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A History of Rock Keyboardists

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The Keyboard Players Who Defined the Rock Era

In the beginning of rock music, the electronic keyboard and organ were seldom used. Early rock and roll legends like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnnie Johnson used piano as their means of expression. Other bands opted to stick to a guitar-based sound, foregoing keyed instruments altogether.

As time went on, electronic keyboard technology improved. More and more musicians saw the potential of portable keyboards and organs to expand their sound. As the psychedelic era began, keyboards became an essential part of the sound for many bands. From that point until the present, electronic keyboards and organs have dominated modern music. This article reviews many of the keyboard greats of the rock era, from the British Invasion to the 1980s.

The British Invasion

Most British Invasion bands, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, were guitar-driven bands. Even so, they used keyboards quite frequently. Keyboard duties in The Beatles were shared among the members, particularly John Lennon and Ringo Starr, and often by their producer, George Martin. Ian Stewart was a founding member of the Stones, and played piano and keyboards on every album and every tour until his death in 1985.

The first British band of note to feature organ as a prominent instrument was the original incarnation of The Animals. From their first hit in 1964 (a radical revision of the folk song “The House of the Rising Sun”) onward, their sound was dominated by keyboards. Alan Price’s unique style was the perfect match for Eric Burdon’s bluesy shouts. They had an all-too-brief run, with Dave Rowberry replacing Price on a couple of hits before they splintered in 1966.

Ray Manzarek

Perhaps no other band in rock history had as keyboard-centric a sound as The Doors. Less than two years after forming in Los Angeles, their sound made history with their self-titled debut album and their second single, “Light My Fire.” Co-founder Ray Manzarek used his love of the blues and his classical piano training to create an unmistakable keyboard sound that perfectly complemented the band’s jazz-inflected guitar and drums and the visionary lyrics and vocals of Jim Morrison. In a brief span of 4 years, the quartet released 6 legendary albums before Morrison’s mysterious death in 1971. Ray continued as a member of the Doors for a few years, then as an acclaimed solo artist, occasionally collaborating with the surviving members of The Doors before his passing in 2013.

The Moody Blues

Although they began life during the British Invasion as a straightforward R&B band, The Moodies didn’t achieve huge and lasting success until they reconfigured as a progressive rock band. Their first album in that mold, DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, featured founding member Mike Pinder on the Mellotron, a tape-delay keyboard. The Mellotron continued to figure heavily on the band’s following releases, and keyboards continue as an important part of the band’s sound to this day.

Rick Wright

Richard Wright played on all but one of Pink Floyd’s albums (1983’s The Final Cut), and it would be impossible to imagine the lush sound and brilliant lyricism of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE without his contributions. Although he never achieved the renown of his bandmates Roger Waters and David Gilmour, he contributed heavily to the band as composer, lyricist, and vocalist. More than ten years after Floyd’s last album, he reunited with the classic lineup for one more show at Live 8 in 2005 before his passing.

Jon Lord

Through the many lineup changes of Deep Purple, Jon Lord was a constant until his retirement in 2002. His keyboard mastery matched the guitar mastery of Ritchie Blackmore pound for pound, providing a progressive blues base for Blackmore’s hard rock guitar playing. What many fans of Deep Purple may not realize was Lord’s strong classical influence. In fact, the band’s fourth album, the first with the beloved “Mark II” lineup, was a rock concerto with orchestra, composed by Lord with lyrics by vocalist Ian Gillan. They are far more famous for what followed, with IN ROCK and MACHINE HEAD considered by many to be the crowning achievements of hard rock.

The Yes Men

Yes is synonymous with progressive rock. They have been going strong since 1969 based on a formula of balance. Each member of the band, past and present, are virtuosos of voice and instrument. But unlike many of their contemporaries, Yes never had one instrument dominate another. Their songs are crafted and layered carefully, with each instrument contributing just what it needs for the sake of the song.

Many superb keyboardists have been part of this band, including Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz (who also did time with The Moody Blues), Igor Khoroshev, and Oliver Wakeman. Their current keyboardist is Geoff Downes, who also founded the supergroup Asia and continues to record and perform with them when not with Yes.


This is but a brief overview, and there are many other great players that are not mentioned here. If you wish to explore these great musicians more, a Greatest Hits album from any of these bands would make a good starting point.

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