Top 5 Rock Keyboardists
American’s love top lists because in this country everything must be ranked. We must know who is best, who is number 1. While I detest the concept I do love controversy and subject ranking stirs the pot vigorously.
Guitarists have dominated Rock music from its start. For many years it was Jerry Lee Lewis against the world. Finally, in the mid 1960’s keyboardists started making their mark and finding their place in rock bands with the advent of compact, portable organs like the Vox Continental and Farfisa Combo Compact. Rugged souls, like me, even started humping “chopped” Hammond organs with Leslie rotating speakers. Bob Moog changed the scene forever by inventing – some say fathering – the music synthesizer.
The past 40 years has witnessed many brilliant keyboardists, but the top five on my list represent the cats that reached and influenced my playing the most.
Number 5 is Ray Manzarek, The Doors. Ray served not only as the organist but also the bassist playing a Rhodes Key Bass along with a bitchin’ Vox Continental. And, he would take over singing duties on nights that Morrison was too messed up to perform. Drawing from his Chicago roots of Blues and Polka, Ray permanently elevated the role of the keyboardist in a rock band.
Number 4 is Vincent Crane. Vincent was a true genius, a gift/curse that drove him to create incredible music with bands like The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and, his greatest achievement, Atomic Rooster, eventually drove him to take his own life. He used a full-cabinet Hammond C3 through regular amplification. No Leslie. If given the opportunity I would have asked Vincent why he divorced his Hammond from its life partner. I imagine that he would protest that he was seeking the pure truth of the organ and its drawbars that modified the sound.
Number 3 is Jon Lord, Deep Purple. Jon “Freaking” Lord brought a percussive, manic attacking technique to his Hammond C3, which was hooked to a wall of Vox amps as well as a bank of Leslies. There aren’t many keyboardists that could hold their own with the likes of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. My hands cramp every time I hear his climactic ending of the solo in Hush. While solos in songs like Smoke on the Water are exceptionally well crafted, it is Jon’s supportive rhythm work behind singer Ian Gillan and Blackmore that was most impressive. The coupling with drummer Ian Paice and bassist Roger Glover is the definition of a tight rhythm section.
Number 2 is Rick Wakeman. Rick’s work with bands like The Strawbs, David Bowie, and Yes would be enough to land him in the Keyboard Hall of Fame. His solo work cinches the deal. While I was still trying to figure out what he was playing on Fragile he busted out with the amazing The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which will certainly find its way onto my list of top keyboard albums.
Number 1? Who else? Keith Emerson. In the summer of 1970 I was relaxing in my motel room bathtub after a gig watching my fart bubbles rise and listening to an FM Rock station. At that time FM stations played entire albums. I listened in awe to Tarkus while my skin pruned. It was a revelation, an epiphany of sorts: rock music that drew heavily from the classics. The next day I bought Tarkus and the bands only other album titled Pictures At An Exhibition based loosely upon Modeste Mussorgsky’s original score. I was hooked. I put my Doors albums aside and started the inexorable task of figuring out what this master keyboardist was playing. His road rig included a Hammond C3 and L100 (the organ that he stabbed with a knife during shows), a grand piano that rotated in the air while he played, a large Moog Modular synthesizer, and a pair of Mini Moogs, a setup that had to give his roadies nightmares. Keith was the first rocker to tour with a Moog Modular system.
By 1978 I realized that I was never going achieve Emerson’s superhuman alacrity on the keys, but that didn’t stop me from making a road trip to Montreal to witness Emerson, Lake, & Palmer live at the Olympic Stadium complete with a 100-piece orchestra. For me, this was the greatest night in rock history. The freaky thing was that played many of the pieces that I had struggled with faster than on the album cuts.
When you compile his work with The Nice, ELP, solo efforts, movie scores, and symphonic works Emerson has elevated himself above all comers through classical interpretations, jazz improvisations, and downright hard rockin’. He can even play the blues, which requires a direct connection to and exposure of his soul. There can be only one Number 1 and in the category of rock keyboardists Keith Emerson is the greatest ever.
There you have it. Let the debate begin. Didn’t see your favorite guy on the list? Like I said, that is the aspect of these wretched things that I love.