which is why we've approximated the sounds in each example for illustration.

However, we'll be focused on playing rather than programming here, so warm up your fingers and get ready to learn 10 classic synth riffs that are (whisper it) actually extremely simple to play…

1. Gary Numan - Cars

Spearheading the lead single from Gary’s 1979 Pleasure Principle album, the soaring synth hook from Cars makes full use of what has to be one of the most iconic synth sounds ever committed to vinyl, the Moog Polymoog 280A keyboard’s ‘Vox Humana’ preset.

Not only that, but this has to be one of the easiest riffs to play, being mostly made up of one long ‘A’ note sustained for four bars, followed by a simple descending line of notes that form a descending G major arpeggio - G, D, B and G.

We’ve used an edited version of Massive’s Init sound, with two LFOs independently modulating each oscilllator’s pulse width by different amounts to get that warbling effect, plus some added tape delay to smear out the notes. It’s the only way to live!

2. Lipps Inc - Funky Town

This disco classic tore up the dancefloor in 1980 with its warm, solid groove and infectious bleepy synth hook. It’s played in C Mixolydian, which just means that it uses all white notes except for a single Bb - the sequence is C-C-Bb-C-G-G-C-F-E-C.

The sound is pretty simple, achievable on any 3-oscillator monosynth - we’ve used Sylenth1 in this case. Simply set the first two oscillators to be sawtooth and sine waves respectively, then dial in a sawtooth wave for oscillator 3, but tune it up an octave and feature it prominently in the mix.

Dial in short attack and release times, add a splash of period plate reverb, keep the notes nice and clipped and you’re done. Just keep it moving and keep it grooving with some energy…

3. Van Halen - Jump

Probably the keyboard riff most despised by long-suffering music store staff (is this the keyboard equivalent of Stairway To Heaven?) at least our how-to might mean that they get to hear it played right at last…

Those bright, brassy Oberheim OB-Xa major chords, played in the key of C major, are unmistakable. We’ve used discoDSP’s free OB-Xd soft synth to approximate the sound here.

It probably comes as no surpise – being originated by a guitarist rather than a keyboard player – that this triad-based riff is super simple to pick out.

Points to watch are the short F major passing chord through to the lower part of the riff. and the fact that the last chord in the phrase is actually a Csus2 chord - C, D, G - rather than a G major. That's the only tricky bit.

Fourth time around, we break out into some root-position F major stabs high up the keyboard, because, well, you might as well…

4. Grace Jones - Slave to the Rhythm

Ladies and Gentlemen… these imposing, goosebump-inducing intro chords are actually polychords - two chords played at the same time to make one big one. Don't worry. Thanks to a careful choice of sounds these huge jazzy chords are way easier to play than you think.

We’ve used a preset from Arturia’s Synclavier V mixed with a chuffy voice sample from iZotope’s Iris to get the sound, but to make playing this easier, we’ve tuned the oscillators on each synth a fifth interval (7 semitones) apart, so that each note we play will generate a second note pitched a fifth higher up the keyboard.

(The original track used a preset called Fat Fifths – with one oscillator set a fifth interval higher than the other – to do exactly the same thing)

This allows you to replicate these six-note polychords using only three-note chords - a 1st inversion Db major (F, Ab, Db), 1st inversion Eb major (G, Bb, Eb), 1st inversion Eb minor (Gb, Bb, Eb) and an inverted Db5 chord (Ab, Db). 

Oh, and remember to never stop the action - keep it up!

5. Human League - Don’t You Want Me

‘Dow-dow-de-dow-dow… dow-dow-dow-dow’ went the Human League’s Roland Jupiter-4, and the world went crazy for this single from their third album, Dare.

This simple intro hook in the key of A minor sets up the F major verse section perfectly, and is dead easy to play, as the key of A minor doesn’t contain any sharps or flats.

We’ve used two layered instances of Sylenth1, set to play in different octaves to replicate the multi-tracked original part. The sound itself is a mixture of sawtooth waves, one of which is tuned in fifths, and a sub-oscillator to lend some extra oomph in the bass. The filter envelope is tuned to give it a snarly buzz, and the amplitude envelope has a longish release tailored to the gaps between the notes, which are A-A-E-G-A-A-E-G-C for the basic riff.

Don’t forget the all-important D-E-D-C-B-A twiddly bit at the end, or we will both be sorry…

6. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean

There are a couple of riffs we could have picked from this classic, including that famously hypnotic, repeated F#-C#-E-F#-E-C#-B-E bass line, but on this occasion we’ve gone for the simple three-chord hook that persists throughout.

Played using a soft, brassy synth sound with moderate attack and release, (we’ve used a combination of Arturia’s Mini V and JUP-8V for this one), the riff cycles around three chords, all played in the 1st inversion, meaning that the root note is at the top of the chord rather than at the bottom: F#m (A, C#, F#), G#m (B, D#, G#), and A (C#, E, A), before looping back to G#m again. 

Interestingly, the chords hit every time the bassline plays an F# root, effectively creating an F#m > BMaj6 > F#m7 > BMaj6 progression. But be careful what you do - don’t go around playing wrong F sharps.

7. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart

The main melodic hook is played by three elements in this iconic track. There’s a bass guitar played high on the neck, which Ian Curtis’ vocal joins for the chorus, but it’s the high, soaring string synth line mirroring the bass part that interests us here. We’ve approximated it with an instance of Arturia’s Solina V plugin.

The key is D major, but the melody starts on a high, sustained E note that creates a satisfying sense of tension. From there, the melody moves up and down the scale by adjacent notes, a technique known as stepwise motion, which takes in F#, G, F#, E and D.

In the second half, though, we get what’s known as leapwise motion, as the melody leaps from D down to B, from B back up to D and then down to end on A. This contrast between stepwise and leapwise motion helps to create a hook that lingers in the brain much longer than in the ear.

8. Faithless - Insomnia

The only contender on our list from the ‘90s, Insomnia’s distinctive, repeated plucked riff merits inclusion by having risen from the preset bank of the Roland JD-990 synth module to become one of the most memorable in dance music.

You can get close to it with any pizzicato or plucked synth sample loaded with gated reverb and a hint of eighth-note delay. Played across an eight-bar sequence in the key of B minor, the part is split into four two-bar sub-phrases made up of two-note chords. The upper note plays the main E-E-D-D-D-C#-C#-C#-D-D-C#-D melody - notably, in the second pair of the four sub-phrases, the first three D’s are replaced by F# notes. However, it’s the behaviour of the lower harmony note that’s crucial to getting the part right. It stays on B for most of the sequence, dropping to A in only two places - for the second half of the first subphrase and the middle section of the final subphrase.

For bonus points, offset the rhythm by hitting a low ‘B’ note on the sixteenth beat before the start of each subphrase - but don’t lose any sleep over it!

9. Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)

The famous sequenced main hook of this track is actually not that easy to tackle, as it’s made up of three different synth parts squished together, and would be almost impossible to play without at least one of them running on a sequencer! So, instead, we’ve gone for the solo string synth part that occurs in the middle of the song.

Legend has it this was played by Annie on an Oberheim synth, so we’ve replicated it on Datsounds’ OB-Xd plugin.

Played in the key of C minor, the initial flourish runs through the notes Bb, C, Eb, D, C and Bb before landing on a long C. It then drops down to a low Eb, followed by F, G, Eb and C. It continues by jumping up to G, Bb and C, then throws in an F# blue note followed by F and Eb before landing on one last long C. Once you’ve learned this, you can hold your head up! Moving on…

10. Prince - 1999

The secret to playing this riff (also approximated to good effect by Phil Collins in Sussudio) is the mighty seventh chord, a four-note wonder which can be played more easily by splitting it into a three-note chord in the right hand and a single note part for the left hand.

There are four chord combos in all. Chord one takes a standard, root-position Dm chord and turns it into a Dm7 by playing it over a C bass. Chord two shifts to a root-position Eb major triad in the right hand, played over a D in the left hand to make an EbMaj7. Chord three is a root position F major played over a D bass, effectively making another Dm7 chord. Lastly, chord four is an Eb major triad played over a C bass, making a Cm7. This sequence of four chords is played twice, but second time around it ends up on an extra F/C chord.

And there you have it - party over! Oops - out of time….

Dave Clews

Dave has been making music with computers since 1988 and his engineering, programming and keyboard-playing has featured on recordings by artists including George Michael, Kylie and Gary Barlow. A music technology writer since 2007, he’s Computer Music’s long-serving songwriting and music theory columnist, iCreate magazine’s resident Logic Pro expert and a regular contributor to MusicRadar and Attack Magazine. He also lectures on synthesis at Leeds Conservatoire of Music and is the author of Avid Pro Tools Basics.

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