31 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.”

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One Comment

  1. Landed by Ben Folds.!!

    I would like to see an article about Accoustic Pianos taking a beating in playing Rock & Roll, the constant tuning, and worse in my case I broke an A2 string! It’s a nightmare and expensive!

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