10 Stupidly Easy-To-Play Classic Synth Riffs
the synthesizer is a relative newcomer to pop music history. It may have gotten its start in the early 1970s, but it really took off during the post-punk electropop of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the new wave explosion.
Bands embraced synthesizers for their modern sound and ability to produce catchy, characterful hooks, so if you’re looking for classic synth riffs to learn how to play, this period is a gold mine.
As musicians like Gary Numan, the Human League and the Eurythmics quickly learned, simplicity is usually the key to a brilliant hook, and the best thing for today’s keyboard players is that many of these riffs now iconic are also quite simple to play.
There are literally hundreds of famous synth riffs we could have included here; the riffs featured in this list have been chosen for their ease of reproduction, so playing them should provide maximum enjoyment regardless of your level of keyboard ability.
Many of these hooks owe as much to the sound they were played with as to the notes themselves, so we’ve approximated the sounds in each example for illustrative purposes.
However, our focus here will be on playing rather than programming, so warm up your fingers and get ready to learn 10 classic synth riffs that are actually extremely easy to play.
1. Gary Numan – Cars
Spearheading the lead single from Gary’s 1979 album Pleasure Principle, Cars’ soaring synth hook makes full use of what has to be one of the most iconic synth sounds ever dedicated to vinyl, the ” Vox Humana” of the Moog Polymoog 280A keyboard.
Not only that, but it has to be one of the easiest riffs to play, being mostly one long “A” note sustained for four bars, followed by a simple descending line of notes that form a descending arpeggio in G major – G, D, B and G.
We used an edited version of Massive’s Init sound, with two LFOs independently modulating the pulse width of each oscillator by different amounts to achieve that chirping effect, as well as an additional band delay to spread out the notes. It’s the only way to live!
2. Lipps Inc – Awesome Town
This disco classic tore up the dance floor in 1980 with its warm, rock solid groove and infectious synth hook. It is played in Mixolydian C, which simply means it uses all the white notes except for a single Bb – the sequence is CC-Bb-CGGCFEC.
The sound is quite simple, achievable on any mono 3 oscillator synth – we used Sylenth1 in this case. Just set the first two oscillators to be sawtooth and sine respectively, then dial in a sawtooth wave for oscillator 3, but tune it up an octave and highlight it in the mix .
Dial in short attack and release times, add a touch of vintage plate reverb, keep the notes nice and cut and you’re done. Keep it moving and keep it grooving with some energy…
3. Van Halen – Jump
Probably the most despised keyboard riff by long-suffering music store staff, at least its presence on this list might mean they can hear it playing from time to time…
These bright, brassy Oberheim OB-Xa major chords, played in the key of C major, are unmistakable. We used discoDSP’s free OB-Xd software synthesizer to get closer to the sound here.
Things to watch out for are the short F major chord that runs in the lower part of the riff and the fact that the last chord of the phrase is actually a Csus2 chord – C, D, G – rather than a G major.
The fourth time, we get into some F major hits in root position at the top of the keyboard, because, well, you might as well…
4. Grace Jones – Rhythm Slave
Ladies and gentlemen…those towering, spooky intro chords are actually polychords – two chords played at the same time to become one.
We used a preset from Arturia’s Synclavier V mixed with a raspy vocal sample from iZotope’s Iris to get the sound, but for ease of playing we tuned each synth’s oscillators to a fifth interval (7 half -tones), so that each note we play will generate a second note tuned a fifth higher on the keyboard.
This gives you the ability to reproduce 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 never to stop the action – keep it up!
5. Human League – You Don’t Want Me
“Dow-dow-de-dow-dow…dow-dow-dow-dow” was 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 very easy to play, as the key of A minor contains no sharps or flats.
We used two stacked instances of Sylenth1, configured to play in different octaves to reproduce the original multitrack part. The sound itself is a mix of sawtooth waves, one of which is tuned in fifths, and a sub-oscillator to give the bass a bit more punch. The filter envelope is tuned to give it a shrill buzz, and the amplitude envelope has a fairly long release suitable for the gaps between notes, which are AAEGAAEGC for the basic riff.
Don’t forget the essential DEDCBA at the end, or we’ll both regret it…
6. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
There are a few riffs we could have chosen from this classic, including that famous hypnotically repeated F#-C#-EF#-EC#-BE bassline, but this time we went with the simple three-hook. chords that persists throughout.
Played with a sweet, brassy synth sound with moderate attack and release (we used a combination of Arturia’s Mini V and JUP-8V for this one), the riff revolves around three chords, all played in the 1st inversion, which means 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 strike whenever the bass line plays an F# root, creating an F#m > BMaj6 > F#m7 > BMaj6 progression. But watch what you’re doing – don’t walk around playing bad 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 bass guitar played high on the fretboard, which Ian Curtis’ voice joins for the chorus, but it’s the high, soaring string synth line mirroring the bass part that interests us here. We approached it with an instance of Arturia’s Solina V plugin.
The key is D major, but the melody begins on a high, sustained E note that creates a feeling of satisfying tension. From there, the melody moves up and down the scale by adjacent notes, a technique known as stepping movement, which takes in F#, G, F#, E, and D.
In the second half, however, we get what is known as the jump movement, as the melody jumps from D to B, from B to D, then down to end on A. This contrast between the movements stepping and jumping helps create a hook that lingers in the brain much longer than it does in the ear.
8. Unfaithful – Insomnia
The only contender on our ’90s list, Insomnia’s distinctive, repeated pinched riff deserves inclusion having risen from the Roland JD-990 synthesizer module’s bank of presets to become one of the most memorable of the dance music.
You can approach it with any pizzicato or plucked synth sample loaded with gated reverb and a hint of eighth note delay. Played over an eight-bar sequence in the key of B minor, the part is divided into four two-bar subphrases composed of two-note chords. The top note plays the main melody EEDDDC#-C#-C#-DDC#-D – notably, in the second pair of the four subphrases, the first three Ds are replaced by F# notes. However, it is the behavior of the lower harmony note that is crucial to getting the right part. It remains on B for most of the sequence, falling on 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 sleep over it!
9. Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (are made of this)
This track’s infamous sequenced lead hook is actually not that easy to tackle, as it’s made up of three different synth parts mashed together, and would be nearly impossible to play without at least one of them. run on a sequencer! So instead, we went with the solo string synth part that happens in the middle of the song.
Legend has it that it was played by Annie on an Oberheim synth, so we reproduced 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 descends to a low Eb, followed by F, G, Eb and C. It continues jumping to G, Bb and C, then throws a blue F# note followed by F and Eb before landing on a final long C. Once you learn this, you can keep the head held high ! Let’s move on…
10. Prince – 1999
The secret to playing this riff (also successfully approached by Phil Collins in Sussudio) is the powerful seventh chord, a four-note wonder that 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 Dm chord in root position and turns it into Dm7 by playing it over a C bass. Chord two passes to an E-flat major triad in root position in the right hand, played over a D in the hand left to do an EbMaj7. Chord three is an F major root position played over a D bass, creating another Dm7 chord. Finally, chord four is an E flat major triad played on a C bass, making a Cm7. This four-chord sequence is played twice, but the second time it ends on an extra F/C chord.
And that’s it, the party is over! Oops – out of time….