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The greatest keyboard players of all time, revealed

Keith Emerson
(Image credit: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)

GOAT hunt: Finally, it’s done. Following exhaustive searches to find the greatest pre-’80s, ‘80s/’90s and 21st-century keyboard players, we narrowed down our field of GOATs to just 15, and asked you to vote for the one true ‘greatest of all time’.

With players from each era in the mix, this was a tough one. Prog warriors rubbed shoulders with synth-pop heroes and soul/funk legends, and let’s not forget the musical magicians of the pop world, either.

In the end, though, there could be only one winner - the person who’ll take their place in our fantasy GOAT band that’ll sell-out virtual venues across continents and time.

Each of the nominees had their merits and we should be grateful to all of them for lighting up our musical lives, but finally, we can count down the top 10 and reveal who you’ve voted the greatest keyboard player of all time.

10. Nick Rhodes

Yes, in technical terms, he's not the greatest player on this list - though he's in pretty exalted company, to be fair - but if you're looking for a pop star keyboard hero with great hair and an ability to make '80s teenagers swoon, Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes is your go-to guy. 

What's more, he's still devoted to the analogue cause, telling MusicRadar earlier this year: “I’ve got nothing against digital synths, but I just happen to prefer the real thing”.

Oh, and he played at Live Aid, and you didn't.

9. Greg Phillinganes

Like Nick Rhodes, Greg Phillinganes bestrode the '80s and '90s like a keyboard colossus, playing on all of Michael Jackson's albums from Off The Wall through to Dangerous, while also finding time to jam with Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan, Mick Jagger and... well, pretty much everyone else.

Unsurprisingly, he's still very much in demand: he played the keyboard solo on Bruno Mars' 2017 single Versace On The Floor, and when John Mayer wanted those '80s vibes for recent release Last Train Home, who else would he call but Greg?

8. Derek Sherinian

It might be Jordan Rudess who dominates the conversation when it comes to Dream Theater and keyboards these days - more on that later - but Sherinian was actually on synth duty for the band first.

In 2011, our very own Keyboard Magazine called him a "keyboard hero for a new generation," and his reputation is such that guitarists such as Slash, Yngwie Marmsteen, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa and Zakk Wylde have all wanted to work with him.

7. Vangelis

The winner of our '80s poll hasn't managed to repeat the trick in our final GOAT face-off, but that shouldn't diminish his talents or achievements one iota.

With the theme from Chariots of Fire, he created one of the most well-known 'keyboard songs' of all time, and his Jupiter-fuelled score for 1982's Blade Runner is recognised as one of the most influential electronic music works of all time.

At 78, he's still in the game, releasing the appropriately titled Juno to Jupiter - inspired by NASA's mission to send the Juno space probe to Jupiter - only last year.

6. Jon Lord

Back in the '70s, Jon Lord's full-on rock style was a refreshing antidote to the prog peddled by the likes of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, with his overdriven Hammond organ sound becoming a true sonic signature during his Deep Purple days.

He expanded his sound during the '80s, particularly during his time with Whitesnake, and was working almost up to his death, in 2012.

5. Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock has pretty much done it all. From his beginnings as a jazz musician - he played with Miles Davis, no less - he went on to cross stylistic boundaries, exploring fusion, soul, funk and electro.

With his adventurous chord voicings, incredible touch and superb improvisation skills, Hancock is a supreme player, and is still pushing boundaries and influencing new generations of musicians (his next album is set to feature the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Common).

He even looks good wearing a keytar, and not many people can say that.

4. Chick Corea

When Chick Corea died earlier this year, the world lost a true pioneer - one of the greatest jazz pianists of the second half of the 20th century, and one of the innovators of jazz fusion.

Massively versatile, Corea dabbled in contemporary classical and prog rock, too, and was comfortable playing pretty much any keyboard instrument you put in front of him. He may no longer be with us, but he leaves an indelible legacy.

3. Rick Wakeman

Known these days as much for his sardonic wit as his musicianship, it's easy to forget that Rick Wakeman is, first an foremost, a bonafide keyboard legend.

Whether playing sessions for David Bowie and Elton John, releasing a string of frankly ridiculous concept albums (he even performed one of them on ice) or playing in multiple iterations of prog titans Yes, Wakeman has always excelled, embracing all the new synth technology that's come his way.

“God knows how many [synths] I’ve owned over the years," he told MusicRadar in 2020. "I don’t think I could even hazard a guess. It’d be well into the hundreds. The current collection has been trimmed down a bit. Including all the ones in storage, I reckon it’s about 50 or 60. Maybe more. But who’s counting? They’ve all put a smile on my face.”

2. Jordan Rudess

It's testament to Jordan Rudess's skill and popularity that he's the one contemporary keyboard player to have challenged for our top spot. His work ethic is extraordinary, as is his willingness to push technological boundaries (if a new kind of keyboard is invented, you can be pretty sure that Rudess has played it before you've even heard of it).

He's best known, of course, for playing with Dream Theater, having started his career studying piano at the famous Julliard school. There have been solo albums and countless guest appearances too, though, and he's even found time to start his own music software company.

1. Keith Emerson

Could it have been anyone else? Of course it could, but few would deny that Keith Emerson is a worthy winner.

Classically trained, Emerson's childhood was also spent playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and his attendance at this broad musical church became evident as he developed his own gangbusting style and honed his prog chops.

Equally adept on the piano, Hammond organ and synthesizer, Emerson became a household name with ELP, before setting out on a solo career. Not just a keyboard player, but a true force of nature, his bombastic showmanship gave him genuine rock star status.

He may have had a larger than life stage persona, but when Emerson died, in 2010, former bandmate Carl Palmer wrote: "Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come." Amen to that.

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