Keyboards and synthesizers lend a unique sound to many different genres of music from jazz to rock to dance club and more. The five best keyboard players in music history were easy to discover thanks to our sources. Readers might not recognize famous keyboardist’s names at a glance, but many listeners may be able to identify their most famous tracks after just a few bars.
Certain people can instantly name that tune quicker than others. In fact, a recent study indicates that millennials in particular seem to display an affinity for music recognition. Overall, songs released in the 21st century — 2000 to 2015 — were the best identified, but tracks released from 1960 to 1999 didn’t lag far behind. In fact, all songs from this latter 40-year period enjoyed roughly the same degree of popularity. The researchers attribute this finding to the sheer variety of hits released in the latter half of the 20th century.
The right song can brighten even the darkest day for many music fans, but new research out of Japan reports “groovy” music can even enhance brain functioning! That’s right, dancing your Saturday nights away may just sharpen your thinking skills. Scientists from the University of Tsukuba report that “music with a groove” can significantly increase measures of executive function and associated brain activity. There is a catch, though: You have to be familiar with the tune.
Sometimes listeners might have an earworm of a keyboard or piano tune stuck in their heads with no way to articulate it other than humming the bars. This is so common in fact, that companies like Google have responded by creating hum-to-search functionality. Our list of the top five best keyboard players of all time might help you find that song that’s stuck on the tip of your tongue. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!
The List: Best Keyboardists, According to Music Fans
1. Keith Emerson
Keith Emerson passed in 2016 and left the world with an enduring musical legacy. “Classically trained, Emerson’s childhood was also spent playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and his attendance at this broad musical church became evident as he developed his own gangbusting style and honed his prog chops. Equally adept on the piano, Hammond organ and synthesizer, Emerson became a household name with ELP, before setting out on a solo career. Not just a keyboard player, but a true force of nature, his bombastic showmanship gave him genuine rock star status,” writes MusicRadar.
“Unquestionably one of the most important keyboard players of the past half century, Emerson first made his reputation in the 1960s, with The Nice, before going on to co-found the celebrated ELP. Subsequently, he showed enormous versatility as a solo musician, and also in collaboration with others as well as composing movie soundtrack music,” adds Louder.
“Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson rightfully tops our list… Taking a mad scientist approach to his rig, Emerson was the single biggest innovator among keyboard players, looking more like a switchboard operator onstage than a musician,” notes Loudwire.
2. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is the celebrated creator of some of the most popular keyboard music of all time. “Starting his recording career at the age of 11, Stevie Wonder is a famous American keyboardist and a former child prodigy. Stevie Wonder became one of the most creative musical figures of the 20th century and produced hit songs like ‘Superstition,’ ‘My Cherie Amour,’ and ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,”’ according to the Atlanta Institute of Music & Media.
“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,” writes Keyboard Kraze.
“Wonder is known best for utilizing a funky piano style in his music and furthering the idea of the concept album. One of the best-selling music artists ever, he has also sold over 100 million copies of his music…[and] a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” says Ledgernote.
3. Richard Wright
Pink Floyd’s music might lack much of its characteristic richness without the sublime keyboarding of Richard Wright. “You know Wright for playing keyboards and singing backup vocals for legendary prog band Pink Floyd. But besides playing keyboards, he was also a composer and songwriter, too. Wright was highly experimental, incorporating sound effects into his music to give unique effects to Pink Floyd’s style,” offers Record-Head 50.
“Wright made keyboards a vehicle to show his soul, inventiveness, art and technique all at once. Without him, there’s no real Pink Floyd (as ‘THE FINAL CUT,’ no matter how good, proves). He always has been underrated as a keyboard player but no one else has propelled the instrument to the stratospheric heights in which he excelled,” according to The Top Tens.
“Roger Waters and David Gilmour may have dominated the Pink Floyd headlines, but few will argue against the fact that Wright’s delightful keyboard sound colored much of what the band produced… Famously sacked by Waters during the making of ‘The Wall,’ David Gilmour brought him back into the fold for 1987’s ‘A Momentary Lapse Of Reason,’ while ‘The Endless River’ was Gilmour and Nick Mason’s final tribute to their late keyboard player,” explains Loudersound.
4. Ray Manzarek
The Doors captured the zeitgeist of the 60s due in no small part to the keyboard contributions of Ray Manzarek. “Classic rock icons The Doors were one of the few popular bands of their generation without a bass player, but there was one very simple reason for this fact: they had Ray Manzarek. This immensely talented keyboardist and songwriter not only composed and performed melody lines on his instrument, but Manzarek also handled the low end grooves, as well, in a style which was completely and utterly unique for the day,” explains Watch Mojo.
“Manzarek collaborated with many artists such as Weird Al Yankovic, Iggy Pop, and Bal. He also wrote a couple of books throughout his career. Including his biography and some works of fiction. Furthermore, Manzarek was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 as a member of the Doors,” offers Music Gateway.
“Ray Manzarek took on a peculiar role in the Doors, not only serving as the band’s keyboardist, but responsible for filling the void left by the absence of a bassist. Between driving melody alongside guitarist Robby Krieger, he rounded out the low end with punctuated lines that separated the influential rock outfit from so many of their peers,” writes Loudwire.
5. Herbie Hancock
“Rockit” is easily Hancock’s most famous track, and it is instantly recognizable from the downbeat. “Hancock’s whole career saw him adapting to new instruments quickly… His later music showed a strong improvisational aspect, as well as an influence from contemporary classical composers with an electronic edge. Between 1978 and 1982, Hancock created several pieces with jazz-influenced disco and pop music. In 1983, his Grammy-award-winning song ‘Rockit’ was the first jazz hip-hop song, and the first mainstream single to feature scratching,” details LedgerNote.
“Herbie Hancock has pretty much done it all. From his beginnings as a jazz musician – he played with Miles Davis, no less – he went on to cross stylistic boundaries, exploring fusion, soul, funk and electro. With his adventurous chord voicings, incredible touch and superb improvisation skills, Hancock is a supreme player, and is still pushing boundaries and influencing new generations of musicians,” claims MusicRadar.
“Herbie Hancock is one of the best jazz keyboard players. He is an inspiration and collaborator for numerous keyboard players and has helped outline the post-bop sound in jazz. Hancock was brought into the spotlight in 1963 when he joined Miles Davis’ quartet, the Second Great Quartet. The quartet commenced using elements of rock and pop music during Hancock’s tenure and at Davis’s insistence, Hancock learned to use additional electric keyboards,” according to Music Gateway.
You might also be interested in:
- Record-Head 50
- The Top Tens
- Watch Mojo
- Music Gateway
- Keyboard Kraze
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