Chimp playing piano

Photo: Mr. Bunndini, flagged for reuse.

Let’s be honest. We kid about the bass player getting no respect, but tell me who got more groupies. John Entwistle? Or Rick Wakeman? OK, Rick’s had four heart attacks before he reached 30, so bad example. But still, the keyboard player in rock gets no respect. Oh, we point at the real standouts – Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord – but do you remember the ones who didn’t play some other instrument? Or sang lead?

Rock is a guitar-based genre, in love with its lead vocalists, enraptured by its drummers, and grudgingly dependent on its bass players. Keyboards? More often than not an afterthought. Prog rockers give the keyboards their due. But then keyboards encompass piano, Hammond organ, and all manner of synthesizer from the early mellotrons to today’s digital jobs.

Consider the Foo Fighters, however. There are a handful of songs with keyboards. Who plays for them? Taylor Hawkins, the drummer, and Dave Grohl, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Hmm… Deep Purple had the late, great Jon Lord, but Lord handpicked a man you’ve probably heard but never heard of: Don Airey of Rainbow, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, and a dozen other acts. Go back to the sixties, when modern rock was defined. John Lennon was The Beatles’ main keyboard player, but most people’s image of him is with a guitar in hand. The Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, canned their keyboard player, the late, great Ian Stewart, over the band’s objections. Mick and Keith made their position known when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stewart went in with them, no less in stature than other former members, Mick Taylor and Brian Jones. (Bill Wyman was still a Stone at that point.)

I suppose this goes all the way back to the fifties and the dawn of rock and roll. In the beginning, you had Elvis and Johnny Cash. But they were lamenting that they would forever stand in the shadow of their buddy, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee did to the piano what Jimi Hendrix would do the the guitar over a decade later. He raped it. Unfortunately for him, most people also thought he was guilty of statutory rape by marrying his 13-year-old first cousin (a lot more common in the South in those days than you might think). Elvis and Johnny strummed guitars. Johnny would endure, but Elvis would fill Jerry Lee’s void and eclipse everyone else. The piano got shoved to the side of the stage in favor of men with six-strings and charismatic lead singers.

Even when you get into progressive rock, the keyboard player is disrespected. Yes, one of the most keyboard-heavy prog bands in history, has had six of them, compared to three guitarists, two drummers, and the same bass player since 1967. Even the lead singer position, two since Jon Anderson retired due to illness, remained unchanged except for one year in the early eighties. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which is almost all keyboard, is really nothing without Greg Lake out front. Beyond the core of true believers, it’s Lake’s angelic voice, not Emerson having a threesome with a pipe organ and a Moog synthesizer, that drew in more fans. Never mind King Crimson, which chucked keyboards altogether in the early 1970’s. If someone needed to play them from 1973 on, Robert Fripp would play them. Otherwise, the violin, the sax, or Adrian Belew’s guitar acrobatics could fill the void.

Which is too bad because keyboards make for some of the most interesting moments in rock history. Maybe it’s because, while most of us look at the guitar as a mystery, know we can’t carry a tune without the aid of a shower, and know we’d sound like a war zone trying to play drums, we’ve all managed to bang out a few notes on a piano. Therefore, it’s somehow easier and, therefore, not as worthy. But there are some keyboard players whose work cannot be denied.


Rick Wright

Photo: VANA, used under Creative Commons

Not only did Wright’s voice define three different versions of Pink Floyd, but his keyboard work did, too. From Meddle through The Wall, Wright’s sound is a critical component to the Floyd sound. He was gone on The Final Cut, and you can really tell. Wright is one of those quiet members, like John Entwistle or John Paul Jones, whose absence does far more damage to a band than more charismatic members. David Gilmour wrote and arranged A Momentary Lapse of Reason with Wright in mind while he and Nick Mason worked to bring him back into Floyd. Roger Waters says (shockingly) that it’s no longer Pink Floyd without Gilmour (a surprising admission about his one-time mortal enemy), but Gilmour says Pink Floyd ceased to exist the day Rick Wright died. I have to agree.


Elton John

Photo: Ernst Vikne, used under Creative Commons

England’s only diva might be regarded more as a singer and a songwriter, but consider what the man has done on the piano. The former Reginald Dwight might have made a decent guitarist, but it would have detracted from his persona and his charisma. No, Elton John needed to be what he became: The bastard child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace. Just listen to those ivories when he plays.


Billy Preston

The fifth Beatle and the sixth Rolling Stone, one of only two men who could succeed (but never replace) Ian Stewart. (The other was Nicky Hopkins, who, like Stewart, also provided keys for Led Zeppelin.) Preston is one of the great unsung heroes of rock. Had Paul McCartney not been so disenchanted with The Beatles in 1969, Preston would have been added to the band. During his tenure with the Stones, Mick, Keith, and Charlie were actually in awe of him, not bad for an American working with a bunch of Delta blues-obsessed Brits.


Thomas Dolby

Photo: Erik Charlton, used under Creative Commons

The eighties were supposed to be the end of guitar as rock’s dominant instrument. (And then the hair metal bands exploded out of LA. How’d that work out for you, new wavers?) Rock needed a keyboard player who could be as flamboyant and as Jimmy Page. Enter Dolby, blinded by science and shooting pool with a croquet set alongside Magnus Pye, science guy. Dolby could be playful (“She Blinded Me With Science”), disturbing (“Hyperactive”), and silly (Aliens Ate My Buick). But Dolby was no new wave snob, having added synth to Foreigner, among others. He also was and is a technical genius, having created one of the early methods for creating ringtones. So, if your annoying coworker has his phone blare “Science!” whenever he gets a text, you can blame Dolby for more than just the source material.


Billy Joel

Photo: Joel Shankbone, used under Creative Commons

The Piano Man. The Steinway is integral to Billy Joel’s sound, even when it’s not. The most synthesized Joel song ever is “Pressure,” and Joel plays it not like a fake orchestra or a Hammond organ on steroids. It sounds like a piano. Everything this man writes and sings comes off the piano. It’s not only fundamental to his identity, it’s fundamental to his sound.


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