6 Unforgettable Classic Rock Keys Players

When people think of classic rock or rock ‘n’ roll in general, big 12-part drum kits, electric guitars, bass guitars, and giant amplifiers rush to mind. But there is another instrument that shook spines and blew minds. The keyboard.

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As such, American Songwriter wanted to highlight six of the instrument’s all-time best players. Six artists who stunned audiences and smashed expectations when it came to the piano, keyboard, organ, and more. While many of us learn to play the keys at a young age, you can’t teach what these folks were able to do.

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1. Elton John

Elton John is the most successful pop star piano player in music. He turned what traditionally has been a stuffy role—sitting at the piano, practically hidden behind it—into an opportunity for elaborate costumes and flamboyant performances. With ruby red glasses, sequin jumpsuits, and lyrics that stick to your eardrums, John perfected the role, especially as a front person, not just a side artist. So much so that his career, which began in the early 1960s, continues today thanks to songs like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

2. Ray Manzarek

Where would The Doors be without Ray Manzarek? His key riffs and parts accentuated the band’s music and lead singer Jim Morrison’s poetry like nothing else. He was the neon sign in front of the popular pub. He was the cherry on top of their sundae. Without Manzarek, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 74, the band would not have been the musically fire-lighting outfit that they came to be. He can best be heard on songs like “Hello, I Love You” and “When The Music’s Over.”

3. Bernie Worrell

Bernie Worrell led several musical lives. All of them, funky. He was a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic and later he performed with the band the Talking Heads. Worrell is prominently featured on the iconic concert film Stop Making Sense, from the Talking Heads, offering nontraditional but nevertheless compelling playing—stuff that sounds like it’s channeled from another universe. Worrell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 thanks to his outstanding style.

4. Rick Wakeman

Known for his work in the prog rock British-born band, Rick Wakeman has worked with a stable of high-profile artists, including David Bowie, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and Lou Reed. Wakeman played in Yes from 1971 until 1980. But he also enjoyed a prominent solo career, releasing dozens of albums and film scores from the 1970s until today. Wakeman helped to define the sound of the rock keyboard in the 1970s.

5. Richard Wright

A co-founder of the iconic classic rock band Pink Floyd, Richard Wright contributed majorly to the band, including on perhaps their most famous album, The Dark Side of the Moon. As a player, song arranger, and writer, Wright was important to the group, writing songs like “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them,” among many more. His imagination and skilled playing helped buoy the band, offering lush music to their prog-rock guitars.

6. Tony Banks

A founding member of the British-born band Genesis, Tony Banks’ playing was almost too much to fathom. One of the greatest kes players in rock history, Banks was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 with Genesis. The group, known for pushing sonic boundaries and finding new musical spaces in the 1980s, leaned heavily on him to mix well with its singers like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

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