10 Most Memorable Signature Keyboard Riffs of the ’80s


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Prior to the ’80s, the word “riff” was most often applied to the electric guitar and hard rock/heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, or AC/DC. However, the glorious ’80s brought keyboards into a more prominent position than they had probably ever held, as synthesizer parts frequently became dominant instrumental markers in our favorite ’80s tunes. Here’s a list — in no particular order — of the most recognizable and memorable keyboard riffs, all instant sonic announcements that allow the listener to make no mistake about what song is on its way.

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Love it or hate it, this song certainly never draws an indifferent response from the listener. And there’s no question the opening synthesizer riff stands proudly as the heart and soul of the tune, even after Joey Tempest makes his blustery vocal entrance. This Euro hair metal anthem has forged a pretty decent second life for itself as an occasional accompaniment to live sporting events, but it’s probably not remembered much for its impenetrably silly outer space lyrics or the requisite guitar solo.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Speaking of blustery, Steve Perry is at his bombastic best on this mid-tempo rocker. But if not for Jonathan Cain’s stirring synth centerpiece, this reliable Journey classic would struggle to escape the bounds of just ordinary. This keyboard riff is so hot, in fact, that in the song’s much-maligned music video Cain can apparently only play air keys for fear of burning his valuable digits. But in a musical sense, Cain’s mastery of his instrument here helps “break the chains that bind” even the most callous of souls.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

And we all thought Eddie Van Halen reserved his wizardry for the guitar – and probably also Valerie Bertinelli, of course, back in the day. Although the synth had been featured on some of the California arena rock stars’ previous albums, it was not until this monster hit surfaced that the instrument served as a primary Van Halen weapon. Oh, but the riff is nifty, able to evoke a lost era like nobody’s business. In fact, rumor has it that David Lee Roth tried his famous music-video leap only in a somewhat desperate effort to one-up Eddie’s synthesized musical offering.

Single Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This synth riff from Prince’s breakthrough album of the same name is so good that Phil Collins pretty much ripped it off for “Sussudio,” the rather abominable tune he took high on the charts a couple of years later. But Prince’s skill with the keyboard was just another element of his far-reaching repertoire, and he matches the soaring synth chords perfectly with the song’s carpe-diem-for-the-apocalypse lyrical theme. I don’t know why we didn’t hear this all the time in conjunction with Y2K. Remember that would-be phenomenon?

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Mercury

It could be excessive to say that New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi reached their peak with this song, but it is undeniably a rousingly strong moment from well before they were superstars. The song is a great match for frontman Jon’s strong vocals and the rhythmic attack of the central keyboard riff. Basically, “Runaway” is an underappreciated rock classic, and its effectiveness starts and ends with that keyboard riff. Incidentally, the memorable part just so happens to be played by E Street band member Roy Bittan, who seems to have a knack for the synth as well as the ivories.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

When keyboards are the subject, it’s important to give the piano its due, lest the flashy synthesizer take all the glory. And this signature power ballad is as good a place as any to focus on the ivories, as the opening to this one is particularly recognizable. Perhaps filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson should get some credit for this, as he put the song front and center in his brilliant 1997 classic Boogie Nights. But even on its own, it’s a perennial air piano favorite — forceful, haunting and beautiful.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of RCA

Staying with the piano for a moment longer, this politically charged tune and its artist, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, really brought the instrument from out of the shadows. It’s refreshing to see the piano run the show, as most often it’s used in popular music as merely backing support. And Hornsby brings innovation along with his solid pop music sense, laying down both a strong foundation for the song and some nice lead parts.

Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI

OK, enough of that purist stuff, let’s get back to the synthesizer, and this one’s a doozy. This song pulls out all the stops and sounds almost like the composer commandeered a keyboard on an aisle at the discount store and started pushing buttons to do as much damage as possible before a store employee put a stop to the madness. Even so, the opening riff is memorable and buoyed effectively by percussion sounds that don’t mess around trying to hide their computer-generated origin.

Compilation Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Perhaps it’s slightly blasphemous to include Billy Joel on this list for a song totally lacking in piano, but at least I’m not calling him the Synth Man. Anyway, this song is an underrated entry in the singer’s catalog, and it doesn’t work without the frenetic keyboard riff that punctuates it. Joel somehow refrains from overusing this nifty theme, scaling back the digital stuff for softer, calmer verses. It’s a good choice that brings out the power of the synth when Joel employs it.

Single Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

I have to admit the song’s sound was a bit out of character, and the whole dancing-with-Courteney-Cox thing in the music video was really cheesy, but I’m glad E Street Band member Bittan goes crazy with the synthesizer on this track. First of all, the song is but one of many gems on Bruce Springsteen’s top-notch Born in the U.S.A. But beyond that the keyboard riff is just pure genius, wringing all kinds of life out of the E Street rhythm section and helping this tune to become a special brand of pop/rock classic.

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