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    Top 10 Rock Keyboardists

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    With so many guitar heroes, it’s easy to forget that piano has always been at the heart of rock and roll. From the original ivory pounders of the ‘50s, who took a cue from boogie-woogie and blues piano, to the synth pioneers of the late '60s and '70s and modern innovators of today, these musicians are the epitome of rock keys.

    #10) Fats Domino - The Pioneer

    Fats Domino came rocking out of New Orleans with his piano in the late ‘40s and left the music world forever changed. He was the most successful of rock and roll’s pioneers after Elvis, and many say that rock piano began with his 1949 hit “The Fat Man.” His pounding piano style was highly influential on rock of the '50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (the Beatles, for example, frequently sang his praises), and his rhythmic style of accentuating the off-beats was also an influence on ska music. More importantly, however, the man didn't just do piano rolls with both hands, he worked the house by pushing the piano across the stage with his belly. HIS BELLY.

    #9) Ray Manzarek - The Combo Organ Maestro

    As the keyboardist of the revolutionary ‘60s psychedelic rock band the Doors, Ray Manzarek “combined the Apollonian and the Dionysian - the Dionysian side is the blues, and the Apollonian side is classical music,” as he explained in a 1997 interview. Second only to Jim Morrison’s distinct baritone and cult persona, Manzarek’s kaleidoscopic organ swirls were the defining characteristic of the Doors’ sound, and in many ways the sound of the decade. There is no mistaking that opening riff to “Light My Fire.” In addition to his signature Vox Continental combo organ – and then Gibson G-101 – Manzarek played the role of bassist with his Fender Rhodes Piano Bass.

    #8) Richard Wright - The Magic Behind Pink Floyd

    There is no doubt that Richard Wright was a monumental musical force in Pink Floyd. His somber, atmospheric keyboard layers were a vital component of the legendary art-rock band’s sound, and his processed Farfisa organ gave the band its initial psychedelic edge. Fusing jazz, neoclassical, and experimental influences, Wright used many different keyboards and synths including the Minimoog, Mellotron, VCS 3, and Wurlitzer to achieve his spacious, eerie effects. In addition to being one of Floyd’s most musically gifted members, he was also a talented songwriter and contributed significantly to Pink Floyd’s classic albums. After Wright’s death, bandmate David Gilmour said of him, “After all, without 'Us and Them' and 'The Great Gig in the Sky,' both of which [Wright] wrote, what would The Dark Side of the Moon have been?”

    #7) Billy Joel The Piano Man

    Rivaled only by Elton John, Billy Joel is a piano-pounding hit machine and one of the most popular pianists of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Joel embraced a wide range of styles over the course of his career, but it is his pop-rock that is the most well known. Influenced by the Beatles, Broadway, and R&B, he combined technical skill and memorable melodies to make for a catalog that is full of great piano rock. Just listen to his 1973 Columbia Records debut, Piano Man, his 1977 commercial breakthrough The Stranger (“Only the Good Die Young”), 1983’s Innocent Man (“Uptown Girl”), and 1993’s River of Dreams, and you’ll find tons of incredible piano riffs.

    #6) Tori Amos - The Piano Woman

    Sorry to break up the boys' club, but this piano prodigy has more than earned her place on this list. Between her inventive style and fearless playing, Tori Amos has made the piano fierce again. What's that you say? She's not a rocker? Well then you've never heard her slay on the harpsichord ("Professional Widow") or seen her play her piano and keyboard simultaneously live, one on each side of her. As a young piano prodigy, she was kicked out of the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music for playing Zeppelin, and in her solo career has been more at home next to hard rockers like Nine Inch Nails and Tool as opposed to female singer-songwriters like Sarah McLaughlin or Fiona Apple. She has even challenged metal bands with her unyielding power.

    #5) Rick WakemanThe Virtuoso

    As the keyboardist of one of the most successful prog-rock bands in history, the classically trained Rick Wakeman played some of the most epic keyboard solos on record. He replaced Tony Kaye in Yes in 1971 and greatly influenced the band’s most successful albums (1971's Fragile and 1972's Close to the Edge in particular) with his fierce synth showcases and flamboyant organ solos - especially on Yes' breakout hit “Roundabout." In addition to being a charismatic showman and key element of Yes’ success, Wakeman was a session musician for the likes of David Bowie (you can hear his Mellotron on “Space Oddity’), Elton John, Black Sabbath, Al Stewart, T. Rex, Cat Stevens, and Lou Reed, and has released a well-spring of solo albums including the instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973) and chart-topping Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974).

    #4) Jerry Lee LewisThe Great Ball of Fire

    Known for his wild glissandos, which he would play with everything from his foot to his butt, this Louisiana musician really was a great ball of fire and one of rock's first bad boys. He was also a highly skilled pianist who learned to play by ear, absorbing the influence of country, gospel, and R&B music. One of the original piano rockers after Fats Domino and Little Richard, Lewis gave us classic ‘50s piano rockers like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Nicknamed “The Killer,” Lewis also changed the game by bringing attitude into the picture. His reckless fire was captured on record at Sun Records in Memphis, the home of rock and roll. Though his career was marked by controversy in his personal life, Lewis slayed on piano and was more punk rock than most contemporary bands.

    #3) Keith Emerson The Hendrix of the Hammond

    One of the most technically accomplished keyboard players of the prog-rock era (and of all time), Keith Emerson was as innovative as he was flamboyant. Known for both his mind-blowing skill and insane live antics, he would use knives to wedge down keys of his organ, play the organ upside down while lying under it (occasionally needing to be rescued by a roadie), and pluck the interior strings of the grand piano like an autoharp. Beginning his career in the late ‘60s with the R&B group the Nice, Emerson became the master of classically influenced rock with the prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the ‘70s. He could get sounds out of his L-100 Hammond like Hendrix could get out of his electric guitar, including wailing howls and bomb-like effects. He was also the first person to tour with a Moog synthesizer (other bands just used it on recordings in the studio) and was no coward when it came to taking new keyboard technologies to the extreme.

    #2) Elton JohnThe Piano-Rock Superstar

    Hands down the most successful artist on this list, Elton John's impact on rock and roll is immeasurable. With seven consecutive No. 1 albums and non-stop hits, he dominated the charts during the ‘70s. But more significantly, Elton John reintroduced piano into the guitar-then-synth-dominated genre, all the while proving that you can be a piano player and a rock star. With his over-the-top costumes and powerhouse performances, he also helped usher rock into the arenas. Influenced by the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, John's playing style is often spontaneous, improvisational, and rhythmic. Billy Joel said it best with this: “Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don't strum a piano. You don't bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano.”

    #1) Little Richard - The First High-Voltage Rocker

    One of the most electrifying piano players of all time, Little Richard was the first to bring a showiness to rock and roll. Infusing R&B and boogie-woogie piano with the fire of gospel, Richard’s piano style was fast, loud, and staccato. Where Fats had smooth pipes, Little Richard belted it out in a raspy voice over his crackling chords and rapid-fire triplets. Beginning his career in the mid-‘40s, Little Richard claims to be the "architect of rock and roll" and his '50s hits like “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Tutti Frutti” are some of the genre’s core classics. His influence on generations of rock and rollers to come (we're talking Dylan, Jagger, Hendrix, McCartney, Bowie...) is profound. There have been plenty of more virtuosic players since him, but none can top the electricity of this original.

     

    HONORABLE MENTIONS (yes, there are six)

    Billy Ritchie It would be foolish to highlight Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman without acknowledging British keyboardist Billy Ritchie. With his band the Satellites, he became the first keyboard player to take a leading role in rock and literally stand up at the keyboard, mounting his Hohner Clavinet on stilts. His next band 1-2-3(which later became Clouds) is credited for laying the blueprint for prog-rock, and they did it sans guitarist. Even Bowie himself called the man a genius.

    Jon Lord - A classically trained piano player and member of Deep Purple and Whitesnake, Jon Lord (aka "The Hammond Lord") stood out from the other keyboardists of the '70s (namely Emerson and Wakeman) for embracing his blues-rock influences instead of shying away from them. While they were jumping on the synthesizer bandwagon, he was experimenting with pushing the Hammond-Leslie sound through Marshall amps to attain a distorted, growling effect that was just as heavy as Ritchie Blackmore's lead guitar and often more prominent.

    Tony Banks Genesis’ Tony Banks also stood out from his over-the-top peers for his restraint. A composer and arranger as much as a keyboard virtuoso, his playing was always tasteful and in service of the song. Banks also had an ever-growing array of electronic keyboards and pioneered the ARP Pro Soloist synth, the Mellotron, the Yamaha CP-70, and the Hammond T-102.

    Freddie Mercury - His keyboard work has been called underrated and virtuosic, and while often overshadowed by his amazing voice and larger-than-life persona, we all know there would be no "Bohemian Rhapsody" without Freddie Mercury's piano. Whether he was playing a concert grand or harpsichord, Mercury's keys added greatly to many of Queen's most popular songs.

    Alan Price - As the keyboardist of the Animals, Alan Price made the organ a prominent feature in rock via classic songs like "House of the Rising Sun" and"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Genesis' Tony Banks regards him as "the first person who made me aware of the organ in a rock context."

    Steve Winwood - One of the first rock keyboardists, multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood is best known for rocking the Hammond B3. At a time when electric guitars ruled rock, he powered the Spencer Davis Group with his blazing keys and brought a lyricism to rock piano with his band Traffic and with Eric Clapton in the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith.

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    Topics: Rants, Record Collecting, Rock, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

    One Response to “Top 10 Rock Keyboardists”

    1. Jack Diamond Says:
      January 26th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

      So true your comments about Billy Ritchie; but for him, there would be no Emerson or Wakeman or Yes or ELP or King Crimson. Thanks to Bowie for highlighting an almost forgotten talent.

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