The Most Iconic Keyboard by Decade

From Keith Richards's ratty distorted guitar on The Rolling Stones's “Satisfaction” to T-Pain's Auto-Tuned vocals on Lil Wayne's “Lollipop,” music technology has often defined the sound of popular music. And of all of the instruments integral to defining those eras, the keyboard has done it most consistently over the past 50 years.

Granted, it's hard to make the case that the keyboards of today are the same as those from half a century ago. Their evolution from piano to organ to synthesizer to sampler leaves the former and the latter with less in common than a violin has with a guitar. But tracing the keyboard’s wild journey across the decades gives us a lot of insight into phenomena like “the '80s sound.”

The keyboards that dominated their eras shaped not just the music of their time, but the sound of the future. By considering the history of these instruments, we can gain a unique perspective on the trajectory of contemporary popular music. Here's a look at the synths, songs and artists that have helped define the sound of past, present, and future.

1960s: The Hammond Organ

Hammond B3 Organ with Leslie 122

Hammond B3 Organ with Leslie 122

Originally marketed to churches as a lower-cost alternative to manual pipe organs, the Hammond electric organ gained its initial popularity in the 1950s and '60s through gospel music and the famed jazz player Jimmy Smith. As the organs became more widely available and electric sounds found their way into popular music by way of amplified guitar and bass, Hammonds started showing up all over the place.

The company's most famous model, the B-3 — often paired with a rotating Leslie speaker — put a white-hot flame under everything from Sly and the Family Stone's “Dance to the Music” to the Allman Brothers Band's “Whipping Post.”

RUNNER-UP: Wurlitzer 200

The Wurlitzer 200, introduced in 1968, quickly became an essential part of the sound of American R&B and strongly influenced the sounds at the end of the decade.


1970s: Fender Rhodes Electric Piano

While the Rhodes was initially introduced in the late '60s, made famous by Billy Preston's playing on The Beatles' “Get Back,” it really belonged to the 1970s.

The first real champion of the instrument was Miles Davis, who put Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on the instrument in his early '70s fusion bands, which became massively popular after the release of Bitches Brew.

The Rhodes' clean, mellow sound led to its ubiquity in pop, used by yacht rockers like the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, as well as Vince Guaraldi in his iconic Charlie Brown compositions. But the instrument took its strongest foothold in R&B, famously wielded by Ray Charles during his performance of “Shake A Tail Feather” in the Blues Brothers movie and by Stevie Wonder all over his mid-'70s classics Innervisions, Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life.

RUNNER-UP: Moog Minimoog

The Minimoog is a close runner-up, its illustrious career in the '70s added otherworldly sounds to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, pseudo-strings on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and a mechanical lyricism to Kraftwerk's “Autobahn,” which helped define the sound of the decade.

RUNNER-UP: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5

A strong case could be made for the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 as well. Released in 1978, the first Prophet changed the synthesizer landscape and ushered in the era of the programmable polysynth.


1980s: Yamaha DX7

Yamaha DX7

Yamaha DX7

The Prophet 5’s popularity towards the end of the '70s was an omen for the synthesizer's ubiquity in the 1980s. The release of the Yamaha DX7 in 1983 would prove a watershed moment for music production, as the affordable, versatile device launched an electronic revolution that we are still very much living today.

Using FM synthesis — a much more complex style of synthesis than the simple oscillator/filter/envelope format of the Minimoog's subtractive process — the DX7's electric piano, bass and string presets would define hits like A-Ha's “Take On Me” and Berlin's “Take My Breath Away.”

Its “Tubular Bells” preset was essentially the weapon of choice for scores of new age musicians, used most notably on Enya's debut album. And Brian Eno used the synth all over his '80s work, even playing it on U2's “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

RUNNER-UP: Roland Jupiter 8

The Roland Jupiter 8 was a work of art, featuring two discrete VCOs per voice, flexible and fantastic sounding filters and a suite of features that set it apart from the competition.

RUNNER-UP: Sequential Circuits Prophet 600

The Prophet 600, released in 1983, was the first synth to offer MIDI connections, opening a new era of inter-connectivity that would become essential for all future electronic instruments.


1990s: Korg M1

Korg M1 Workstation

Korg M1 Workstation

Once synthesizers flooded the music industry in the '80s, music production effectively became an arms race of who could use the most cutting-edge sounds to produce a hit first. Conversely, new forms of music could practically be defined by their new sounds. The powerful Korg M1 was just the instrument for these times, providing a diverse set of sounds that helped forge diverse genres. When house music first took to the Billboard charts, tracks like “Show Me Love” by Robin S. and “Rhythm is a Dancer,” by Snap! hinged on the sexy, simple tone of the M1's organ preset. Madonna, as always, changed with the times and used the M1 to great success on her hit “Vogue.”

Yet, somewhat hilariously, the most well-known example of the M1 doesn't even occur in popular music — the goofy slap bass sound used in the Seinfeld theme song was not played on a bass, but on the M1.

RUNNER-UP: Ensoniq ASR-10

The '90s also saw the release of the first major keyboard sampler, Ensoniq's ASR-10, which would quickly redefine the sample work in hip hop, first by way of the Wu Tang Clan's RZA's complex soul chops, and then via Timbaland's and The Neptunes' pristine, minimal productions from the tail end of the '90s through the mid-2000s.


2000s: Korg Triton

Korg Triton Pro X 88

Korg Triton Pro X 88

If it hadn't been such a crucial part of '90s rap music, the ASR-10 may have been an obvious choice for the defining keyboard of the 2000s. Timbaland and The Neptunes used the ASR-10 to create R&B and hip hop beats that crossed over to the mainstream in a big way — see Missy Elliott's “Get Ur Freak On” and Kelis' “Milkshake” respectively — and Kanye West used it prominently in his productions for Jay-Z.

But the Korg Triton, more than embodying the sound of the 2000s, embodies an important style. Sensing the need for an all-in-one production studio, Korg created an instrument that was a synthesizer, a rhythm machine, a sampler and a mixing studio with pristine audio quality, all in one box. The Neptunes beat on Clipse's “Grindin'” is the perfect example of the machine's cool efficiency and powerful ability to groove. Of course, the Triton was less of a trendsetter than a swan song for powerful keyboard instruments, as the '00s also saw the rise of software synthesizers and digital DAWS or recording studios. In turn, the workstation format of the Triton was moot within just a few years.

One of the biggest hits of the decade, Usher's “Yeah,” was produced by Lil Jon using the Sonik Synth 2 program. The '00s also saw the rise of consumer synthesizer, with Korg's MiniKorg — at just a few hundred dollars — becoming one of the best-selling synthesizers of all time.

RUNNER-UP: Yamaha Motif Series

The Triton’s main competitor, the Yamaha Motif, makes for a strong case as well, as many of the same producers who championed the Triton utilized both boards extensively.

RUNNER-UP: Nord Electro Series

The 2000s also saw the rise of Nord keyboards as absolute standards in studios and festivals stages the world over. If you nodded along to an indie band at some point in the past decade, chances are you could spot a shiny red Nord Electro or Stage keyboard in the setup somewhere.


2010s: Moog Lil Phatty

Moog Little Phatty

Moog Little Phatty

Software has only taken a stronger hold on music creation, thanks to the affordability of home computers and the various high-quality digital production suites now available.

Soft synths like Omnisphere and Native Instruments' Massive are ubiquitous across a variety of genres, including hip hop, pop and dance music. Sometimes musicians play these with MIDI keyboard controllers, sometimes they program the notes directly into a program like Ableton or FL Studio (Fruity Loops). But the '10s also has seen a major resurgence in analog mono synths, thanks to an influx of options from companies such as Korg, Arturia and Dave Smith Instruments, founded by the man behind Sequential Circuits.

Moog is almost single-handedly responsible for this trend with the release of its Lil Phatty in 2007, an affordable synth that flooded studios in the following decade. With analog mono synths selling like hot cakes, it seems like there's a real demand for tactile synthesizer control and fat, sometimes dirty, analog tones that are so often missing in pristine, computer-only productions.

RUNNER-UP: Arturia Minibrute

Arturia’s Minibrute has been one of the most fruitful successors of the new analog trend the Phatty kicked off and has become very common as both a stage and studio tool.

RUNNER-UP: Dave Smith Mopho

The ever-present Dave Smith’s Mopho monosynth also proved extremely popular throughout the early 2010s, presenting a backpack-sized dose of analog power that could be integrated into any setting.

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