With the recent passing of rock legend Keith Emerson, we’ve decided to put together a list of our top rock musicians who fully used a wide range of keyboards, from piano to organs, to synthesizers. We’ve omitted those who are primarily pianists, opting to save those for their own distinct Top 9 List in the near future.
#9. Steve Winwood
A rock jouneyman, who was a key member of bands such as The Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and Traffic before building a very successful solo career, Steve Winwood is also very versatile in his musical abilities. Aside from being a top notch vocalist, Winwood has played guitar and bass. However, it is the keyboards which most strongly define his career, from the thunderous, signature organ of “Gimme Some Lovin'” in 1966 to the fine blend of pianos and keyboards during Traffic’s heyday to the unique, synth driven music of the 1980s where Winwood found his most commercial success.
Listen to “While You See a Chance” by Steve Winwood:
#8. Howard Jones
During the mid 1980s Howard Jones was a hit-making machine, with nearly a dozen Top 40 singles in the span of just over 3 years. Jones took a stack of keyboards and synths to form an orchestra of sounds that were timely to the eighties. As that era faded, Jones has carried on performing alternate, often stripped down versions of his songs which shows his talents extend far beyond the electronic realm.
Listen to “New Song” by Howard Jones:
#7. Rod Argent
In addition to providing the signature piano, keyboards and mellotron for his sixtes group, The Zombies, Rod Argent was also a master composer who wrote all of the group’s hit songs. When The Zombie’s dismantled following the delivery of their masterpiece, Odessey & Oracle, Argent continued on by forming a new band named after himself. Rick Wakeman (he’s further up on this list) cited Argent’s Hammond B3 solo on “Hold Your Head Up” as the greatest organ solo ever.
Listen to “She’s Not There” by The Zombies:
#6. Stevie Wonder
Starting off as a child prodigy in the early 1960s, Stevie Wonder blazed a multi-decades-long trail of innovation and excellence. Whether it was guitar, harmonica, bass, or drums, there seems to be no instrument that he can’t master, but it is behind the “ebony and ivory” where Wonder shines brightest. At age eleven, he was already mastering Ray Charles songs and through his teens he was at the heart of the Motown sound. Through the seventies and eighties, Wonder expanded his keyboard palette, with the signature Hohner Clavinet on “Superstition” and the incorporation of several types of organs, synths and electric pianos.
Listen to “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder:
#5. Keith Emerson
The person who inspired the curation of this list, Keith Emerson emerged as the centerpiece of the sixties group , The Nice. In that group he pushed the Hammond organ to the sonic limit by replicating all kinds of mechanical sound effects. Emerson was also one of the early users of the Moog synthesizer and, when Emerson Lake & Palmer signed their first record deal in 1970, one provision was that include a company-bought Moog synth for Emerson’s personal use. With this “cutting edge” technology, Emerson incorporated some classical influences which brought great success to this seventies supergroup. Later in his career, Emerson composed several motion picture soundtracks as well as collaborated with full orchestras.
Listen to “Karn Evil, 1st Impression, Pt.2” by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer:
#4. Jon Lord
Spending most of his career with Deep Purple, Jon Lord fused Baroque style playing with a distinct and distorted organ sound which made him one of the most aggressive keyboard players ever. A founding member of the group in 1967, Lord persisted through the various “Mark X” lineups for the next quarter century, trading hard rock licks with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore on an equal footing. During the time when Deep Purple disbanded, Lord spent an extended period in the group Whitesnake, climaxing with the 1984 album Slide It In. The classic lineup of Deep Purple returned later in that year and Lord picked up forging more classic rock sounds for decades to come.
Listen to “Lazy” by Deep Purple:
#3. Rick Wakeman
Starting off with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, Rick Wakeman spent decades as a restless soul who jumped from project to project. He worked with the folk group, The Strawbs, starting in 1969, was the master behind the sound of David Bowie’s classic Hunky Dory, played on albums by T Rex and Elton John, and released two theatrical solo concept albums, all before he was 25. But the most famous gig for this innovative and dedicated keyboardist has been with the band Yes, a group which he joined and departed from five separate times. Starting with the 1972 classic album Fragile before departing just two years later. Wakeman had later stints with Yes in the 1980s, 1990s (twice), and 2000s, while constantly working on interesting projects in the gaps between his time with the band.
Listen to “Cans and Brahms” by Yes:
#2. Ray Manzarek
Cutting his teeth on classic Chicago blues, Ray Manzarek migrated to California to study film, where he met Jim Morrison and The Doors were born. During their brief but potent career, The Doors explored all kinds of studio and stage arrangements, constantly pushing the boundaries of composition and performance. Starting with the group’s brilliant 1967 debut with Manzarek’s vox organ and several varieties of acoustic and electric pianos were always at the heart of The Door’s music, often playing with one hand as his left hand keyboard provided the group’s bass. After Morrison’s untimely death in 1971, Manzarek moved to lead vocals for a very brief era before the group ultimately disbanded but he did move on to work with groups such as Iggy Pop, Echo and the Bunneymen, and X, for which he produced four albums.
Listen to “Love Her Madly” by The Doors:
#1. Tony Banks
The ultimate electronics “nerd”, Genesis’s Tony Banks would run his stack of keyboards into a custom made mixing board and a rotary Leslie speaker to givehimself a unique and potent live sound. While the prog-theatrical-art-drenched version of early 70s Genesis never reached wide commercial appeal, the truly original works they produced are some of the most interesting and innovative of the classic rock era, peaking with the double album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, on which Banks shines brightest off all these expert musicians. Following the departure of key members, Genesis reinvented themselves as a more pop-oriented trio with Banks remaining at the heart of the sound which proliferated with great success through the 1980s and into 1990s.
Due to this incredible metamorphosis of style and instrumentation, we’ve selected the oft-overlooked Banks to top this list.
Listen to “In the Cage” by Genesis:
There are plenty of talented keyboard players who could have easily landed on this list, too many to even mention here:
John Paul Jones
With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.
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