When you think of the keys, who comes to mind? It might be Herbie Hancock and his jazzy jaunts, perhaps it’s a beautiful Elton John ballad, or maybe it’s the exciting, extravagant and technically mind-boggling skills of the prog rock players. On this week’s blog, we’re diving into the keyboard madness of Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Epic Beginnings

This progressive rock group formed in London in 1970 and consisted of Keith Emerson (our keyboard man), Greg Lake who you may know from King Crimson, another giant group in the prog world, and Carl Palmer.

It was a story of epic beginnings for this band, as their second ever gig was at the famous Isle of Wight festival, performing in front of over 600,000 people! They carried on selling-out venues before having even released a track. Fast-forward a few years and they’d sold approximately 48 million records – wild, right?

The first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album reached the number 4 spot in the UK charts. One of our favourite facts about this band is to do with a performance of theirs at the Lyceum Theatre in London, where psychedelic effects were added, including characters from Marvel comics! Oh, how we wish we’d been at that gig.

A Fortress of Keys

But we absolutely love the involvement of the keyboard in prog rock music. Keith Emerson’s use of the keyboard, Hammond organ, piano, and various synthesizers, is nothing short of flamboyant and full of excitement. If you’ve never watched a performance of his, we would strongly recommend doing so! It has been said that Keith’s on-stage set up resembled something of a fortress, with varying keyboards all around him, towering high. He would always give a really theatrical performance too - think hitting the organ, pushing it over, even riding it like a horse across the stage! He also enjoyed plucking and strumming the strings inside the piano.

Keith was a massive fan of the Moog synthesizer, and was one of the only artists at the time to actually take this unpredictable instrument on tour and on to the stage. Though of course, Emerson, Lake & Palmer basked in the unpredictability of the Moog, loving the idea that anything unexpected could happen!

Prog is notorious for its complexity, and this is something that Keith and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were certainly leaders of. Some of his solo sections are incredibly technically complicated – you’d only need to listen to the first track on their second album, Tarkus, to work this out - get comfortable though, it’s a 20-minute-long epic masterpiece!

Also littered throughout their songs and albums are references to many other genres and styles, another classic feature of the prog rock movement. We’ve got Béla Bartok, Prokofiev, Dave Brubeck, and Mr Johann Sebastian Bach himself incorporated in their albums. You can even find a cover of Scott Joplin’s iconic “Maple Leaf Rag” on their Works Volume 2 album!

After the band broke up, Keith carried on pushing the boundaries of what was expected of a rock keyboard player, by writing his own “Piano Concerto No.1”.

You may be unsurprised to hear that Emerson, Lake & Palmer can be found in the Rockschool Keys Grade 8 syllabus!

We hope you enjoyed taking a look into the world of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the wider prog world. We’ve barely scratched the surface here, and you could certainly write multiple books on the crazy technical playing of Keith Emerson and his contemporaries. Do let us know who your keyboard heroes are on our social media!

In the meantime, you can catch up on some other legends of the keys featured on our blog previously, including Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.