The Greatest Rock Keyboardists

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the topics of discussion in our car ride to and from Holiday World yesterday was great rock musicians. Those in the car with me were at best vaguely familiar with some of the keyboardists that immediately came to my mind, in some cases in spite of being aware of the bands they are associated with. And so this post is aimed at sharing some names that anyone should know, and sharing some concrete examples of their virtuosity.

The first name that ought to come to mind when someone says “greatest rock keyboard” is of course Keith Emerson. He is famous for doing things like this:

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Emerson may well be able to keep his all-time #1 rock keyboardist status. But one should not have the impression that there are no other serious contenders for the spot, or that it is a “no contest” situation. Perhaps the strongest challenger would be Jordan Rudess, keyboardist with Dream Theater and the instrumental offshoot Liquid Tension Experiment:

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Rudess is remarkable for his versatility (he will suddenly break into ragtime style, then be back in progressive metal mode making the keyboard sing the way we associate with electric guitar – an instrument which he can also play, I might add).

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Rick Wakeman also absolutely has to be mentioned. This keyboard solo is phenomenal, and illustrates a similar playfulness to Rudess at the end:

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There are also some “keyboard battle” videos on YouTube. This one is simply for amusement…

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…but this one is serious, and the result may surprise you!

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Clearly Mike Lindup (the keyboardist from Level 42) is a name that should be better known than it is (it seems not have been known even by the Japanese game show hosts in that clip)!

I have saved for last one of my favorites, not because he is necessarily faster in a contest than anyone else (although he might well be!) but because I enjoy his solos, and they were what inspired me to learn to play the keyboard myself. And so, without further ado, here is Tony Banks of Genesis:

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It perhaps also bears mentioning that the skills developed playing classical music is evident in the case of all the contenders in this category.

Who would you have chosen as the best rock performers on keyboard or any other instrument of your choice, and why? Any particularly amazing solos you’d mention in the discussion?

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  • Virtwintech7

    Tony Banks! Amazing. Simply genius.

  • Brant Clements

    As you suggest, Dr. McGrath, Keith Emerson’s name was the first to spring to my mind. His sheer ability is astounding. Unfortunately he is also given to much of the excess that characterizes prog rock at its worst.

    Rick Wakeman’s name also occurred to me, though he is necessarily second to Emerson.

    Rudess is news to me, and a revelation. Thank you.

    In the prog rock mode, are you aware of Jurgen Fritz of Triumverat? He is eclipsed, perhaps, by the others but was no slouch on the keyboards.

    In a pop rock vein, Elton John must be mentioned. He has become an institution, but in his younger days he was a force of nature. Billy Joel, too, whether you like his pop stylings or not, plays a mean piano. I’m also a fan of Ben Folds.

    And I found myself thinking of the rock piano pioneers: Jerry Lee Lewis and (the Rev.) Little Richard. Virtuosos? Maybe not. Rockers? Most definitely.

    I’m sorry to say that Tony Banks did not spring to mind. I’m a BIG Genesis fan, especially from the early Peter Gabriel days. I would liken Banks keyboards to the guitar work of David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. They may not hit as many notes as others, but they consistently hit the *right* notes.

    Thanks for a fun thread.

  • admiralmattbar

    Of course the most epic piano battle can be found here:

  • Preachersmith

    A listen to White Rock (the movie sound track to the Innsbruck Winter Olympics -1976) settled it for me: Rick Wakeman, hands down.

  • Gakuseidon

    Not exactly rock keyboard, but Richard Elliot’s use of the Organ to play variations of “Good King Wenceslas” using pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is brilliant, esp the last one (Trepak):

  • James F. McGrath

    @google-1d56269ea317202c536bf628fd346a6b:disqus , thanks for the recommendation of Triumvirate, who I should know better than I do. I just had a listen to “Spartacus” and they are a band that I clearly ought to listen to more of! Definitely my sort of music! 
     @admiralmattbar:disqus, that is a fun scene, but at best a dim reflection of The Cat Concerto.

    @Brant, if we include those who are primarily pianists then we would definitely include Billy Joel and Elton John, and maybe Bruce Hornsby. And I feel like there are others that I ought to include a mention of as well, especially if we broaden the focus.

  • Jonathan Hendry

    Ought to include Thomas Dolby, if only because he performed hanging from a crane at Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall at the Berlin Wall in 1989. Dolby insisted on hanging from a crane.

    BTW, are you familiar with the Fairlight CMI keyboard, the first sampler? Peter Gabriel, Art Of Noise, Yes, etc. When it first came out, it cost $40,000. Now the inventor has put out an iPad app that includes the full set of samples, the ‘Page R’ sequencer, and includes much of the functionality, for $50. You can even hook up a full-size keyboard via USB or wifi MIDI.

    It even simulated the noise of the 8″ floppy disk drives.

    I used to be tempted to buy an old Fairlight on EBay for a few thousand dollars. This has let me play with a Fairlight, and get that out of my system, without spending so much or taking on a bunch of ancient balky electronics.

  • Akma Adam

    Off the top of my head: Stevie Wonder, Booker T, the Danny Federici (of blessed memory)/Roy Bittan tandem from the E Street Band, and anyone whom Frank Zappa included in his bands (so mainly Ian & Ruth Henderson, George Duke, Eddie Jobson), Garth Hudson. Special honours to Billy Preston and Ian Stewart.

  • James F. McGrath

    @facebook-1428470021:disqus , I’m familiar with the Fairlight, but only from a distance – I have never actually been in the presence of one.

    I did, however, have a Leslie amplifier in my teens, although with a synthesizer rather than a genuine Hammond organ to go with it.

    There are some really fantastic B3 sounds you can find nowadays, which when you move the mod wheel, don’t just add vibrato but provide the full effect of the Leslie amp spinning up and slowing down. 

    An iPad app that could be hooked up to a USB keyboard sounds like serious progress in exploring the musical capabilities of that device. I’ll be keeping my eye on that!

    • Jonathan Hendry

      There are other apps that can use a keyboard. The Fairlight app is pretty primitive, actually, because it emulates the operation of the original hardware. For instance, it presently can’t export audio of your compositions, etc. Other, modern music apps can do these things.

      Akai is coming out with a 49-key keyboard with an iPad dock. No idea when it’ll ship.

      Korg has a MIDI-compatible iPad app that simulates an analog synth (with patch cords and everything), combined with a drum machine.

  • James F. McGrath

    @804028cd82d70cbe00dbc960aa1b616a:disqus, I could easily see Keith Emerson doing something along those lines, given access to the same carillon + organ. In fact, he did make a Christmas album.

    More along the lines of Elliot’s creative variations, there is a superb Christmas album by Jeffrey Reid Baker with traditional carols played in the style of, and in a manner based on, famous pieces by famous composers. The Rachmaninov one is my favorite – Veni, Veni Emmanuel in the style of his Piano Concerto No.2.  :)

  • Trevor

    Ha. I was at the concert from which your first clip was taken and had mixed reactions; while it was a huge thrill to see one of my heroes playing, it was a disappointment to see him twenty years too late. There’s no doubt Emo’s best years were 1972-74 (when he was almost demonic) and I wish there were more clips around of him playing from that era. Unfortunately I spent those years in Australasia and never had a chance.

  • James F. McGrath

    @9e1c14bed364b3860ea84364193c889c:disqus , wow! Do we catch a glimpse of your head in the crowd at any point?

    I think there are probably some videos floating around somewhere, although I am sure that none would be able to replicate the experience of seeing him perform live.

  • James F. McGrath

    I’ve seen some Vsti plug-ins on Mixcraft on the PC that emulate analogue synths, including bringing up a screen with patch cables and the like, much like the Korg app you linked to. It is so much fun what you can do with a computer or iPad and a USB keyboard nowadays!

  • amirhamra

    fantastic sequence, all the videos you put are amazing , i had chills up and down my spine when you mentioned tony banks at the end , he definetly does not have the technique of rudess, but he is such a composer!! i thought anybody who loves keith or rick would not be aware of tony , i was surprised by your delicate taste, i also was inspired to play keyboard because of tony banks. thank you!

  • newenglandsun

    You need Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish on here.

    Not only is he a great keyboardist, he’s also turning into a real composer now.

  • super stevens

    I know you mentionned only few names but I will mention other great ones IMO.

    Rick Wright
    Jon Lord
    Dave Stewart (from Egg… not Eurythmics! )
    Dave Sinclair
    Peter Bardens
    Mike Ratledge
    Kit Watkins
    Jan Hammer
    Don Preston
    Dave Greenslade
    Jurgen Fritz
    Kerry Minnear
    Hugh Banton
    Par Lindh
    Martin Orford
    Rod Argent
    Ken Hensley
    Vittorio Nocenzi
    Lalle Larson
    Mark Kelly