Ten Favourite Keyboard Players

“These fingers of mine, they got brains in ’em. You don’t tell them what to do – they do it.”

Jerry Lee Lewis

Not every band features a keyboard player, so the talent pool is smaller than for other band positions. The list is heavy on progressive rock, perhaps not surprising given that it’s a genre where keyboards are given a lot of work to do. I excluded jazz pianists, otherwise players like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Jarrett would dominate this list.

Other notable exclusions include Pere Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine, Steve Winwood, Tori Amos, Aretha Franklin, Patrick Moraz, Richard Manuel, John Paul Jones, Bruce Hornsby, Alicia Keys, Joni Mitchell, Rod Argent, Ben Folds, John Cale, and Tony Banks.

Here are ten of my favourite ten-fingered virtuosos:

Keith Emerson

A band’s keyboardist is generally a supporting player, but Keith Emerson grabbed the limelight. Naturally theatrical, Emerson molested his Hammond organ, jamming knives into it, whipping it, and riding it across the stage like a horse. Emerson was imaginative, adapting classical works from Sibelius and Copland into his repertoire, and an early adopter of synthesizers.


Garth Hudson

Garth Hudson studied classical musical, dropping out of University to join The Hawks. The other Hawks each paid Hudson $10 a week as music consultant, so he didn’t disappoint his parents by squandering his education. The Hawks backed Bob Dylan, then made their own records as The Band. Hudson’s Lowery organ was an important part of the band’s sound, and an unexpected innovation was Hudson’s wah-wah Clavinet for the funky lead breaks for ‘Up On Cripple Creek’. In interesting, but unfortunate, trivia, Hudson has been declared bankrupt three times.


Elton John

Amid his oversized spectacles and outrageous glam showmanship, Elton John created many memorable piano parts. The New Orleans funk of ‘Honky Cat’, the distinctive riffs of ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ and the progressive pomposity of ‘Funeral for a Friend’ – John covered a lot of ground with his piano.


David Paich and Steve Porcaro

The synth duo behind Toto grew up with classical and jazz, becoming interested in rock keyboards after seeing Emerson, Lake, and Palmer play at the Hollywood Bowl. It may be critically loathed, but Toto IV is full of great keyboard parts – the bass line to ‘Waiting For Your Love’, the jazzy piano noodling at the end of ‘Rosanna’, and the intricate piano riff of ‘Make Believe’.

Bonus points for figuring out how to program the intimidating looking Polyfusion modular synthesizer Damius:

Steve Porcaro programming Damius

Eddie Rayner

There’s maybe some hometown bias here; like me, Rayner was born in the nondescript suburbia of Lower Hutt, New Zealand. After his tenure in the band Space Waltz, Rayner joined Split Enz, and was their musical lynch-pin for the next ten years, excelling both in their 1970s art-rock and their 1980s new-wave pop. When Rayner missed a show on the True Colours tour, each audience member was refunded $4, in light of his significance to the band. After Split Enz broke up, Rayner played on an all-star session for Paul McCartney’s Press to Play, together with Phil Collins, Pete Townshend, Eric Stewart, and Carlos Alomar.


Jordan Rudess

If the only criteria was sheer speed, the members of Dream Theater would dominate best musician lists. Jordan Ruddess joined Dream Theater in time for 1999’s excellent Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. It’s fun listening to him toss a ragtime section into the middle of a progressive rock suite.


Benmont Tench

The name Benmont is unusual – it’s a portmanteau of Tench’s two given names, Benjamin and Montgomery. Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers were all excellent musicians, and Tench’s piano and Hammond B-3 work is consistently classy. Tench has also played a ton of sessions for other musicians, including legends like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Check out him simultaneously covering the piano and string parts for ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’:


Rick Wakeman

Before joining Yes, Rick Wakeman had already recorded iconic keyboard parts for other artists – the beautiful, flowing piano on Cat Stevens’ ‘Morning Has Broken’ and the Mellotron on David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. Wakeman completed the classic Yes lineup, joining for 1971’s Fragile, and his extroverted arsenal of keyboards added colour to the band’s arrangements. Wakeman’s played in five different stints for Yes, and he’s infamous for eating a curry on-stage during the tour for 1973’s Tales for Topographic Oceans.


Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder is a ridiculously talented individual, noteworthy as a drummer, a harmonica player, a composer, a vocalist, and as a keyboard player. As a keyboard player, he displays stylistic range, from the funky clavinet attack of ‘Superstition’, the slinky Fender Rhodes groove of ‘I Wish’, and the Latin piano of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’.

An important part of the Stevie Wonder team during the first half of the 1970s, synth technicians Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, who gave Wonder access to previously unimaginable sounds with their TONTO analog synthesizer.


Bernie Worrell

Bernie Worrell served as the keyboard player for George Clinton’s stable of funk bands like Parliament and Funkadelic. Rock fans may be more familiar with his guest spot on Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. His funky lead keyboard lines were attention-grabbing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBUe_v6Mi70

Did I miss any of your favourite players? Write in below.

Aphoristical
Aphoristical

Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

47 Comments

  1. Great list! People these days forget that Elton John is a very talented keyboards player. It’s why I like his early 70s stuff. Ones I would include would be Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship), Tony Carey (Rainbow and Planet P) and John Galvin (Molly Hatchet) especially since he singlehandedly made keyboards acceptable in Southern Rock. Claude Schnell of Dio fame would get my vote too.

  2. I’d throw in Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Chuck Leavell, Bruce Hornsby, Booker T. Jones, Professor Longhair. Ray Manzarek

    • Keyboards in my book is anything with keys – harpsichords, keytar, church organ, whatever. I find Morrison hard to take so I’ve never really been a big Doors fan, although ‘Light My Fire’ is certainly an amazing keyboard performance.

  3. The keyboard players that come to mind are… Dr John, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and Nicky Hopkins.
    Can’t argue with your list… great to see Garth

  4. Normally find that the more keyboards in a song the less I like it! So I’m not the best to comment here but Cory Henry is pretty special — bit like Jordan Rudess in terms of virtuosity. Jacob Collier can really play. How about Ben Folds

  5. Deep Purple’s Jon Lord is on my list especially since I have been digging in with the David Coverdale Series and doing some Deep Purple albums. He was amazing! Great list!!

      • I would recommend Second Wind, by his Oblivion Express group. Auger is like John Mayall in that his name isn’t as familiar to people as the names of those who passed through his bands. But he has a singular Hammond sound. And he’s still touring. I saw him (and got an autograph) in a small club in Columbus, Ohio in 2008.

  6. Great choices here, Graham. Beyond those on your list, the honorable mentions and the ones in comments above, I can only add Mike Garson’s name to the list of keyboard greats. If Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” album was his only credit he would still be legendary. Oh, and if you decided to include jazz players, let’s not forget Chick Corea.

      • That is a controversial opinion as Garson made a name for himself thanks to his performance on that recording. When I dove into Bowie’s discography, Garson’s contributions were a huge revelation for me. I love what Ronson did with Bowie but he had already put his stamp on that music. I like how Aladdin Sane has its own unique sound.

    • I like Nieve a lot, although I dislike the organ sound he uses on This Years Model. Bill Payne’s a good call – haven’t heard a whole lot of Little Feat, but he plays in one of my favourite pickup bands ever, on Jackson Browne’s ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’, along with Jim Gordon, Chuck Rainey, Lowell George, and Roy Bittan.

  7. Lots of people I didn’t know on your list. One omission, if I may point it out: Nicky Hopkins, best known for his contributions to Rolling Stones recordings. As Mick Jagger put it, they would get a song into a pretty good state and then “Nicky Hopkins would sprinkle fairy dust on it”. Standouts include Monkey Man, We Love You and She’s Rainbow. He played with loads of other people too, including The Kinks and The Who. Sadly, he suffered from Crohn’s Disease, chronic stomach/digestive tract problems, which was a factor in his not committing himself to a particular band, especially for tours. He died in 1994 aged 50 after an intestine operation. How sad that we should have to recount that fact when telling his story. Much better to stick on Monkey Man nd imagine him playing that.

    • I think someone else has mentioned Hopkins already too. I like his playing on the Stones albums a lot, but didn’t realise all the other stuff he’d done until I just looked him up.

  8. Clearly a very personal list, Graham. Fascinating. Reckon I’d probably need a brace of lists to cover Prog, Roots, Rock, Jazz, Electronic (for starters).

    I’d probably have more than a name check for Bruce Hornsby, not least for his work with the Grateful Dead. Ditto Steve Winwood – often overlooked regarding instrumental prowess but, like Stevie Wonder, multi-talented.

    Other contenders:

    Jon Lord already has a few votes – add another from me.
    Greg Allman was a wonderful organ player – soulful and fluid.
    Rick Wright wasn’t especially flashy, but his contributions to Pink Floyd were an essential part of their sound.
    Brian Eno claims to be a ‘non-musician’ but his ear for synth and keyboard sounds changed music.
    Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine seems to have fallen out of history. Shame. Hugely innovative.
    Bill Payne of Little Feat provided much of the southern funk drive of their sound.
    Klaus Schulze is a pioneer of electronic keyboards with a fifty year recording career to offer as evidence.
    Vincent Crane helped Arthur Brown to his first hit before forming Atomic Rooster. Great player.
    Booker T Jones bridges roots, soul, r&b and pop. Provided the foundation for one of the best instrumental groups ever.

    Pete Bardens (Camel), George Duke (Zappa), Wendy Carlos… I’ll stop now.

    • I like to look at other lists to make sure I haven’t forgotten anyone, but it’s good to have a personal stamp on this sort of thing. Seems like a shallower pool than the other major categories – vocalists, guitarists, bassists, drummers – but still a lot of great choices. Lots of great suggestions on your list – Rick Wright gets a prize for most impact with a relatively modest technique.

  9. Good stuff and lots of great comments. Danny Federici, David Sancious and Roy Bittan play a big part in the E Street sound, similar to Garth Hudson’s work with the Band. Big part of the overall sound. My first keyboard hero was Keith Emerson. Also a little partial to Winwood. Greg Rolie and Donald Fagan also colored the sound of the bands they were in. So many good ones.

    • Yeah, the E-Street guys are all very good. Sancious was probably the best player, but didn’t stick around for long. Fagen is very good – maybe I don’t know enough jazz, but those Steely Dan songs have tricksy chords.

      • Aph, you’d know more about the “tricky cords”thing but I think we’d agree on the sound he created is unique to Steely Dan.
        Some of that early E Street keyboard work really did it for me especially on ‘Wild, Innocent’

  10. Top 10 Keyboard (in no order)

    Rick Wakeman
    Mike Pinder (Moody Blues)
    Alan Price (The Animals)
    Carole King
    Stevie Wonder
    Booker T. Jones
    Gregg Allman
    Lee Michaels
    Floyd Cramer
    Enya
    Joni Mitchell
    Billy Preston

    Electronic Keyboards

    Christopher Franke (Tangerine Dream)
    Klaus Schulze
    BrIan Eno
    Patrick Moraz (Yes, Moody Blues)
    Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider (Kraftwerk)
    Paul and Phil Hartnoll (Orbital)
    Thomas Fehlman (The Orb)
    Paul Kalkbrenner
    Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream)
    Giorgio Moroder

    • I didn’t realise you were into most of those things like Yes, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream. Those genres do lend themselves to keyboards though. Joni Mitchell is an excellent pianist I reckon – it’s her secondary instrument, and she never gets mentioned on these lists, but she’s very good – complex songs to play as well.

  11. Are you kidding?? I’m completely into electronic music. The only new music I listen to now is electronic music. Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express is my number one album of all time and it has been for about 20 years. About half of my top 100 albums is electronic, both new and old stuff.
    And yeah, Joni Mitchell’s piano is great. Especially on those mid-seventies albums. I wish I would have put EltonJohn also but I forgot.

    • I’ve heard you talk about 1990s electronica stuff, but not much about earlier stuff. My kids quite enjoy 1970s synth stuff like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. It’s probably more connected to modern pop music than The Beatles or other guitar bands.

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