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Ah yes, the most subjective topic in all of music: who is the best keyboardist of all time? In my personal opinion, I believe that there are many different ways to go about presenting this.
The one that makes the most sense is to do a list in which I don’t number it. I’m going to list keyboardists and give a brief description of what they are or were known for and why I believe they are one of the best of all time.
So, how am I judging this and what am I basing this off of? Technical ability, creativity, what they’ve done for music and keyboardists, melodic writing ability, & chord structures/progressions that use.
Before I get into the list, I want to say that, oftentimes, the best of something in the world is usually someone that the public has never heard of.
There are jazz and classical pianists who are unmatched in the world today that we may never even hear about. This list reflects on influential keyboardists throughout history.
Best Keyboardists Of All Time
Brandon Flowers – The Killers
Brandon Flowers may come as a surprise to some as he often is known for his vocals in tracks like, ” When You Were Young” or “Mr. Brightside,” but he also a melodic genius with a synthesizer.
Brandon Flowers isn’t going to out shred some of the others on this list, however, when it comes to writing a melodic lick, he’s among my favorites of all time.
I also see Brandon Flowers & The Killers as a big reason why synth-heavy bands were able to make the push that they did around 2011-2012.
Roger Hodgson – Supertramp
The first thing I think about when I hear Supertramp or Roger Hodgson’s, name, is keyboards.
Hodgson has some incredibly melodic and creative solos including,” School.” This track is one of the tracks that really made me fall for Supertramp.
The piano work in “Fool’s Overture” is another great example of Hodgson’s work.
Alan Parsons – The Alan Parsons Project
Alan Parsons is a legend in the keyboard world. He greatly pushed the envelope when it comes to synthesizers in the studio. In the beginning, it wasn’t really possible for him to tour as the technology wasn’t quite there.
There also weren’t as many play-back options like there are today. Alan Parsons is one of my favorite keyboardists/producers to this day.
Keith Emerson – Emerson Lake & Palmer
If you came to this article in search of raw talent & shredding ability, Keith Emerson should come as no surprise. This keyboardist is an absolute monster when it comes to solos.
As far as performing live, Emerson is one of the most entertaining keyboardists to ever play live. His charisma and love for the instrument showed in every performance.
Keith Emerson is one of my favorite rock keyboardists of all time and he often gets dubbed as the greatest of all time.
Rick Wakeman – Yes
It felt suiting to put Wakeman next to Emerson as they are two of the best progressive rock pianists of all time. If you’re truly into progressive music, you will understand how great Wakeman is when it comes to prog rock music.
Wakeman is a guy that I can listen to hours on end without taking a break. There’s a lot to be learned when listening to this man on the keyboards.
While Wakeman is a legend with all types of keyboard sounds, he is especially great when it comes to organs & electric pianos.
Richard Wright – Pink Floyd
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much of an impact Richard Wright had on Pink Floyd’s music.
The way Richard Wright voices chord progressions is what really draws me into his playing.
With Richard Wright, you don’t need ripping solos, but rather incredible songwriting and chord progression use.
Bernie Worrell is hands down one of the best funk players to ever play the keyboards. It’s actually surprising that more people don’t know who this man was.
If you’ve yet to watch this man solo, you’re in for a treat.
Jordan Rudess – Dream Theater
Jordan Rudees is incredible in many different styles of music. He can rip crazy synth solos, as well as shred on the piano as hard as any other keyboardist today.
What I like about Rudees so much is that he brings this awesome classical element to bands. He is also great at writing riffs that are in unorthodox time signatures.
Ray Charles is an incredible pianist and musician overall. He was someone who dabbled in all different styles of music and always seemed to do an amazing job in doing so.
Ray significantly influenced so many incredible artists through his work and that is something that definitely adds to his reputation.
Ray Manzarek – The Doors
Ray Manzarek is the co-founder of The Doors and he is known for his incredible work on the organs and bass notes.
When it came to performing live, Ray would hold down the bass notes with his left hand his right foot on a Fender Rhodes.
It takes a special keyboardist like Ray if you’re planning on relying so heavily on keyboards. That’s exactly what The Doors had with Manzarek.
Page McConnell – Phish
When it comes to jam bands, Page is definitely one of the best current players. He’s fantastic on the piano and he also can play some mean organ solos.
Jon Lord – Deep Purple
Jon Lord is number one on a lot of “number one” lists. I don’t disagree with this, but this is also why I don’t think a numbered list is fair.
Jon Lord was an incredible keyboardist who has influenced so many musicians today.
One of the first “Fake Books” that I ever purchased was an Elton John book. I had an absolute blast playing his songs and it’s hard to deny his melodic capabilities.
Another thing Elton John is fantastic at is writing chord progressions. Some of the chord progressions in even some of his hits are absolutely beautiful.
Elton is definitely one of the greats and I believe he easily earns a spot on this list.
Ian Underwood – Frank Zappa
Ian Underwood is best known for his work with Frank Zappa. Ian Underwood is a multi-instrumentalist, but his work on the keys is absolutely fantastic.
He became a beast on the Minimoog synthesizer as well. After playing in Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, Underwood went onto play as a session keyboardist for many famous acts including Chicago.
Dennis DeYoung was amongst an ever-talented band in Styx. With this being said, he has the most songwriting credits than any other member in the band.
He’s a great songwriter and a great pianist. I remember learning, “Come Sail Away” when I was a kid and thinking it was the coolest song in the world. This is truly a special writer and musician.
Phillip Glass is one of the most influential minimalist composers in the 20th century. There are countless pieces from Glass that are breathtaking and maddening at the same time.
Some of the rhythms that Glass performs are super-interesting and complex. This is one of the things that pulls me into his playing and composing.
Greg Hawkes – The Cars
Greg Hawkes is best known for his work with The Cars. He went on and graduated from Berklee school of music and also pursued a solo career.
While there are some keyboardists who may have more technical skill, Greg Hawkes still played keyboards for a very important band to synthesizers and is very good.
Mustis – Dimmu Borgir
If you’re not a fan of metal music, you have never heard of Mustis. For those who like keyboardists who bring a classical element to music, Mustis will definitely speak to you.
When you listen to him performing Dimmu Borgir songs on piano, it sounds like a movie soundtrack. While it’s dark, it’s also beautiful and thought-provoking at the same time of being extremely difficult to play for most.
I personally learned a few songs of Dimmu Borgir as I’ve always enjoyed classical music.
Tony Banks – Genesis
Tony Banks is most known for his work with the rock band Genesis. If you’re a synth-enthusiast, chances are you have listened extensively to Genesis.
Aside from being in Genesis, Tony Banks is also a film composer as well as a successful solo artist. Tony Banks absolutely rips it on synths and has some incredible parts as well as solos.
Billy Joel had a massive influence on me growing up. I remember listening to, “Root Beer Rag” and just wanting to be able to play like that one day.
As far as writing melodic parts, Billy Joel can do it very well. Billy Joel is also a very technical player who is incredibly skilled, though he’s not able to do what he once was able to in his younger years.
Wonder was a child prodigy from birth, ultimately becoming one of the most successful singer-songwriters in history.
Stevie Wonder has been inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, the Rhythm And Blues Hall Of Fame, & the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
Something incredible about Stevie is the fact that he’s blind and still is a prodigy on the keys.
I personally love Herbie Hancock’s style. His flavor when soloing is spot on and I could watch him play for days.
If you’re a fan of keytars, Herbie also has been known to strap the keytar on and shred from time to time. When I started playing on the keytar, I watched a bunch of videos of him playing.
Jens Johansson – Stratovarius
Jens is a classically trained pianist who is best known for his work with the Swedish metal band, Stratovarius.
When you hear this man play some of their songs on the piano, it sounds like a classical song meets a film score.
Benmont Tench – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Benmont Tench has toured and recorded albums with some of the biggest artists in the world. This speaks volumes as to just how good of a pianist he is.
Benmont Tench was greatly influential on my own progress as I often would watch his videos on Youtube.
Matt Bellamy – Muse
Matt Bellamy is often left off of “Best Of Lists,” and I don’t understand why? This guy is a legend who got his start in classical music.
Muse brought this heavy classical vibe to rock music that seemed so original and thought-provoking.
While there are many difficult piano pieces from Bellamy, a relatively easy one like “Starlight” is all it takes to understand his talent.
While you’ll likely be able to play it easily, writing a part like this is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s an iconic piano part that is incredibly creative.
His synthesizer work is also great. There is a heavy use of arpeggiators in Muse’s music and I’ve always loved that about them.
Bill Evans is one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He influenced many of the other jazz greats with his incredible chord voicings and progressions.
With Bill Evans, you got a mix of bebop and classical music and it created this beautiful style.
Art Tatum is often viewed as the greatest jazz pianist of all time. Born in 1909, Art only lived until his 49th birthday. What he was able to accomplish in those years though was incredible.
Using perfect pitch, Art was able to tap into many different styles of music and meld them together quite easily. This is another man that I can watch videos of for days.
Thelonius Monk emerged in the bebop era in the 1940s and he contributed to several jazz standards today. Young jazz pianists have a lot to learn from and inspiration to gain from watching videos of him at the keys.
Lonnie Liston Smith
Lonnie Smith is a very influential jazz pianist who is usually on people’s best-of lists as well. He started off playing the piano and later transitioned to mastering the electric piano as well as the organ.
Jan Hammer used a signature sound that sounded so much like an electric guitar lead, that people could not tell the difference.
Jan was able to use the mod wheels and pitch bends on his synths to his advantage in a way that no one else was really able to at the time.
This influenced so many keyboardists over the years as playing with the pitch bends and mod wheels is done by so many different keyboardists now.
You gotta add Chick Corea, check out the tune Spain. He definitely deserves a spot on your list
Great list! I’m not very familiar with some of the pop key players, so here’s my homework 🙂 George Duke may be added too!
Thanks for the note, I will be updating this list to include George Duke! Great pianist!
Lefty Hathaway is an upcoming beast on the organ and piano. Saw him in Atlanta last year
Great list, and very hard to be objective, and completely comprehensive. I’ll just name 7 that you left out, two from the Jazz world, and five from Rock and Roll-
1. Oscar Peterson
2. McCoy Tyner
3. Billy Payne (from Little Feat)
4. Ian McLagan (from the Small Faces, and others)
5. Nicky Hopkins and 6. Billy Preston (both playing with EVERYONE)
7. The great Leon Russell
I think most keyboardist lists are hard to agree with. This is the best one I have ever seen.
I like the way you put this list together — no rankings, open-minded, and appreciative. I know most everyone you note, and the ones that I don’t I will now seek out. Thanks. As for others to consider, someone already mentioned Leon Russell in the comments. I would include Dr. John in my list. Check out any of his solo albums. And give a listen to Corey Henry. A good place to start is his solo in Lingus, with Snarky Puppy.
No women? Really? Seems pretty narrow….
Best male keyboardists of all time would be a more apt description…
There’s another post on their website specifically giving praise to female keyboardists. Likely why, as they were published around the same time.
Jon Lord needs to be higher up that list a lot closer to Rick Wakeman!!! Jons fusion of Classical, Baroque and Rock, pumped through an amp and running distortion, but still sounding melodic. So many musical styles were influenced by Jon, metal, hard rock, jazz, blues, blues and jazz rock fusion, progressive rock. Jon would shred on a Hammond organ, driven through Marshall amps and a distortion box, so he could have the same volume and instrumental attack sound of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar playing, long aggressive and technical keyboard solos in concert is what he was known for. His style and sound using a Hammond organ was admired by Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, and influenced their respective progressive rock sounds, and Emerson’s massive keyboard solos.
No one has said Jimmy Smith the great jazz player,McCoy tyner who solos on my favourite things is amazing.Also Mark Kelly from Marillion very underrated