Pop Culture

My 25 Favorite Piano Players


My 25 Favorite Piano Players
Charlie's Favorites

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2022-03-22
This list is half "piano players I love to listen to most" and half "piano players I listened to as a kid and influenced the way I play", just in case anybody is keeping score. It's also tough to separate these folks' skills as piano players from their abilities as songwriters. So many great composers and songwriters are pianists; sometimes it's hard to tell if I like Donald Fagan as a piano player in particular, or just love his songwriting.

Also, this is fairly rock-ish - so leaving out huge personal influences and legends like George Gershwin (classical) and McCoy Tyner (jazz).

Take A Listen
If anybody is particularly interested in what makes me tick musically, then reading some of these names might make you say "Ahhh" in recognition of how my playing relates to these greats. As in "Charlie Recksieck is the poor man's Ian Stewart" or "Charlie Recksieck is the destitute man's Bruce Hornsby."

But most of all, I just want to put some piano-centric music in front of you to turn you on to some songs and artists you might not yet know that you love.

1 Bruce Hornsby

Bruce is my guy, not just because his voicemails of encouragement and compliments on our records has kept me going in music when things are low. World class chops, incredible band, underrated and funny songwriter. If you take one thing from this article it should be that you need to listen to more Bruce Hornsby.

2 Stevie Wonder

Is it possible to be as celebrated as Stevie Wonder and still be completely underrated? I think so. Yes, his clavinet sound on "Superstition" and Fender-Rhodes playing on "I Wish", and he literally invented modern keyboard sounds along with Ray Kurzweil. But favorite "Piano Players" is in the title so this sample is piano heavy.

3 Nicky Hopkins

There are two Rolling Stones piano players on this list. But this is the guy I'd like to think I sound like when playing rock with a full band. Hopkins is an absolute bad-ass.

4 Page McConnell

Every once in a while in The Bigfellas on stage, we have a real "moment" on stage. Phish has those moments about 10-20 times an hour. Page on piano is a huge reason why this happens.

5 Elton John

An undeniable influence for anybody who's played piano after 1970. Someday treat yourself and watch the making of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album on Amazon Prime Video.

6 Billy Joel

I was obsessed by his playing and songwriting in high school. As good as you think he is, he's better.

7 Ben Folds

I've got a line in an unreleased song called "Why Not?" that's autobiographical; "I'm often told that I sound like Ben Folds but I'm older and his songs sound like mine." It's only natural for people to think I play like the destitute man's Ben Folds; we both grew up at the same time with Elton John and Billy Joel rattling in our ears.

8 Randy Newman

My songwriting hero. Even though he's done lush arrangements and some better production value in the 80s and 90s, his faux New Orleans style formed in my head like dry concrete.

9 Dr John

As just mentioned, Randy Newman brought me to a lite version of New Orleans piano. Then in college I obsessed about Dr. John as a more legit practitioner.

10 Rufus Wainwright

Of course, his voice is nothing that I can come close to emulating. And his songwriting achievements make me blush. And he's a better piano player than me too. I'm 0-for-3 in head-to-head competition with Rufus.

11 David Sancious

When I was 19 I listened to Springsteen's "The Wild, The Innocent and The E St. Shufle" religiously. It's crazy that Sancious was so big in Bruce's R&B period but also instrumental in Peter Gabriel's sound. Not a huge Venn Diagram overlap between those too, but incredible in both modes.

12 Warren Zevon

Yes, he's on my Mount Rushmore of songwriters and #1 for appealing cynicism. But he had a piano style which I love. Don't forget that Paul Shafer made him the piano player in an all-star band he formed when he could have picked anyone. And he was David Letterman's favorite.

13 Aretha Franklin

Throw out her singing for the time being. Her piano playing of really full chords and clean sound is remarkable.

14 Nellie McKay

I get angry when incredible artists don't get their due. But McKay not being a household name makes me angrier than any other musical injustice. Listen to this shit. She is a beast!

15 Tom Waits

I've always said there are 3 Waitses: 1) Ballad Waits, 2) Circus Waits, and 3) Normal songwriter Waits. I love them all. There was a legendary black and white Roy Orbison special circa 1990 with an allstar band and it had Tom Waits as the piano player. More versatile than you think.

16 Ray Charles

He, Johnny Johnson and Little Richard pretty much created rock piano. I was Ray hadn't gotten into lush orchestrations as much as he did. It denied us of more of his piano playing.

17 Ian Stewart

An original Rolling Stone. He's my ideal of a rock piano player - you hear him playing his ass off but he never steps on the guitar.

18 George Duke

George was a legit jazz-cat but it's his playing with Frank Zappa that knocks me out.

19 Steve Nieve

OK, I blew it. He should be higher on this list - but I don't want to re-do it and re-number everybody. He had an incredibly distinctive sound. And nobody played octaves in his right hand and moved them around like they were single notes. Wow.

20 Leon Russell

He's on so many more records than you think. And if you've heard Joe Cocker, you're really just listening to a Leon Russell record where Joe just happens to be singing. If you're Elton John's piano hero, you're doing something right.

21 Carole King

Tapestry is probably the best piano-forward album of all-time.

22 Bill Payne

The epitome of Southern rock for me.

23 Professor Longhair

Just as Randy Newman introduced me to Dr. John, after a lot of listening to Dr. John then introduced me to the real genuine article of New Orleans piano: Professor Longhair.

24 Rick Wakeman

Yes, he played with Yes on showy prog rock. And yes, I was a dopey enough child where I listened to Rick's ponderous concept albums over and over (Journey To The Center Of The Earth > King Arthur > Henry VIII). But when you hear piano on a classic David Bowie song, that's Rick Wakeman.

25 Roy Bittan

Another unique sounding guy. He was the "professor" in the E St. Band from 1975 forward. Like almost all of my piano heroes it seemed like he was always playing 6 notes at once.