10 best rock piano songs you need to know

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

From the cradle of rock to its pinnacle, from hard to soft and prog to punk, these tracks touch all corners of a broad and diverse musical genre. Many of them are easy piano rock songs suitable for beginners, but some will present challenges for advanced players too. 

The piano might not be most closely associated with this particular style of music, but the instrument has played no less vital a part in rock’s history and development. Here we’re looking at the pieces of music that best support that claim.

Premium sheet music for each and every one of them can be found in the nkoda library. Just follow the links to see these arrangements, find out how this incredible music is put together, and take the first step towards becoming a jaw-dropping rock pianist.
 

Best rock songs to play on piano
 

  1. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen
  2. ‘Songbird’ by Fleetwood Mac
  3. ‘Desperado’ by the Eagles
  4. ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino
  5. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum
  6. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey
  7. ‘Because the Night’ by Patti Smith Group
  8. ‘Perfect’ Day by Lou Reed
  9. ‘You Are So Beautiful’ by Billy Preston
  10. ‘I’ll Stand by You’ by the Pretenders

1. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen

Undoubtedly one of the great songs - in any genre - of all time, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ also contains one of the finest piano performances in the rock repertoire. Freddie Mercury brought his A-game to the keyboard on this anthem, just as he did as a composer, lyricist and singer. Just as he always did when it came to making music.

As the title suggests, the song is structured as a rhapsody, meaning that it comprises a sequence of different musical sections. Although the piano is present almost throughout, it’s the early sections that see the instrument most foregrounded, supporting the grand theatricality that’s become so typical of the track. And so legendary.  

First appearing on Queen’s 1976 album, A Night at the Opera, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has since established itself as the band’s most iconic number, and one of the most popular songs in history. If you’re going to play just one rock song on the piano, there are few better candidates than this. The guitar solo isn’t bad either.

2. ‘Songbird’ by Fleetwood Mac

‘Songbird’ can be found on Fleetwood Mac’s all but universally beloved album of 1977, Rumours. There were two couples among the band’s five members, and both separated ahead of the recording of the album. Many of Rumours’ songs deal openly with the issues the relationships faced, but ‘Songbird’ is an out-and-out, inspirational love song. 

The piano is more prominent on ‘Songbird’ than on any of the other tracks in this list. The recording features a sparse arrangement of solo voice, keys and light acoustic guitar. Most of Fleetwood Mac’s members could sing, but it’s Christine McVie in the spotlight on this track, which was recorded on-stage in an auditorium. 

McVie delivers one of the finest vocal performances in the band’s entire discography. She’s also playing piano, and she wrote the song too. It’s harmonically straightforward, shifting mostly between F major, C major and B-flat major, but there’s a lot of activity in the texture, and syncopation in the right hand needs to be dealt with carefully.

3. ‘Desperado’ by The Eagles

‘Desperado’ - an impeccable piece of songwriting from the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Frey himself plays the piano on the recording, and his performance opens with one of the most recognisable introductions in any rock song. 

The track first appeared on the band’s album of the same name. It’s a concept album, its songs tied by a common lyrical theme. The theme here is the Wild West, and ‘Desperado’ is about the dangerous and doomed life of an outlaw. It’s a time and place that’s inspired countless songs, films and books, and here the Eagles tap into it powerfully. 

One of the most distinctive things about both the intro and the outro is the use of grace notes, played quickly before the main note they’re attached to. Get those right and you’ll really capture the spirit of the piano part. Also look out for the chordal shift from C major straight to C minor - a fine bit of harmonic colouring.

4. ‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino

We wouldn’t have rock without rock and roll, the genre that took the recording industry by storm in the 1950s and changed music as we know it forever. Of all the great songs of the era, the one that best showcases what the piano can do is ‘Blueberry Hill’.

The song was co-written in 1940 by Vincent RoseAl Lewis and Larry Stock. Various versions of it were released that year, but it’s the magical 1956 arrangement and recording by Fats Domino that won the song its renown. ‘Blueberry Hill’ was Domino’s biggest pop hit, voted one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

According to Elvis Presley himself, Domino was the ‘real king of rock and roll’. He was also one of its greatest pianists. Domino’s trademark playing style is defined by rolling triplets, giving his music a unique, easygoing feel, as well as a sense of forward motion. Never were they better and more memorably played than on ‘Blueberry Hill’. 

5. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum

The selection criteria have been stretched slightly to accommodate this track. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, one of the great recordings of the 1960s, has a pretty modest piano part. It’s the organ that features on the track that’s of interest though, and on it one of the most iconic keyboard performances in the rock canon is played. 

Procol Harum’s track shot to number one on its 1967 release, and stayed there for six weeks. Listening to the track’s soulful vocals and winding melodies, it’s easy to see why. Matthew Fisher is the man at the keys, playing a Hammond M-102 organ. Fair to say that the instrument might never have sounded better. 

The resemblance between the song’s opening figure and that of J.S. Bach’s famous Air from BWV 1068 is well known. Although the song’s sustained E-natural does unfold into a lyrical tune over a descending bass line as in Bach’s piece, it isn’t a direct reference. You just get the feel of Bach’s music, stemming not least from the sound of the organ itself.

6. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey

‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, incredible song though it is, would have probably been just another great 80s ballad if it weren’t for the resurgence triggered by the TV series Glee. Thanks to the show’s 2009 version, Journey’s song was launched to fame once again. It’s now a certified anthem. No matter how much modern music emerges, that won’t change. 

The song was first released 28 years before, as the opening track on Journey’s most successful studio album, Escape. Journey started out as a progressive rock group, but like so many other similar bands, they veered away from the subgenre by the end of the 1970s. They opted for arena rock instead, a sound that’s typified by ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’.

It’s got another unmistakable piano riff, which features alternating chords in the right hand above a choppy bass line in the left. The classic I-V-vi-IV chord scheme so prevalent in pop and rock music features in this song. Surely there aren’t many better usages of it out there.

7. ‘Because the Night’ by Patti Smith Group

Patti Smith is one of the great rebellious figures in rock history, her work forceful, challenging and pioneering. ‘Because the Night’ might represent a more accessible side of her artistry, but it’s still marked by all those hallmarks.

The song was actually co-written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen. Before she came on the scene, he had a title and a chord scheme. But he felt he couldn’t make anything of it, so he handed it over to Smith. She penned the lyrics and with the help of her group turned it into the legendary ballad we know and love today.  

The piano might fade in the chorus, which is played by the classic rock-band setup - guitars, bass, drums and voice. But it’s front and centre in the verses, which are marked by a more intimate feel. They feature a thin texture, established between open fifths in the left hand and a catchy repeating ostinato in the right hand. 

8. ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ is a fascinating song by a fascinating musician. Having made a name for himself in the 1960s in the experimental rock outfit The Velvet Underground, Reed went his own way to pursue a solo career. Produced by David Bowie, his second album, Transformer, was his commercial and critical breakthrough.

Produced by David Bowie, the album contains an array of celebrated tracks. Among them, ‘Perfect Day’ stands out as a beautiful piece of songwriting that’s underpinned by some classic piano-playing. Lyrically, the song paints the portrait promised in the title by listing all the things that would feature in a perfect day. 

Performed with a lilting feel in compound time, the chords in the verse are coloured by rich chromaticism. The chorus is more consonant, landing on B-flat major and moving through its closely related harmonies. It’s a rewarding one to play, but the semiquavers in the bridge appearing on the final page of the Faber title are difficult to master.

9. ‘You Are So Beautiful’ by Billy Preston

Although he was an accomplished solo artist in his own right, Billy Preston was another musician to build his reputation in the 1960s playing with a band - a relatively minor group known as the Beatles. Best known for being a keyboardist of the highest order, Preston was also an exceptional writer.

Co-written with Bruce Fisher‘You Are So Beautiful’ is doubtless one of Preston’s finest achievements as a composer and lyricist. Joe Cocker’s cover is the best-known version of the song, but Preston’s original has bags of character. It features a wacky synthesizer, some gospel-influenced backing singing, and a heartfelt performance from Preston. 

If you take this song on, don’t worry about the virtuosity Preston displays at the keyboard. The Faber edition strips back his grand arrangement to the bare bones of his composition - harmonies and lyrics are outlined in simpler rhythms. Just don’t leave out the showmanship that the great keys-player always brings to his performances.

10. ‘I’ll Stand by You’ by The Pretenders

If ever there was an outright power ballad, this song is it. If you like your rock rousing and weighty, then ‘I’ll Stand by You’ probably should have been higher up the list. It might not be reflective of the Pretenders’ broader sound, but it’s still one of their most popular and influential recordings. 

Rhythm guitarist, lead vocalist and creative engine of the band, Chrissie Hynde is at the helm on ‘I’ll Stand by You’, which was the second single from the 1994 album, Last of the Independents. It was co-written by her, Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, and it’s Kelly who’s playing the immortal piano part on the recording. 

It’s an expressive song that drives forward with conviction. Key to that momentum is the straight, steady rhythm of the music. In most bars, chords fall directly on every beat. In performance, maintain that sense of pulse - make sure that you don’t rush the tempo. Get that right and you’ll capture the tune’s essence.

Your next steps for rock piano music


Ten classic rock songs for the piano. Have a listen, check out the sheet music, try them out, and hopefully you’ll feel that they were right to make the cut. If not, well that’s fine too. Browse nkoda’s collection of rock piano sheet music and pick out your own favourites.

There’s tonnes more to look at here on the blog as well. If you enjoyed this read, then chances are you’ll be a fan of this rundown of the best piano songs. Who needs a piano lesson when you’ve got these instructive lists?

We all have different tastes, heroes and influences. Most important is that you figure out what you love and find a way to interact with it in a way that works for you. nkoda is there to help you with all of it, supporting your discovery, engagement and music-making.

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