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The 12 most iconic piano/keyboard riffs ever

Keyboard riffs don’t always develop the same legendary status that iconic guitar riffs do, but we keyboardists have our moments. I’ve been thinking about the most iconic keyboard riffs of all time, particularly those that shape many musicians’ early working lives.

In this article, I’m discussing iconic keyboard riffs that are not only famous but also represent milestone moments for many keyboardists.

About me

I’ve been a musician for over 20 years, and I’ve spent all of those years (minus my early student months) working as a pianist in one way or another.

James Nugent, author and contributor at Higher Hz

In my early days, I might have been listening to Thelonious Monk, but I was performing the kind of songs that are on the list below.

As an aspiring professional keyboardist, it’s a right of passage to carry heavy equipment up several flights of stairs to perform popular music for people who will never remember you, and I did it many times.

Furthermore, despite complaining at the time (probably), I wouldn’t change it for the world.

How I chose

To qualify as an iconic keyboard riff, it must be instantly recognizable; that’s the defining characteristic that provides some objectivity. But a list like this one will always be subjective because as soon as we go from iconic to the most iconic, it’s all about personal preference.

To make things easier, rather than trying to find a way to remove some of the subjective nature of this task, I decided to embrace it.

So, all the keyboard riffs I chose are famous, but they also have personal significance for me as a keyboardist, and I listed them in order of which I played first. Don’t worry; it’s not just an exercise in self-indulgence. I think these riffs are significant to most keyboard players at one time or another.

playing piano riff

I’ve played every riff on this list at some point in my career, and most of them many times. Like most keyboard players, my early session work revolved around events like weddings and birthday parties, and these songs are the soundtrack to my earliest stage years.

Not every riff is a technical masterpiece, not by any stretch of the imagination, but they are incredible in their own way, and I’ve even thrown in a few guilty pleasures.

Lastly, I use the term riff somewhat loosely; my list includes hooks, repeated riffs, and intros.

Apologies for the many awesome riffs I omitted, but feel free to share them in the comments.

1. Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer

I love this tune for so many reasons, not least because it was the first thing I ever learned to play on a keyboard. I learned to play this tune before I knew that I wanted to be a musician, and I credit it for helping me realize how much I was drawn to music.

Harold Faltermeyer is a German composer tasked with creating a distinctive theme for the iconic movie Beverly Hills Cop and its charismatic protagonist, Axel Foley. The tune “Axel F” features one of the most instantly recognizable synth riffs of all time, and it’s still as popular four decades later.

While the movie was causing a stir at the box office, the theme track was racing up the charts in the U.S. and worldwide. Listen to it, play it, enjoy it; it’s fantastic.

Interesting fact: The track featured many famous synths, including the Roland Jupiter 8, Moog Modular, and Yamaha DX7.

2. Jump – Van Halen

The synth riff from Van Halen’s 1984 smash hit “Jump” is one of my favorites of all time. In the 80s, when guitarists were learning riffs from songs like “Back in Black” (AC/DC), no keyboard player could hear “Jump” without wanting to play it.

The incredibly catchy synth riff isn’t just a hit with keyboardists; it made “Jump” an era-defining song.

“Jump” is significant to me because I heard someone playing it when I bought my very first keyboard, a Yamaha PSR with a music cartridge slot, maybe a PSR-620.

If memory serves me well, as I was browsing beginner keyboards in the store, I heard a member of staff playing “Jump” on a synth I’d have known nothing about at the time, and it sounded incredible. It was the moment I thought, “I could play cool stuff like that!”

Interesting fact: “Jump” is one of many iconic keyboard riffs originally played on the Oberheim OB-Xa.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen

Queen’s 1975 masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody” came before my time, but it’s one of those rare timeless songs that seem to grip every generation of music lovers.

As everyone knows, “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t the most linear rock song ever written. What draws me to the song, and I think many others, is that it’s so unapologetically Freddie Mercury.

What I mean by that is that it’s hard to label as one thing: sublime, sweet, moving, evocative, dark, and rocks hard. Very few songs could convincingly be all of those things at once.

Musically, a lot is going on, but when I talk about the Bohemian Rhapsody keyboard riff, I really mean the piano intro. Although the intro is very simple, it was the first thing I learned to play that gave me that feeling of sophistication (crossing hands and all).

Interesting fact: Although Freddie Mercury had some formal piano education, he was far from the best pianist in rock music. His ability to write some of the most beautiful piano parts is a testament to his natural musicality.

4. The Final Countdown – Europe

Europe’s “The Final Countdown” is the first of my guilty pleasures to make the list. It’s unmistakably 80s, and I love the 80s, but I have to admit, I was never a big fan of the song.

It makes the list because it’s undoubtedly iconic enough, and I call it a guilty pleasure because, after “Jump,” it’s one of my earliest memories of hearing a song and thinking I can work out how to play it.

I was also very young and had realized that popular songs got a bigger cheer (albeit just from any family who would listen at that point).

Europe’s lead singer, Joey Tempest (great rock name), wrote the riff and accompanying lyrics in the early 80s, citing Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as inspiration. The song was a huge hit worldwide and has been a mainstay of 80s compilation albums ever since.

Interesting fact: The Final Countdown riff combines sounds from the Roland JX-8P and Yamaha TX816 synths.

5. Imagine – John Lennon

“Imagine” is one of the most universally loved songs of all time, but one that doesn’t always make it onto lists like this one.

If I consider the defining criteria, “Imagine” fits perfectly; it’s a piano part as instantly recognizable as any.

Like the songs above, learning to play Lennon’s “Imagine” came before any thought of formal piano lessons for me. It’s not a difficult song, so it’s one that many hobbyists or occasional party pianists often perform.

The significance for me is that “Imagine” is possibly the first song I learned that encouraged a sing-along. As a kid, unless a keyboard part were overly exposed, I’d often assume it was too difficult because I had no idea what was happening beneath the lyrics. “Imagine” was probably the song that changed that, and having people sing while I played was like a whole new world.

Interesting fact: John Lennon composed “Imagine” on his iconic white Steinway grand piano that George Michael later bought for over $2M.

6. Children – Robert Miles

Robert Miles, who died in 2017, was a gifted producer, composer, and DJ. “Children” was the most significant commercial success of his career by a long way, topping the charts in many countries worldwide and selling over five million copies.

“Children” is another song I know wouldn’t appear on everyone’s list; it gets my vote for a few reasons.

Besides selling millions of copies, “Children” is a song that defined a generation. It’s still hugely popular now, but for a while after its release, it was the track flying the flag for electronic dance music in the mainstream.

It’s significant to me because it’s the first song I remember as a current release when learning to play it. Everything else I was learning then was already iconic and was introduced to me by older family members. “Children” is one of the first keyboard-driven songs that felt like I discovered it on my own, and that sticks with me.

Interesting fact: Robert Miles was motivated by several goals when writing “Children”, one of which was for the song to provide young clubbers a calming influence at the end of his DJ sets so they could travel home in a safer state of mind.

7. Easy – Commodores

“Easy” is well-known for different reasons, like it has great lyrics and Lionel Richie’s voice was on point. It also has an epic guitar solo that, although short, is one of my favorites from pop music.

“Easy” is essentially a piano-driven song easily identifiable from the first note. I could argue that “Easy” doesn’t provide the most exciting piano riff on the list, but it sounds great, and it’s a lot of fun to play. As a bonus, it’s not too difficult either.

I often talk about the different phases of a musician’s journey, and “Easy” came along for me near the start of my student life. I had just started playing in a college band, and when I was just about comfortable hiding in the mix, “Easy” was the first song we played that featured a piano intro. It wasn’t too tricky, but at the time, it felt like I had to play Flight of the Bumblebee.

Interesting fact: Reaching number four on the Billboard Top 100, “Easy” paved the way for a string of Lionel Richie ballads.

8. The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby is regarded as one of the best pianists in the history of pop and rock music, yet I still think he is tragically underrated.

His talents as a pianist are often overshadowed by his ability to write a catchy tune and meaningful lyrics. I loved his playing because he had impeccable taste and created unforgettable rhythmic and harmonic phrases; this song is a perfect example.

“The Way It Is” was the first pop song I learned that wasn’t just piano-driven but highlighted the piano with mini-solos in several areas. Even if I had assigned the entire song to muscle memory and didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of the lines I was playing at the time, it still felt like a milestone in my early gigging life.

Interesting fact: The song’s powerful lyrics reference the Economic Opportunities Act (Poverty Act) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

9. Rockit – Herbie Hancock

I’m a huge Herbie Hancock fan, and without the song “Rockit,” we might not have tunes like “Axel F” that sit atop this list.

“Rockit,” from the album Future Shock, brought Herbie Hancock a level of mainstream fame that his earlier work in jazz didn’t. I’ve added “Rockit” because it features a legendary synth line, but it’s also an extremely influential song that has had a lasting effect on the music industry.

After “Rockit,” DJ scratching became far more prevalent in mainstream music, as heard in LL Cool J’s “Rock The Bells.” “Rockit” won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance and continues to inspire musicians today.

“Rockit” is one of the first keyboard riffs I remember going beyond a catchy tune and making me want to explore music in a deeper way.

Interesting fact: “Rockit” was originally played on the rare Rhodes Chroma synth.

10. A Thousand Miles – Vanessa Carlton

I can imagine a few raised eyebrows at the inclusion of this song, but I know I’m far from the only one to include it on such a list.

It’s an obvious guilty pleasure, but there’s no escaping it; Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” is an iconic piano riff, whether you want to admit it or not.

“A Thousand Miles” was released shortly after I started studying music, and I was met with many requests to accompany singers. It taught me that being a working musician isn’t just about playing songs you love and the importance of being adaptable.

But I don’t mind admitting I grew to love playing “A Thousand Miles;” I got used to the song, and the riff is quite physically satisfying to play.

If you haven’t played it before, do it; you’ll be hooked.

Interesting fact: Although a very competent pianist, Vanessa Carlton started as a dancer at the School of American Ballet.

11. Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is an iconic song with a surprisingly complex keyboard riff. I say the keyboard riff is surprisingly complex because multiple keyboard parts are merged. While the individual parts aren’t very difficult, as a whole, it’s more intricate than people might think.

What I love most about the keyboard riff is that it gives a feeling of perpetual forward motion. The way the individual keyboard parts weave in and out in perfect counterpoint creates a pumping effect that drives the track along with the kick so well without ever sounding too rigid.

My first personal experience of this riff came in college as the only keyboard player on the gig, trying to do what I could with one synth and two hands. I like to think it went well, but who knows?

Interesting fact: This keyboard riff apparently came about when Dave Stewart was working on a synth pattern, and an inspired Annie Lennox decided to add some counterpoint with an Oberheim OB-X.

12. Light My Fire – The Doors

I’m a fan of The Doors because I love their music, and I love that the keyboardist had so much responsability in the band.

Keyboardist and band co-founder Ray Manzarek was a trailblazer in many ways. Manzarek didn’t enjoy the same status as Jim Morrison but influenced many musicians with his musical choices.

“Light My Fire” is one of the most famous songs ever, and the reason I love the keyboard riff (besides sounding great) is that it sounds more complex than it is. Manzarek didn’t often play anything too challenging with The Doors; he leaned heavily on minor pentatonic scales but was bold with his choices.

He knew when to sit back, and when it was time to make a statement, everything he played was fully committed and unapologetic; “Light My Fire” captures his musical personality perfectly.

Interesting fact: Although famous for its keyboard riff and Morrison’s vocal delivery, “Light My Fire” was written by the guitarist Robby Krieger.

Conclusion

I know many songs could, and maybe should, be on the list, like “Thriller,” “1999,” “Superstition,” “Pop Corn,” or Yazoo’s “Don’t Go,” but making a more personal selection seemed the best option. I hope you enjoy these awesome keyboard riffs as much as I do!

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