Rock Songs With Piano

Under the deft touch of an Elton John, or suffering the bruising punishment dished out by Ben Folds, or any number of iconic performances, the piano can be a vehicle for some serious rocking. A list of some of the greats is a tough one— you could fill it with songs from one artist.

We had to leave some out but found some top rock songs with piano. We judged the best based on the iconic nature of the piano parts, the songs’ staying power, and what the player delivers.

1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Song year: 1975

Other than “Chopsticks,” the first few piano notes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” might be the most recognizable of all. Even without all the “mamma mia”s and Brian May’s soul-stirring guitar solo, Freddie Mercury’s piano playing on this signature song could have carried the day. It didn’t, but it could have.

2. “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John

Song year: 1973

When anyone hears that first F major 7-chord stab at the beginning, they know the song.

Another instantly identifiable piece, “Bennie and the Jets” has a jazzy piano solo in it that’s as recognizable as everything else about it.

Lyrically, it’s about a futuristic rock band of robot goddesses and tops the list of misheard lyrics. She actually has electric boots.

3. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel

Song year: 1977

While “Scenes” wasn’t released as a single, this Billy Joel song stands as one of his most ambitious and memorable works. Somewhat patterned after side two of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” it’s essentially several songs in one.

There’s a driving piano section, a Dixieland Jazz section, and a balladesque introduction and coda. It’s an album in seven minutes and tells a lifelong story of love and loss.

4. “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey

Song year: 1981

Journey’s signature song charted in the early 80s. With Steve Perry’s soaring vocals and the churning piano riff from Jonathan Cain that kicks it off and runs through the piece, no one wondered why it was a hit.

But then Tony Soprano and his family faced an uncertain end in their eponymous HBO series in 2007 as “Don’t Stop Believin’” played and the screen went black.

Journey made it to the top ten in 1981, then charted with the song again worldwide, starting in 2007, 12 times in the next 16 years.

5. “Come Sail Away” by Styx

Song year: 1977

Dennis DeYoung powered Styx through a nearly 20-year reign of rock music, and “Come Sail Away” epitomizes the band’s ethos. Half of the song centers around a lyrical sound with delicate, ornamented piano before giving way to the aliens-coming-to-take-us-away rock of the song’s coda.

Cartman from “South Park” did a memorable job on this one, but DeYoung’s piano is unforgettable.

6. “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis

Song year: 1957

Perhaps The Iconic Piano Rock Song, “Great Balls of Fire” had it all— Jerry Lee frolicking over all 88 piano keys, a boogie-woogie bass line that white listeners were, up to then, unfamiliar with, and a vocal line that dared the listener not to have a good time.

Jerry Lee Lewis had a hit or two before “Great Balls of Fire.” But selling five million copies of one single tends to make people remember that one.

7. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles

Song year: 1968

People remember the “na na na na” gang vocals at the song’s end, but without Sir Paul’s steady eighth-note piano rhythms, “Hey Jude” never gets off the ground.

We’ve all heard the stories of him telling John he’d change this lyric or that one because he didn’t know what it meant, and we all know John told him, “No, you won’t. I know what it means.” Fun tales, but “Hey Jude” is one of the closest things to a perfect piece of music the Beatles ever made.

8. “Zak and Sara” by Ben Folds

Song year: 2001

Ben Folds made a name for himself with his band, Ben Folds Five. When he made a few solo records, he brought a different sound from his efforts with his band.

The rolling triplet eighth notes that drive “Zak and Sara” make it both fun and unsettled, which more than matches the song’s female protagonist. The lyrics tell of what she says and does. She’s clearly disturbed, but Zak loves her.

9. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Song year: 1974

Sure, the song is a polemic against Neil Young’s songs about injustice in the South. But nobody hears anything political when this comes on the radio.

When it plays, drunk college girls go, “Woo!” while the guys hitting on them tap their toes, and everyone knows that one piano riff that sings its descending notes after nearly every phrase in the verse. Don’t know what we mean? Listen to it. Once you hear it, you’ll never hear anything else in the song.

10. “Changes” by David Bowie

Song year: 1971

Shapeshifting David Bowie would, of course, write a song that starts with schmaltzy piano, leading the listener to expect a slow, introspective song. Then the band starts in earnest while Bowie stutters out the chorus.

The saxophone line in this one is just as identifiable as the piano riffs, but leave it to Bowie to make a rock song into a piano classic even though that’s not even the main instrument in the piece.

11. “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range

Song year: 1986

Bruce Hornsby never had the huge, record-smashing career of an Elton John or a Billy Joel, but his thoughtful lyrics always paired well with the easy-going piano lines he came up with.

“The Way It Is” sings of injustice and the shoulder shrugs that most people on the wrong end of that injustice use to deal with it— a sort of what-can-I-do-about-it stoicism. Hornsby includes added seconds and sixths in many chords, which makes for a longing sound. It’s effective, and the word that best describes his music is usually “plaintive.”

12. “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John

Song year: 1973

This one has piano and keyboards all over it. From the funereal minor chords from the synthesizer to the bouncy, nearly angry piano chords near the end of “Funeral,” Elton John is just showing off on this one.

Once the song shifts to “Love Lies Bleeding,” the backup harmonies are almost as important as the piano notes in making the song work, but it’s an Elton John song, so they never become more important than the piano part.

13. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel

Song year: 1973

This is lower on the list than most might expect simply because it doesn’t exactly rock. A jazz waltz, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” recounts his time playing in a piano bar under an assumed name.

He sings lyrics that follow the rhythm and rhyme scheme of a limerick, but there’s nothing fun about these sad bar folk. They seem to draw hope from the fact that if someone as obviously talented as the piano player is stuck here in this bar, maybe they’ve got a chance.

14. “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles

Song year: 1968

“Lady Madonna” starts with a driving piano containing both a major and minor third, which gives the riff its honky-tonk feel.

As McCartney sings, unspooling verses and chorus, the guitars and then horn section join, building on, echoing, and mimicking the churning piano line. The walking octave bass line in the piano is cool, but it’s even cooler when the bari sax does it at the same time.

15. “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses

Song year: 1991

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that the band that brought us “Welcome to the Jungle” and the opening guitar riff of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” also recorded this piano-driven, heavily orchestrated opus.

Axl Rose plays the iconic piano part countered by Slash’s epic solo, and the two elements combine for a nine-minute suite that goes on and on.

16. “Booker” by Harry Connick, Jr.

Song year: 1994

Harry Connick, Jr. is a stellar pianist, but when he came on the scene with the soundtrack to “When Harry Met Sally,” everyone crowned him the next Sinatra for his velvety vocals.

The man can sing the stars down, but the piano solo in “Booker” cooks like summer in New Orleans. Connick throws in nods to Romantic piano composers while singing the sad tale of Booker, who died of a broken heart.

17. “Fool in the Rain” by Led Zeppelin

"Fool in the Rain" by Led Zeppelin

Song year: 1979

Like The Police, Led Zeppelin wasn’t exactly known for its tickling of the ivories. Still, “Fool in the Rain” couples a rolling piano riff with the rumbling of John Bonham’s drums and a wicked guitar solo from Jimmy Page.

Then there’s the part then the whole song shifts from a piece of rock music to samba and back. “Fool in the Rain” was Led Zeppelin’s last single.

18. “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney

Song year: 1970

Only Sir Paul could make an ascending chromatic scale sound so cool. At the end of the first phrase of each verse, everything stops, then restarts with that run as if to say, “The verse isn’t done. I’ve got more for you before the guitar solo.”

“Maybe I’m Amazed” employs the mixolydian mode, so the flat seventh of that particular scale gives the song its recurring B-flat major chords. Moving to an unexpected A-flat from time to time is surprising until you’re used to it. After that, it just feels right.

19. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos

Song year: 1971

You have to listen to more than four minutes of “Layla” before you ever hear a piano. And the lick that comes in at that point isn’t dazzling, hard to play, or particularly complicated. It’s still somehow the perfect sound for the song’s second half.

After Eric Clapton has wailed so pitifully for his unrequited love and brought forth those nearly angry sounds from his guitar, the resigned chords from the piano seem to come in simply to say, “Hey, man, it’s going to be okay.”

20. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police

Song year: 1981

It’s hard to have a piano-centric song when you’re a guitar-bass-and-drums three-piece. Still, The Police had their first top-five US hit with “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” a song driven by that syncopated sixteenth-note riff from the piano.

Pianist and arranger Jean Roussel essentially bullied his way into the studio and onto the band’s fourth studio effort, “Ghost in the Machine.” That didn’t make drummer Stewart Copeland very happy, but the album and this single ended up pretty freaking great.

21. “Killer Queen” by Queen

Song year: 1974

The staccato A minor figure that opens “Killer Queen” was the first exposure many Americans had to Queen, as the song was the band’s first US hit.

“Killer Queen” had everything the world came to expect from Queen: intricate harmonies, Brian May’s distorted-yet-somehow-clear guitar sound, Freddie Mercury’s stellar voice, and distinctive piano sounds.

22. “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger

Song year: 1979

As part of Bob Seger’s album “Stranger In Town,” “Old Time Rock and Roll” was a hit as the Carter administration wound down. Its honky tonk feel makes for a fun listen and a nostalgic look back to the good old days.

But most Gen Xers never heard it until Tom Cruise, to the opening descending line from the piano, slid across the floor in his underwear after his parents left town in “Risky Business.” For many people, that piano riff evokes that image and none other.

23. “Desperado” by the Eagles

Song year: 1973

The award for most effective grace note in a piano introduction goes to “Desperado.” It helped land the song on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs ever. Those were rock songs, mostly, but “Desperado” is a decidedly country tune.

The grace notes, along with the iconic piano-only intro, help evoke the loneliness and isolation of an outlaw riding the range all alone.

24. “Imagine” by John Lennon

Song year: 1971

John Lennon’s biggest hit is a far cry from the high-energy and high-concept stuff he did at various points of his career with The Beatles.

The key to the song’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity— a simple piano part, a singable melody, and a simple message. With just a few chords and very few voicing variations, Lennon gave us an anthem of peace and love that did more than any of his bed-ins or other stunts.

25. “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John

Song year: 1972

The C major arpeggios at the beginning of “Tiny Dancer” are as recognizable as any piano licks in the modern oeuvre. While it took Elton John’s record company some time to release it as a single, and when they did, it didn’t do all that well, it has become one of his most beloved hits.

It doesn’t bring to mind Sir Elton’s wardrobe antics or his frenetic live performances, but it stands as a beautiful piece of music that hearkens back to his early LA days.

26. “Firth of Fifth” by Genesis

Song year: 1973

Genesis keyboard player Tony Banks wrote a lot of great music for the band, and the group had bigger hits than “Firth of Fifth,” but Banks’ work on the piano in the intro and throughout the song is intricate and shows a refined technique on the instrument.

The song seems to be about some kind of medieval journey, but the glorious organ chords and Peter Gabriel’s distinctive voice, added to the standout piano work, almost make the song’s subject matter irrelevant. It’s a weird song, but it’s still pretty cool.

27. “In My Life” by The Beatles

Song year: 1965

Not exactly driven by the piano, “In My Life” contains one of the coolest piano solos in rock music. It almost doesn’t fit with the rest of the song but somehow doesn’t seem out of place.

Sir Paul couldn’t play the solo he wanted to at tempo, so producer George Martin slowed the recording speed and had Paul play the solo at half-speed and an octave lower. The result is a clean, well-constructed solo that has a unique sound it wouldn’t have had it been recorded at speed.

28. “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel

Song year: 1976

Billy Joel’s jazzy paean to The Big Apple is a tour of the city and a tour-de-force of Joel’s preternatural ability to get a piano to say exactly what he wants it to say.

He wrote the song in California, and Joel’s forlorn homesickness is on full display.

Live, this song is an opportunity for Joel to go off-script and play some mind-boggling improv as an intro, meaning few other piano players enjoy playing this for an audience, because who can top that?

29. “You’re An Ocean” by Fastball

Song year: 2000

Saloon-inspired piano tones remain uncommon in pop-rock, which may be why the piano part that’s the backbone of Fastball’s “You’re An Ocean” is so charming.

Also, the song, despite never rising higher than number 25 on any chart, verges on being a perfect piece of pop music. The unusual chord changes that peek their heads out now and then are rare enough to be surprising, but not enough to be a distraction.

The occasional bluesy riffs only make the piano part cooler.

30. “Clocks” by Coldplay

Song year: 2002

Few bands have utilized hemiola in their songs as well as Chris Martin and Coldplay did in the intro of “Clocks.”

Even though they played the Super Bowl one year, Coldplay hasn’t broken through to worldwide success and acclaim, but “Clocks” is one of those songs that everybody knows, even if they don’t know who sings it. And those first piano notes are hyper-recognizable.

31. “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem

Song year: 2007

Open fifths and open fifths in the left and right hand, respectively, kick off “All My Friends.” The rhythm seesaws between eighth and sixteenth notes for a few measures before the rest of LCD Soundsystem kicks in, and the piano churns along, unchanged except for dynamics, for almost eight minutes— on the album version, anyway.

You’d think it would get boring, but you’d be wrong. The lyrics capture the in-between many of us go through as we leave our 20s, so you’d think this was a downer. It’s not, and that has a lot to do with a super cool and ridiculously simple (though deceptively difficult to play) piano line.

Best Rock Songs With Piano, Final Thoughts

So many rock songs with piano had to be left off this list, but we’ve tried to represent a wide variety of rock music featuring the piano. From Jerry Lee to Elton to Ben, the instrument has a rich history in the rock world.

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