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