20 Songs With Amazing Synth Riffs (With Videos)
With the digital revolution in the ’80s, synths became integral parts of music. From rock to pop and disco tunes, many artists started using polyphonic and digital synthesizers in their songs, creating some of the most iconic synth riffs of all time, which had the power to awaken stadium crowds.
There were many iconic synthesizers that pioneered the revolution, like Roland TB-303, Moog Minimoog, and Yamaha DX7, among others. In the 70s, artists like Gary Numan and Kraftwerk opened the doors to a new wave in music with their heavy use of synths in their songs, which decided the course of music in the 80s.
In the end, most artists, from rock to pop, incorporated keyboards and synths in their songs. So, let’s remember some of the most influential and memorable synth riffs of all time.
- 1. The Final Countdown – Europe
- 2. Jump – Van Halen
- 3. Baba O’ Riley – The Who
- 4. Kids – MGMT
- 5. It’s A Sin – Pet Shop Boys
- 6. Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) – ABBA
- 7. Rockit – Herbie Hancock
- 8. Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
- 9. Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer
- 10. Tom Sawyer – Rush
- 11. Thriller – Michael Jackson
- 12. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
- 13. Light My Fire – The Doors
- 14. Lady Fantasy – Camel
- 15. Smile Like You Mean It – The Killers
- 16. Push It – Salt-N-Pepa
- 17. Blinding Lights – The Weeknd
- 18. Take On Me – AHA
- 19. Nightcall – Kavinsky
- 20. Sweet Dreams – Eurhythmics
1. The Final Countdown – Europe
The most recognizable and iconic synth riff in rock history is the heroic riff of “The Final Countdown” by the hard rock band Europe. From sports events to movies, the riff was used so many times that it became one of the main elements of pop culture.
The killer synth riff can be heard in the intro and many other times in the song as the main riff of the tune. It is played with a Roland JX-8P and has an amazing vintage tone. The riff drives the song forward. Interestingly, the riff was composed by the lead singer Joey Tempest, the lead singer, instead of Mic Michaeli, who often plays the keyboard parts.
2. Jump – Van Halen
Altough the use of synths in hard rock music was always a discussion topic, there were some iconic synth riffs in the genre, like the one in Van Halen’s legendary song “Jump.” The song is based on a catchy synth line with a major chord progression, which became one of the most played riffs ever.
The song opens with this killer riff, played by an Oberheim OB-Xa. The riff is definitely the hook of the song, as it sounds great, simple, and catchy. The repeated major chord progression over the fat-sounding synth bass note creates the killer synth riff, which is accompanied by punctuated drum kicks and David Lee Roth’s iconic scream.
3. Baba O’ Riley – The Who
The Who’s the unique song “Baba O’ Riley” is another amazing song with an iconic synth riff. The unique riff has layered synth work created by Pete Townsend, which became one of the first examples of the use of synths in rock music.
The 1971 song’s killer riff has a particular tone created by the marimba repeat setting on the Lowrey synth. So Townsend could have the arpeggiated, complex repeating pattern of the iconic synth line. Four double-notes played on an organ, which sounds like a synth, with a robotic-like sound before giving way to a more rock ‘n’ roll style tone, makes this riff and intro one of the best ever.
4. Kids – MGMT
“Kids” by the American indie rock band MGMT became a huge hit with its fantastic synth melodies that hooked the audience from the first moment. The iconic riff has the simplest approach that creates the hook of the synth-pop-meets-psychedelia beat.
The synth has a great tone like a fairground organ, and the melody in A major scale is a total feel-good banger. Accompanied by powerful drums, the riff became one of the greatest lines ever, making the song one of the greatest hits of the decade.
5. It’s A Sin – Pet Shop Boys
As one of the most iconic synth bands, Pet Shop Boys has many well-written synth riffs, and “It’s A Sin” is probably the most famous of them all. The tone, like a pipe organ in the intro, and the iconic riff later with drum work were the foundations of this iconic synth-pop anthem.
The riff in C minor sounds quite serious and gothic with a powerful tone. The brilliant synth work, along with great effects, drives the song forward. It is one of the songs that signaled the course of music for the next decades with its heavy synth work and electronic approach.
6. Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) – ABBA
Another iconic synth riff of the 80’s disco pop fury is “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” by the Swedish supergroup ABBA. Played with an ARP Odyssey synthesizer, the iconic riff has been sampled many times, thanks to its iconic hook ascending up and down at breakneck speeds.
Combined with an infectious drumbeat, driving rhythm guitars, and a funky bass riff, the melody becomes so danceable that it sparked the disco era further. The riff became one of the most sampled lines of all time and is even present in Madonna’s huge hit “Hung Up” in 2005.
7. Rockit – Herbie Hancock
With unique sounds and the scratching technique, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” is one of the most particular synth riffs in music history. Accompanied by aggressive drums, the influential riff and the song created huge waves in discos and charts around the world.
The iconic riff is a combination of sampling and live percussion, synthesized electronic music, and some hip-hop influences, which created a totally new sound for the era. The riff sounds pretty chaotic and harmonic at the same time, which makes it perfect for dance floors.
8. Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode’s worldwide hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” features one of the catchiest synth riffs of the era. The riff is built with synthesized instruments over a drum machine beat and is a true symbol and example of the synth-pop genre of the 80s.
The beauty of simplicity and catchiness can be clearly heard in the riff. The song is created entirely with electronic sounds except for vocals, and the main role was played by Roland Jupiter-4.
9. Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer
The famous Beverly Hills Cop theme song, “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer, is remembered by one of the most legendary synth riffs of history. The 1984 instrumental tune features four synthesizers and a drum machine. The riff has been sampled later by many DJs due to its rapid uplifting melody.
The main riff is played with a Roland Jupiter-8, the best analog synth of the time, and the synth tone is pretty beefy thanks to the fat-sounding analog oscillators and circuitry of the instrument.
10. Tom Sawyer – Rush
The Canadian progressive rock giant Rush is another band that used the help of synths in his songs, like the great riff starting at minute 1.35 in “Tom Sawyer.” The repetitive arpeggiated riff accompanied by aggressive guitars and a groovy drum pattern sounds unique and impressive.
The song also has the iconic “growl” sound in the intro and in the background of the synth riff, which is again produced by the Oberheim OB-X synthesizer. The synth parts are the key parts of the song, making it unique and unprecedented.
11. Thriller – Michael Jackson
The funky and syncopated synth riff in the iconic song “Thriller” by the king of pop Michael Jackson is another amazing synth riff that has to be mentioned. The intro riff has the iconic funky bass sound, unprecedented for the era, played by an ARP 2600.
The synth riff melody matches the bass perfectly, creating one of the most iconic synth intros. The 1982 tune’s synth riff is pretty catchy with an aggressive bite and simple note sequence, creating a very danceable main riff.
12. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
The post-punk tune of the rock band Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” starts with the famous melody played both with bass and synthesizers. The synth sounds create a raw and driving feel with the ascending and descending notes.
While the synth melody creates an uplifting and hopeful melody, the vocals create a melancholy feel, which builds a unique contrast in the song. The main riff is always played with the synth and bass guitar in different pitches and with small rhythmic differences, which also creates a beautiful harmony.
13. Light My Fire – The Doors
Ray Manzarek of The Doors is one of the most talented songwriters and keyboardists, without a doubt. His way of creating psychedelic yet melodic catchy synth riffs is highly admirable, and his main riff in “Light My Fire” is the perfect example. The crazy cool synth lead makes the song legendary.
The riff was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Two and Three Part Inventions” and is truly the masterpiece of Ray Manzarek. The organ sound, with a fast tempo and quickly played rhythmic notes, is one of the most recognizable synth riffs ever, which you can hear in many movies and series.
14. Lady Fantasy – Camel
The progressive rock master Camel is one of the bands that use synths to create highly experimental and unique music. Their biggest hit, “Lady Fantasy,” opens with a dark-sounding yet beautiful synth riff accompanied by overdriven guitars playing the chords and a crazy drum solo.
The riff is highly repetitive and sounds like an alarm creating a disturbing partition that is driven forward by guitars and the drum groove. The synth plays a great role in the song, also later adding different layers to the song with various great-sounding riffs throughout the song.
15. Smile Like You Mean It – The Killers
When talking about synths, one of the first bands to come to mind is The Killers. The track “Smile Like You Mean It” features amazingly nostalgic-sounding beautiful synth licks played with a Micro Korg. The specific riff in the intro is dark, catchy, and very simple, creating a highly emotional atmosphere.
The riff is built with a synth-heavy pad and chiming guitar chords. The synth beautifully rises to play the melody in the opening before the drum groove joins after. The result is a great pop song with a touching synth riff.
16. Push It – Salt-N-Pepa
The rap duo, Salt-N-Pepa’s international hit “Push It” is built on an amazing synth riff. The riff is highly groovy with bass sounds, making the audience dance with pop vocals and an upbeat drum beat.
This particular synth riff is a perfect example of the 80’s disco synth sounds. After the bass intro riff, the main riff comes in with a very hooky melody and a vintage sound. The riff is repeated throughout the song as the anchor of the great tune.
17. Blinding Lights – The Weeknd
The mega-hit of the Canadian singer The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights,” is a wonderful 80’s inspired pop anthem full of great synth sounds. The main riff is an amazing melodic hook, and the vocals replicate the main melody in the chorus, while the beats are also a big part of the vibe.
The Blinding Lights synth riff is a great 80’s throwback with its vintage tone, catchy melody, and a classic kick and snare drum beat groove accompany. The fuzzy synth line and the great melody take the audience on a journey to the 1980s synth-pop and new wave music.
18. Take On Me – AHA
One of the most fantastic synth riffs of the 80S is the main riff of “Take On Me” by AHA. The dancy riff is highly famous and unique with its staccato-driven lick and high tempo. The incredible tone of Roland Juno 60 also plays a big role in the success of the riff and the song.
The synth riff of “Take On Me” is one of the most memorable synth lines of popular music. The riff is created with a catchy melody and many layers, along with a simple drum beat and synthesized bass line.
19. Nightcall – Kavinsky
The amazing-sounding electronic hit “Nightcall” by Kavinsky is another beautiful tune with a memorable synth riff driving the sound. The riff sounds very cool with a slow pace, which mixes the 80’s sounds with modern touches brilliantly.
The riff arpeggiates four chords with some unique sounds accompanying the vintage synth lead sound. The riff repeats itself almost throughout the song, besides the chorus, where the pattern continues but with different chords. With a slow beat and unique sounds, it is one of the best synth riffs of the 2010s.
20. Sweet Dreams – Eurhythmics
Finishing with one of the most instantly recognizable synth riffs, “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics is a great synth line with a strident electro beat and pulsing analog melody. The distinctive synth riff features hard-panned dual riffs from one simple riff, creating a unique sound.
The “Sweet Dreams” synth line is one of the most sampled and covered riffs of all time, as artists like Marilyn Manson and Swing had their versions of the riff and the song. The iconic riff with a vintage and dark sound with a simple drum beat, along with a catchy melody, became a staple in the 80’s synth wave.
So, here are the best synth riffs of all time with a diverse range of sounds and styles, from the funky tones of the 70s and dark sounds of the ’80s to more modern times with unique voicings. As always, this is not a definitive list but a collection of some of the greatest riffs and timeless classics that played big roles in music history.