The 30 greatest synth players of all time: keyboard wizards, programming gurus and sound design legends

Joe Zawinul
(Image credit: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

MTS 2020: These days, synth players are a dime a dozen. Throw a rock into the air and there's every chance it'll come down on an electronic musician. But what makes a synth player great? 

Beyond that, what makes a synthesist legendary?Is it the ability to play incendiary solos at light-speed? Or perhaps it's a vast technical knowledge, allowing one to synthesize any sound at will? Maybe it's simply a knack for creating a good arrangement. 

If the opinions of our users are any indication, it might be any or all of the above. Indeed, we elected not to cast judgement and asked you lot to choose the greatest synth player of all time. We were at turns surprised, confused, and impressed by your responses. 

Some nominations were obvious - players whose names have been long established as the best of the best. Others have scaled the charts with classic keyboard-driven cuts.

Some left us scratching our heads - not because they don’t deserve to be here, but because we'd have thought them too obscure to chalk up the votes. At least one entrant is likely to have been aided by an online campaign to achieve a higher-than-expected position.

You will likely have your own opinion as to who should - and shouldn't - be here, and we invite your commentary. Even if you don't agree with the choices, give 'em a look. Who knows? You might find some new and interesting music to listen to. You might even come away inspired to create a legendary synth record of your own. Do watch out for falling rocks, though.

And with that, we give you your winner...

1. Jordan Rudess

After years of playing and recording in obscurity, Jordan Rudess gained accolades from the readers of Keyboard magazine for his first solo LP, 1994's Listen. He soon found himself courted by the Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater. He took up the keys for the Dregs while also forming a musical partnership with the band's drummer, Rod Morgenstein. 

In 1999, he at long last joined Dream Theater, a position he still holds today.

Rudess's skills as a keyboardist are undeniable - as his popularity with MusicRadar's users - but it's his willingness to venture beyond mainstream instrumentation that has helped set him apart from his contemporaries. His stage rig has included Haken Continuum Fingerboard, Harpejji, Korg KAOSS Pad 3, and an iPad alongside more traditional keyboards.

Rudess is less a prog revivalist and more a prog revisionist, bringing performance chops and finely-honed technique into the modern era.

2. Dave Greenfield

We have to admit that we were caught off-guard by Dave Greenfield's popularity among our readers. The recent passing of The Stranglers' long-time keyboardist may have served as a reminder of just how brilliant he and his band were.

He deserves all the respect you've afforded him. Heck, Golden Brown alone earns him a place in our hearts, even if it was played on an out-of-tune harpsichord rather than a synth.

Greenfield's early tenure in the band featured his Hammond L-100 and Hohner Cembalet, but he wasn't afraid to turn up with a Minimoog under his arm. Unafraid of technology, he'd nudge the band into new wave on The Gospel According to the Meninblack, and pepper Aural Sculpture with Oberheim and PPG.

Longtime Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell called him “the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band” and he wasn't wrong.

3. Vangelis

Greek synthesist Vangelis Papathanassiou is best known as a composer of evocative soundtracks over a career that now spans nearly six decades. Yet he was not immune to the lure of rock, having tickled the ivories for both The Forminx and, more famously, with Demis Roussos in Aphrodite's Child.

His scores for filmmaker François Reichenbach brought him to the attention of mainstream movie producers and his L'Enfant theme for L'Apocalypse des animaux became something of a stock favourite.

He soon found himself composing the soundtrack for Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire, which earned him an Academy award and a spot on the top of Billboard's Hot 100. Many soundtrack's and solo albums followed, including his now-legendary score for Ridley Scott's seminal Blade Runner. 

Instinctive, emotional, and evocative, Vangelis' music is grand, romantic, and often quite moving. Unmistakable and unforgettable. 

4. Keith Emerson

At the start of the 1970s, the synthesizer was still something of an oddity, this despite Wendy Carlos' chart-shattering Switched On Bach. Synthesizers had been employed by popular artists, but were usually relegated to providing sound effects. A spate of cheesy cover albums seeking to cash in on Carlos' success only solidified the synthesizer's role as a provider of sonic novelties.

That changed with one single. Called Lucky Man, it was the closer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer's debut LP. Keith Emerson's improvised Moog solo in the song's fade-out was both majestic and moving, precisely what the track demanded. 

Lucky Man became a radio staple. ELP ruled the airwaves and roamed the stages for the next few years. Emerson's energetic and physically commanding performances brought a much needed sense of danger and excitement to the role of keyboardist. It was, at long last, cool to play the keys!

5. Rick Wakeman

Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Rick Wakeman is one of the great keyboard players of the last 50 years. And really, who could hate this grinning, gregarious goof, seemingly born to entertain and inspire?

Cutting his teeth on countless session gigs (Bowie, T-Rex), Rick Wakeman was a member of The Strawbs before joining Yes in 1971. With Yes, he helped to forge a sophisticated form of progressive rock with ever more dizzying displays of musical prowess.

His first stint with the band is considered by many to be their best, consisting of a handful of classic albums: Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Wakeman's solo albums were adventurous and literate concept pieces, with The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth among the genre's best.

Wakeman would step back into Yes with some regularity, and continue to churn out solo LPs. Today he's still doing the latter, while also having become known as a witty and entertaining television personality.

6. Vince Clarke

Is there anyone that has inspired and influenced more synth players? It's hard to overstate Vince Clarke's impact on electronic music.

Like some others on this list, he's not a flash player - quite the contrary, he's content to stay in the background, giving the spotlight over to someone else. Instead, he is an expert sonic craftsman, throwing faders and finessing electrons into exquisite morsels of pop perfection. 

Clarke's machines speak with simple melodies and percolating rhythms. His is a singular talent, tasteful and timeless, and always in service to the song. From Depeche Mode and Yazoo through The Assembly and onto Erasure, Vince Clarke has forged the soundtrack for our electronic age.

7. cEvin Key

It's something of a surprise to find Skinny Puppy's cEvin Key ranking so high on the list. That isn't to say he doesn't deserve it - he certainly does. It's just that his music has always been on the less accessible side of popular music. To say the least.

Nevertheless, it just goes to show that our users are a perceptive lot, singling out this seminal scaremeister over some of the better known 'industrial' musicians that followed in his bootsteps.

Initially a drummer, Key's percussive passions come through in well-crafted sequenced rhythms. An unmatched ability to generate atmosphere with treated dialogue samples, Key's distorted electronics spawned hundreds of Skinny Puppy clones - most of whom missed the craft and cleverness of the genuine article. 

8. Jean-Michel Jarre

What needs to be said about Jean-Michel Jarre? His placement in the upper echelons of this list was obvious and inevitable. Though they are now over four decades old, his Oxygene and Equinoxe albums still inspire legions of copyists, as evidenced by the many covers and tributes that proliferate on YouTube.

Mood music for the machine age, Jarre's compositions are at once mysterious and embracing. His joyous, jaunty rhythms propel singalong lead lines over energetic arrangements.

Always the entertainer, Jarre's concerts are record-setting extravaganzas, as big and bombastic as they come. He plays not to thousands, but to millions of fans at a single show.

Clearly, Jarre makes music to be enjoyed and there is no shortage of listeners eager to be taken along for the ride.

9. Tony Banks

From the wistful siren-song of Entangled to Abacab's intentionally simplistic outro, Tony Banks' signature quality is one of discretion. A man who always seems to know precisely what to play, Banks manages delicate balladry and multi-metric acrobatics with true taste. 

While his prog contemporaries revelled in rapid-fire solos bursting with more notes than a bent money manager, Banks always played exactly what the song demanded and not a single note more.

It was this unwavering ability to best serve the tune that helped Genesis weather shifts in musical taste and style, becoming ever more successful with each passing album.

With a knack for sublime solos that stay with the listener, Tony Banks was - and is - a class act.

10. Joe Zawinul

Weather Report helped to define a new hybrid style of jazz that incorporated elements of rock and funk with electrified instruments and synthesizers. Manning the keyboards was one Joe Zawinul, who'd recently played with Miles Davis.

Like Davis, Zawinul and his band pushed the boundaries of jazz. Zawinul incorporated the then-latest synths - most famously a pair ARP 2600s, one of which was controlled by a keyboard with the keys patched to play in reverse order.

Weather Report reached the peak of their success with the Zawinul-penned Birdland in 1977, earning the composer three Grammy awards.

Zawinul would take fusion even further with the Zawinul Syndicate, formed in 1988. He passed away in 2007, leaving a massive catalogue of work behind.

11. Herbie Hancock

One of a handful of fusion pioneers on our list, pianist and keyboardist Herbie Hancock is probably best known for a song that least represents his work. That song is, of course, Rockit, a Grammy-winning electronic instrumental from Hancock's 1983 album, Future Shock.

By the time Rockit was released, Hancock was already a jazz legend with a career stretching back to 1962 and a classic cut called Watermelon Man. During the 1960s, he played with the Miles Davis Quintet, composed the score to Blowup, and released another seven solo albums.

In 1973, Hancock formed The Headhunters - their debut LP sold a million copies and helped to usher in jazz fusion.

Now a professor at UCLA, he's still got what it takes to create award-winning music, as evidenced by his 2008 Album of the Year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters.

12. Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly took a chance when he joined Marillion back in 1981. After all, progressive rock wasn't just dead, it had been mercilessly executed by punk rock and its corpse set ablaze by the music press.

Marillion didn't care. They liked their music epic, and they wore their influences on their sleeves, proudly name-checking the most reviled rock dinosaurs of the previous two decades.

Like the band's heroes, Kelly could play, simplicity be damned. Standing proudly behind racks of synths, he complemented dense multi-metre arrangements with tasteful orchestration and the sort of Minimoog solos that called back to the heyday of progressive excess.

As the band shifted, so too did his style. Like Genesis - with whom Marillion are so often compared - the band weathered the loss of a beloved lead singer only to build a bigger audience with an ever-evolving sound. 

At the turn of the millennium, Kelly pioneered the idea of online crowdfunding in order to finance the band’s next album, dramatically changing the way bands would do business in the future.

13. Bernie Worrell

Bernie Worrell was a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic. That's all you need to know to agree that he belongs on this list. And you probably do know it.

What you may not know is that he was a child prodigy, receiving formal piano training at age three and writing a concerto at the tender age of eight. You might also be unaware that he trained at the Julliard School and that he would eventually play a vital role on some of the Talking Heads' best-loved records.

Indeed, Worrell had an illustrious career both in and out of the spotlight. As keyboardist for Parliament, he pioneered the use of synthesizers in funk. His Minimoog passage on Flashlight may be one of the greatest bass riffs of all time.

Keyboardist, arranger, producer - such descriptors seem inadequate for a man who influenced nearly every genre of modern music.

14. Rick Wright

The Pink Floyd Sound kicked off as a rhythm and blues outfit, playing rather pedestrian fare, often extending the tunes with lengthy solos to pad out their sets. By the time they'd dropped the 'Sound' from their name, they'd adopted a more experimental approach. Rick Wright's droning organ was the perfect backdrop for their spooky cosmic excursions.

The 1970s brought synthesizers and sequencers, and the entire band was credited with playing EMS's VCS3 on The Dark Side of the Moon, with the sequencer-driven On the Run becoming a fan favourite. 

For the follow-up, Wish You Were Here, Wright added ARP String Ensemble and Minimoog to his Hammond, pianos, Clavinet and VCS3. Wright's playing was vital to the album's success, with stately arrangements, brass-like passages, and aching solos. His chord progressions were often unexpected, building tension or creating a sense of pathos. 

Wright was never a flashy player, always content to push the song along rather than taking centre stage. He always knew when not to play, but when he did, he made an undeniable impact. 

15. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder is nothing short of a musical legend. Blind from birth and a child star on the Motown Tamla label, he was (is) the youngest solo artist to top the Billboard charts.

In the 1970s, he released a series of wildly successful and innovative records, often playing every instrument himself. He enlisted Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff as co-producers for Music of My Mind. They brought with them their legendary T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer, which provided many of the sounds on the album.

The unusual timbres sparked Wonder's imagination, initiating a lifelong relationship with synthesizers. He was particularly keen on the ARP 2600, having his own unit's front panel etched in Braille.

Wonder's association with synthesizers became so strong that manufacturers would vie for his attention at trade shows, aware that gaining his approval all but guaranteed an instrument's success. 

Always on the cutting edge, Wonder was an early adopter of samplers and digital recording, but it is his skill as a player that has earned him reverence among generations of fans.

16. Nick Rhodes

It would be easy to dismiss Duran Duran as the new romantic equivalent of a boy band, each member clothed and coiffed to pin-up perfection - a superficial approximation of Bryan Ferry's sophisticated sleaze. This was, after all, the band your mum lusted after in ways you'd prefer not to imagine.

Yet to dismiss them would be to ignore their musical contribution and diminish their cultural influence. They may have started as unschooled musicians, but they knew a good hook when they heard it, and they grew into a powerful pop outfit.

Much of the credit must go to keyboardist Nick Rhodes, who supplied their sonic sheen. An analogue aficionado, Rhodes had a preference for timeless pads and arpeggios, avoiding gimmicks and obvious sound effects. His Crumar Performer was a constant companion early on, and he tapped Roland's Jupiter-4 for the arpeggiated riff heard in Rio.

Sometimes it's not about what you can do, but what you do with what you've got. Besides, are you going to tell your mum that Nick Rhodes doesn't deserve to be on our list?

17. Jan Hammer

These days, Jan Hammer is probably best known for having composed the chart-topping theme to TV's groundbreaking Miami Vice. Before that he'd earned critical notices as the keyboardist for Mahavishnu Orchestra, where his supercharged Minimoog technique allowed him to compete for the sonic spotlight with guitarist John McLaughlin.

He launched a solo career with a cracking instrumental LP called The First Seven Days before forming the Jan Hammer Group in 1976. He then joined forces with Jeff Beck, a long-lasting partnership that would earn the pair a Grammy in 1985.

Claiming to be “halfway between experimental music and prog rock,” Jan Hammer helped bring a rock and roll edge to jazz groups and a jazzy intellect to rock bands.

18. Wendy Carlos

Where would we be without Wendy Carlos? Her seminal Switched on Bach LP introduced the world to the synthesizer, achieving platinum status and receiving multiple Grammy awards along the way.

The concept was ingenious: tasteful electronic realisations of familiar classical pieces that would ease the listener in rather than alienate them with mad sound effects. She pulled it off by multi-tracking her Moog, building up the arrangements one track - even one note - at a time. 

She followed it up with similarly-themed albums before contributing to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Though only a few of her recordings made it onto the soundtrack, Columbia released a full album of her productions for the film. This included an expanded version of her own composition, Timesteps, an astounding musical achievement that deserves to be heard in its entirety.

Later, she explored ambient music with Sonic Seasonings, and created the score for Disney's Tron. A fascination with additive synthesis and unusual tuning formed the basis for both Digital Moonscapes and Beauty in the Beast.

A pioneer, yes, but also a skilled musician. Go back and listen again and see if you don't agree.

19. Brian Eno

The quintessential non-musician, Brian Eno came out of art school and seemingly straight into Roxy Music. Initially, he didn't appear onstage, but resided at the mixing console with his tapes and a VCS3.

When he finally did make an appearance, it was in flamboyant, androgynous style, adorned with makeup and ostrich plumes. Thankfully, he also had his VCS3, which he poked, prodded, used and abused, creating a sonic stew of alien screeches and cosmic cacophony.

He left the band after two brilliant albums to embark on a solo career, first as a clever art rocker, then as a pioneer of ambient electronics, forging innocuous instrumentals that demanded only as much attention as the listener felt obliged to pay.

A master of the Yamaha DX7 and inverted Eventide, Eno has become an in-demand producer. When he's not creating interesting art installations he still churns out the occasional album, usually instrumental. 

20. Gary Numan

By the time punk rock came along, synthesizers were a no-go, associated with the bloated excesses of ‘70s prog. Thankfully, a wan, worried-looking fellow calling himself Gary Numan came up with the idea of combining throbbing Minimoog rhythms with chugging guitars and pounding drums.

Primarily a singer and guitarist, Numan's hunt-and-peck approach to the keyboard ensured a simplicity that fitted right in with the anti-flash post-punk era. His riffs were big, beefy and to the point, the perfect backdrop for his alienated aesthetic.

An unlikely pop star in the 1970s, Numan fell out of favour for nearly twenty years before being re-discovered by fans of the many industrial and dance artists he'd influenced. 

21. Chick Corea

Chick Corea first came to attention as a jazz pianist in the 1960s, playing with Steve Getz, Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis. He was interested in electronics early on, often routing his electric piano through a ring modulator.

In the 1970s, he would elaborate on the idea with a seminal fusion group called Return to Forever, initially adding Minimoog and ARP Odyssey to a more conventional acoustic and electric arsenal. By their sixth album, he'd added Moog Model 15, Micromoog, and a Polymoog.

In the 1980s, he formed The Chick Corea Elektric Band, expanding into digital synths and samplers. A cutting edge musician, he never lost his love for the piano, and formed the Chick Corea Akoustic Band as the counterpart to his Elektric incarnation.

A tireless performer, Corea has appeared on nearly 200 albums. Yes, you read that right!

22. Klaus Schulze

One of the seminal forces behind what has now come to be known as the 'Berlin School' of electronic music, Klaus Schulze started out on guitar and drums, playing the latter on Tangerine Dream's first LP.

After a brief outing with Ash Ra Tempel, he kicked off an astonishingly prolific career as a solo instrumentalist. After the organ-drenched Irrlicht, Schulze acquired an EMS VCS3 for his second solo outing, Cyborg. 

His 1975 LP Timewind solidified the percolating sequences for which he is known and earned the Grand Prix du Disque of L'Academie Charles Cros. He then bought Florian Fricke's Moog modular system for the follow-up Moondawn, creating the template for his best-loved albums.

Pulsing sequences, lush synth strings, and wandering Minimoog improvisations are his stock-in-trade. Still influential and often copied, Klaus Schulze helped create the blueprint for decades of electronic music.

23. Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays was an American jazz musician who came to attention as a driving force in The Pat Metheny Group. Initially a piano player, Mays' sense of adventure meant that an interest in synthesizers was all but inevitable.

A perennial partnership, Metheny and Mays cut a different path from their fusion predecessors. Their music was often contemplative, even laid back, and they weren't afraid to lean into what would come to be known as new age music.

Mays' most famous work was the classic 1980 LP As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, a collaboration with Pat Metheny and percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. A work of stunning beauty, Mays' Synclavier II, Oberheim Four Voice and Prophet-5 add a dreamy touch to the proceedings.

Sadly, Lyle Mays passed away in February of 2020. 

24. Isao Tomita

After Wendy Carlos' Switched On Bach hit the charts, the record bins were flooded with crass knock-offs, hastily produced and often poorly played parodies that lacked any of the original's craft and commitment. Once the fad had faded, it was hard to imagine that an album of Moog-based classical pieces could be taken seriously. 

That was before Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing. Released in 1974, this LP of Claude Debussy compositions earned Tomita no less than four Grammy nominations and was the best-selling classical album of the year.

It would be followed by a string of electronic realisations of the classics, all buoyed by Tomita's clever sound design and an ability to balance bombast with a touch of whimsy. 

Credited with influencing ambient music and synth-pop, his catalogue stands as a masterclass in synthesis.

25. Thomas Dolby

If you don't own Thomas Dolby's 1982 LP The Golden Age of Wireless, you are missing one of the most strikingly original electronic albums ever produced. Quirky, catchy classics such as She Blinded Me With Science, Europa and the Pirate Twins and One of Our Submarines ensured the album's popularity and catapulted this unlikely pop boffin into the charts.

Riding in on the crest of new wave, Dolby was always a little too musical to be so constrained. He'd cut his teeth as a piano player, he liked jazz, and he could actually read music. Heaven forfend!

He pumped out three more albums in the decade following Wireless, before turning his attention to a career in virtual technology. In 2011, he put out his fifth album, A Map of the Floating City. Once again, it's an eclectic high-tech affair, its release accompanied by a social networking game. Like we said: boffin.

26. Suzanne Ciani

A bonafide pioneering synthesist, Suzanne Ciani met Donald Buchla in 1966 and became fascinated by his unusual modular synth. She studied computer music with Max Matthews and John Chowning before becoming an employee at Buchla and Associates, all the while saving up for her own Buchla 200 system.

In 1974, she moved to New York where she became an in-demand composer of jingles and sonic signatures, most famously an uncanny simulation of a Coca-Cola bottle being opened and poured into a glass.

1982 saw the release of her synth LP Seven Waves, an album of thoughtful, ethereal compositions made with various now-classic synths, as well as her beloved Buchla.

A few years on, she ditched the old machinery for more conventional instruments such as ROMplers and piano.

Fast-forward to the present. Thanks to a revival of interest in modular synthesizers, there is now a new generation of electronic musicians and listeners interested in her work. Ciani herself re-connected with the world of modular synthesis in 2015 when she purchased a brand new Buchla system.

27. Christopher Franke

It seems impossible to imagine an instrumental album of atmospheric electronics hitting the charts, but that's precisely what happened when Tangerine Dream unleashed Phaedra to an unsuspecting audience in 1974. The band had been churning out obscure albums of arrhythmic experimentalism for seven years. Signing with Virgin in 1973, they used the advance to finance a massive Moog modular system.

The Moog offered a wide variety of sound-shaping tools, most significantly a suite of sequencer modules, utilised by Chris Franke to generate the throbbing bass passages that would become the hallmark of both the album and the band.

As a result, Phaedra went to number 15 in the UK album charts and eventually earned Gold status. Franke's pioneering use of the Moog defined what is now called the 'Berlin School' sound, consisting of percolating sequences over a backdrop of improvisational atmospherics.

28. Geddy Lee

The undisputed master of musical multi-tasking, Rush's frontman has earned accolades for each of his chosen disciplines. His distinctive voice gives him the ability to be heard over the onstage din created by his band, and his talent as a bass player is highly regarded by the toughest audience of all - other bass players.

As a keyboardist he has the chops to convince even the most cantankerous of critics. Over the years he's created some of the most memorable synth sounds and solos in all of rock. Who can deny the squelchy resonance that kicks off Tom Sawyer or the throbbing Oberheim that ushers in Subdivisions? His synth parts are usually clever, often complex, and always catchy. 

Obviously he can't do it all onstage, though, right? Wrong. Astonishingly, he juggles his considerable keyboard rig, bass guitar, and vocal duties without missing a beat. What a legend!

29. Eddie Jobson

A child prodigy, Eddie Jobson began playing piano at age 7 and took up the violin a year later. At age 16, he was denied admission to the Royal Academy (he was too young), so he joined a rock group.

A subsequent stint in Curved Air was noticed by Bryan Ferry, who enlisted his skills on These Foolish Things, before inviting him to join Roxy Music, where he contributed both violin and keys, earning a place in the hearts of prog and art rock fans - a position solidified by stints with Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, and UK.

His first solo effort, 1983's The Green Album, is a tour-de-force of scorching violin and seething CS-80 passages. It's well worth a listen.

30. Patrick Moraz

Despite having played on a plethora of classic albums, Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz might be too easily overlooked, seen as a sort of prog rock journeyman, taking up recently-vacated seats in already established groups.

Yes, he once replaced Keith Emerson in The Nice, and sure, he later took up Rick Wakeman's spot in Yes. Oh, and he followed Mike Pinder in The Moody Blues. Okay, so he might not have been with these outfits from the get-go, but we shouldn't let that overshadow his contributions.

Indeed, Moraz joined Yes just in time for Relayer, an album that re-established the group's credibility after the much-maligned Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Likewise, it was Moraz's synths that helped to make The Moody Blues' Long Distance Voyager one of the band's best and most successful records. 

And lest we forget, his 1975 solo album The Story of I was a brilliant mish-mash of styles, blending prog rock concepts with Brazilian percussion. Well ahead of its time.

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