My List of the Best Keyboardists in Rock (a list subject to perpetual tentativeness)

To put it straight, it is impossible to pick a single best master of the keyboards, especially there is an enormous number of keyboard wizards out there, ranging from the classical ones to the jazz pianists to the ragtime masters. So I decided to make a list of my favorite keyboardists in rock. They are arranged in no particular order. And this is my own list. Of course discussion is welcome.

Rick Wakeman of Yes

Yes has been making genius music way before The Beatles made “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and one of the big brains responsible for making Yes’s brand of English progressive rock is Rick Wakeman. Strands of his classical music influence abound in his music, but he is definitely a versatile player, playing sounds from cowboy blues to Schoenberg expressionist improvisations. The video below is Wakeman’s most popular keyboard solo, which, as you might expect, is an effortless exercise in pure epicness.

Jordan Ruddess of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment

To pick a single representative video for Jordan Ruddess is like picking the most beautiful woman in the world– it will either be an exercise on futility or an idiotic facade of objectivity like what they do in Miss Universe. This is because Jordan is fond of experimenting with stuff. He is not a very melodic player, but without doubt he is a very technically proficient one, doing insanely quick scalar runs and arpeggiated triads like he is typing his Yahoo! Mail password. Recently, he is obsessed with his Ipad applications, literally playing with it like a toy, except that he is doing the “Octavarium” solo or a cool Steve Jobs tribute instrumental.

Tony Banks of Genesis

Tony Banks is not a popular keyboard nerd, but personally I would say that he is terribly underrated. He doesn’t clinch lightning-fast chromatic runs, but his melodic genius is more ‘sublime’ than ‘amazing’. His iconic solo in “In The Cage” shows his penchant for simple but very memorable phrases. However, the best thing about Tony Banks is that he is not limited to major or minor or pentatonic scales. The clip below, a live performance of the  epic “Supper’s Ready” gives us a taste of an experimental cuisine on chromatic triads. It is not devilishly fast, and Ruddess fanatics may easily brand the solo as lame, but its subtle genius has an impact as a gut feeling, and not as a mere masturbatory scalar exhibition.   (His skills, sadly, were underutilized during the Phil Collins era, as Phil is more interested in making pop songs rather than babble in musical esoterica).

Jon Lord of Deep Purple

Jon Lord is a proficient Hammond organist, and he is more known as a blues-rock player. But he does a lot of classical stuff. Of course, his classical influences jived beautifully with Ritchie Blackmore’s neo-classical guitar playiing, and helped expand the limits of the blues. Again, he is a more melodic player, and his melodic capabilities can be attributed more to his classical roots. He is one of the few blues-rock organists who can amaze the audience while swinging his smooth solos.

Keith Emerson

He is popular as part of the triumvirate Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but he is much more comfortable playing as a solo musician. Without doubt, his skills were maximized in the obsessively exhibitionist music of ELP. Being a ‘supergroup’, ELP is accustomed  to on-stage antics for performance purposes. I would have to admit that I really see Keith more as a musical performer than a musician, more like a Jordan Ruddess type, who waves his technical skills like a banner. One can only glean a few memorable lines in their masterpiece “Brain Salad Surgery” because of the very dense layers and the large amount of synthesized keyboard and the sheer number of ‘solos’ or runs that thread the album. Nonetheless, Keith proved himself to be a very skillful player despite his taste for the lavish.


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