Top 10 Keyboard and Synth Parts in Rock (2023)

VOICE OVER: Matt Campbell
Script written by George Pacheco

The great keyboard riffs of the 60s and 70s make an appearance on this list. Beginning with late 70s music and reaching prominence with 80s music and new wave, keyboards and synthesizers were important for the hits of the 70s and the hits of the 80s when bands such as The Who, Rush, Boston, Joy Division, Van Halen, and Journey used amazing keyboard riffs on their songs Baba O'Riley, Subdivisions, Foreplay/Long Time, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Jump and Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).

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(Video) Top 10 Greatest Keyboard Riffs in Rock

Script written by George Pacheco

Top 10 Keyboard and Synth Parts in Rock

These are the keyboard lines that get our motors running. Welcome to, and today we'll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Keyboard and Synth Parts in Rock.

For this list, we'll be ranking memorable musical sections performed by keyboard or synthesizer players within the rock genre. We'll be paying particular attention to how these sections work within each song, whether they're utilized as a solo section, melodic introduction or transitional bridge within a piece.

#10: "Subdivisions" (1982)


This song from Canadian rock legends Rush goes for the synthesizer glory right from the get-go with a solo performance from the band's singer and bassist Geddy Lee. "Subdivisions" is taken from the band's 1982 album Signals, which itself signaled a turning point of sorts for the progressive rock legends. The track showcased a streamlined and melodic sensibility new to the Rush sound, anchored by Lee's forward approach to using the synthesizer as a lead instrument. Indeed, the guitar work of Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart's drumming is almost restrained against the stirring and emotional melody line delivered by Lee inthis massively influential Rush song.

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#9: "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" (1983)


With its iconic opening keyboard melody “Separate Ways” grabs the audience's attention right from the start. Journey's Jonathan Cain possesses a striking tone to his chosen instrument, as his driving lick is quickly bolstered by guitarist Neal Schon's heavy staccato riffing. The keyboards then take a supporting role to "Separate Ways" as the song weaves its tale of a lonely lover promising devotion to his former flame, despite their separation. Cain's keyboards return for haunting effect near the end of Schon's guitar solo, then lead into a collaboration with singer Steve Perry to bring it all home for the song's epic finale.


#8: "Foreplay/Long Time" (1976)


A Hammond M3 organ is the musical star of this early Boston classic, serving as one of the most memorable tracks from this arena rock band's multi-platinum debut. It's "Foreplay" which serves as the most keyboard-centric section of the 1-2-combo, is an instrumental track which hinges upon the quick arpeggio melody lines for primary effect. The song then segues into "Long Time," a more traditional Boston track which utilizes the keyboards as a more understated but mood setting accompaniment to Tom Scholz's layered guitar symphonies and Brad Delp’s powerful vocals. Place them together, and you have a tasty sandwich of keyboard goodness, performed in that bombastic 70s style.

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#7: "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1977)

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Keyboardist Keith Emerson was no stranger to complex keyboard gymnastics - point in case ELP's "Benny the Bouncer." The musician would outdo himself, however, on this reworking of a piece from the early forties titled "Fanfare for the Common Man." The track was originally composed by Aaron Copland in 1942, but was reworked by the band for their 1977 opusWorks Vol. 1, with Emerson taking center stage on the keyboard. Emerson and the group would transpose Copland's piece into a shuffling, bluesy number to huge success, resulting in a fan favorite ELP track, which followed the band throughout their career.

#6: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (1980)

Joy Division

The keyboard melody to this next entry on our list may be comparatively minimalistic, but it's no less powerful or influential. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" might be the most enduring tracks from British post-punk band Joy Division from their all-too brief career. Guitarist Bernard Sumner takes to the keyboards and echoes Peter Hook's riffy, melodic bassline while adding sweeps and swells of his own. It may not be a grand, complex part but the keyboard's cold, haunting tone is perfectly suited to the song and is a perfect match for Ian Curtis' pained, vulnerable vocals.

#5: "Jump" (1983)
Van Halen

The Van Halen of 1984 was a band going through some serious changes. Not only were tensions between the band andvocalist David Lee Roth becoming worse and worse, but the hard rock band's sound was evolving into one which was increasingly incorporating keyboards, as opposed to the riff and two hand tapped guitar work which defined their early work. "Jump" summed up this new sound, propelling guitarist Eddie Van Halen's commercially friendly and catchy keyboardmelodies into the Billboard charts. It's a driving and infectious ditty indeed, and fans responded in droves making "Jump" a number one smash in countries around the world.


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#4: "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (1975)
Pink Floyd

Talk about epic! "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is a nine part, twenty-five minute opus from Pink Floyd and their 1975 concept album "Wish You Were Here." Split into two chunks which bookend the album, the song was composed as a spiritual ode to former member Syd Barrett, and serves as a fine example of Floyd at their most emotional and atmospheric. Particular attention should be paid to keyboardist Richard Wright, whose adept sense at creating mood makes it easy for lead guitarist David Gilmour to work his own magic over the top. It's simply a match made in musical heaven.

#3: "Highway Star" (1972)
Deep Purple

Moving on to something substantially LESS restrained, Deep Purple's "Highway Star" just might be the epitome of a perfect, pedal-to-the-metal driving song. Much of the song's success should be attributed to the band's keyboardist Jon Lord's insane runs on the Hammond organ, as Lord trades off classically inspired solos against his Purple band mate Richie Blackmore. Lord's fiery runs meet Blackmore note for note, as both musicians drum up dizzying, technical flourishes, right on through the song's crash-and-burn finale. Lord and Blackmore would go on to co-perform on the comparatively mid-paced "Perfect Strangers" in 1984, but it was "Highway Star" which sealed the deal for many fans some twelve years prior.

#2: "Light My Fire" (1967)
The Doors

It's a classic rock mainstay which is recognizable almost immediately, thanks to keyboardist Ray Manzarek and his intense musical skills. Manzarek was so talented with his chosen instrument, that the Doors rarely ever used a bassist when performing live, with the keyboardist filling that role via a Fender Rhodes PianoBass. It's the Vox Continental organ here however, that provides the song's most memorable attributes, from the unending middle solo to the playful riff that hooks us infrom the get-go. Manzarek also flirts with the melody while supporting Robbie Krieger's inquisitive and quasi flamenco guitar solo, before driving hard back into one of rock's most memorable musical moments.

Before we reveal our number one synth section, here are a few honorable mentions!

"Kids" (2008)

"Just Like Heaven" (1987)
The Cure

"Trampled Under Foot" (1975)
Led Zeppelin

"Roundabout" (1972)

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#1: "Baba O'Riley" (1971)
The Who

Pete Townshend and The Who are no strangers to composing rousing, epic keyboard melodies, as evidenced by their iconic 1971 track, "Won't Get Fooled Again”. It was the opening track to that same album, Who's Next? which would go on to cement the band as certifiable rock gods. "Baby O'Riley" is known for the repetitive, layered synthesizer tracks which serve as undercurrent for Townshend's windmill guitar riffs and frontman Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals. The driving synth lines are then further expanded upon during the Townshend-sung bridge, as spare melodic notes are used to accentuate the song's overt dramatic atmosphere. The result? A classic rock masterpiece which still retains all of its original power.

Do you agree with our list? Which keyboard or synth section do you feel lift their respective songs to new heights? For more ivory-tinkling top ten lists, published every day, please subscribe to!


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