Choosing a “best pianist of all time” is tricky. Art is subjective, tastes change, and different people have different preferences. Besides, what kind of pianist are we talking about? Virtuosos tend to be associated with classical music, but other genres can be just as—if not more—technically demanding.
Here are 24 famous pianists who, in my opinion, deserve a shot at the title “best pianist of all time.” They’re sorted into two groups: classical and jazz. I chose classical and jazz because these genres feature the piano as a centerpiece, either as a solo instrument or as a featured part of an ensemble (ie. concertos and piano trios). Classical and jazz are also both technically demanding genres.
These musicians were chosen based on 1) technical ability; and 2) their contributions to music. Pianists are listed by chronological order of birth year, and this list is by no means exhaustive!
Famous Pianists: Classical
- Franz Liszt
- Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Josef Hofmann
- Arthur Rubinstein
- Vladimir Horowitz
- Claudio Arrau
- Sviatoslav Richter
- Glenn Gould
- Van Cliburn
- Martha Argerich
- Daniel Barenboim
- Lang Lang
Famous Pianists: Jazz
- Duke Ellington
- Fats Waller
- Art Tatum
- Mary Lou Williams
- Thelonious Monk
- Dave Brubeck
- Bud Powell
- Oscar Peterson
- Bill Evans
- McCoy Tyner
- Herbie Hancock
- Chick Corea
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Famous Pianists: Classical
1. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Also read: The Ultimate Liszticle
It’s not possible to hear the abilities of the great classical composers because we don’t have any recordings of their work. But Liszt’s reputation goes beyond recordings. He was known during his time as a formidable performer who redefined what it meant to be a pianist.
Considered the world’s first rockstar, Liszt coined the word “recital” and women swooned at Liszt’s concerts. He was also very aware of his celebrity platform and often gifted his earnings to philanthropic causes. Today, Liszt’s most popular compositions include the virtuosic “La Campanella” (based on a theme by Paganini), Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and “Liebestraum.” His pieces are among the most technically challenging in the classical piano repertoire.
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rachmaninoff is a classical composer we do have recordings of. He was known for being very tall with very large hands, and he wrote music suitable for his stature (both physically and musically). Rachmaninoff’s enormous hand span enabled him to play with definitive clarity without relying on the pedal. His Piano Concerto No. 3, often nicknamed the “Rach 3,” is considered by many as among the most challenging piano pieces of all time. His compositions, from the 2nd piano concerto to the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, are moody, beautiful, and distinctly Russian. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff suffered from depression throughout his life and never returned to his homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution.
3. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957)
Josef Hofmann was a child prodigy. He was small in stature and, unusual for a world-class pianist, possessed small hands. This wasn’t a worry though, because Steinway produced custom pianos just for him. His pianos had narrow keys, he preferred two pedals over three, and he brought his own chair along on tours. Unfortunately, marital problems and alcoholism affected Hofmann’s artistry in his later years. Rachmaninoff once said he was “the greatest pianist alive if he is sober and in form.” On his own musical style, Hofmann had a motto: “An aristocrat never hurries.” A fan of spontaneity, he once told Rachmaninoff, “I do not know how to build a composition . . . occasionally, it happens to sound well.”
4. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
Along with Vladimir Horowitz, Rubinstein was one of the rare concert pianists who became a household name. Revered for his interpretations of Chopin, Rubinstein was not shy about his hedonistic lifestyle (he loved wine, women, cigars, and art) and referred to piano playing as “making love.” He had absolute pitch and a photographic memory and traced his teacher lineage through Liszt, Czerny, and Beethoven. Rubinstein was careful not to over-practice, saying: “At every concert, I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen.”
I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew. It’s like making love. The act is always the same, but each time it’s different.
Arthur Rubinstein (Steinway)
5. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)
Horowitz was another pianist who found a place in the mainstream public’s consciousness. But despite being hailed as an unparalleled musician and almost unanimously named one of the best pianists of all time, Horowitz experienced imposter syndrome. He canceled many concerts, had to be forced on stage, and rarely gave recitals after 1965. Horowitz’s playing is recognizable by his stark dynamic contrasts that do not sacrifice tonal quality.
6. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)
Claudio Arrau’s talents were so apparent at an early age that the Chilean government funded his family’s move to Vienna so that he could study piano with the finest teachers. He is renowned for his interpretations of the classical masters: Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms. His musical style has been described as “aristocratic,” but you wouldn’t hear him describe himself this way. “I try to play the way a cat jumps. It must be completely natural,” he says. “I have promised myself that whenever I feel a kind of routine creeping into my playing, I will stop. Now when I play I am almost in ecstasy, a creative ecstasy, which I wouldn’t miss for anything. This is what I live for.” Arrau played large and demanding works until the end of his life.
7. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
Born in Soviet-era Ukraine, Sviatoslav Richter is frequently described as one of the best pianists of all time. Yet he never set out to become a pianist. He grew up in a musical family (his father was a skilled pianist who was killed by Soviet secret police) and his first love was opera. Richter’s formal piano training began at age 22 under Heinrich Neuhaus. His repertoire was notoriously varied and he mastered everything from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff, Debussy to Mussorgsky. He played with a large and textured sound; to Neuhaus, he “treated each composition like a vast landscape.”
Put a small piano in a truck and drive out on country roads; take time to discover new scenery; stop in a pretty place where there is a good church; unload the piano and tell the residents; give a concert; offer flowers to the people who have been so kind as to attend; leave again.
– Sviatoslav Richter (source)
8. Glenn Gould (1932-1982)
The eccentric Glenn Gould eschewed live performance and preferred studio recordings, insisted on using the same chair made by his father, wore winter clothes in warm weather, and had a habit of humming along with his playing that you can hear on his recordings. Still, Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s keyboard works are the gold standard of Bach interpretations and he was one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century. Along with Oscar Peterson, Gould has a school named after him at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada.
9. Van Cliburn (1934-2013)
Van Cliburn boasts a substantial and meaningful legacy. In 1958 during the height of the Cold War, 23-year-old Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Competition adjudicators had to ask Nikita Kruschev for permission to grant an American the prize, and when he returned triumphant to the U.S., he became the first musician to receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Thus, Cliburn became a symbol of East-West diplomacy for both sides. Cliburn has since won numerous accolades, including the Kennedy Center Honors, Russia’s Order of Friendship, and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, one of classical piano’s most prestigious competitions is the Van Cliburn Competition held every four years in the pianist’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
10. Martha Argerich (1941-)
Widely considered the world’s greatest living pianist, the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich has been dazzling audiences since the mid-century. Another known eccentric, she has a photographic memory, rarely gives interviews and has a reputation for canceling concerts at the last minute. This hasn’t stopped her legions of fans though. A cancer survivor, Argerich is known for immediately playing the moment she sits down. She loves Beethoven “more than anything” and considers Prokofiev and Ravel her “best friends.”
11. Daniel Barenboim (1942-)
According to The Guardian, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim “is more than one of the world’s great musicians. He is also one of the world’s great public figures.” Together with the academic Edward Said, Barenboim created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble of Israeli and Palestinian musicians. Barenboim is also the first person to hold both Israeli and Palestinian passports. As a musician, Barenboim rejects performing music based purely on the original intentions, technologies, and context of the composer—an unusual position he’s written about in liner notes.
12. Lang Lang (1982-)
Lang Lang’s flamboyant, theatrical style of playing has polarized audiences, but his influence can’t be underestimated. He’s “the world’s most famous classical pianist,” according to The New York Times and has inspired a whole new generation of pianists (the “Lang Lang effect“). Lang has also forayed into mainstream entertainment, collaborating with artists like Jon Batiste and Billy Joel and releasing an album of Disney music. A passionate philanthropist, Lang’s foundation provides music lessons and instruments to marginalized communities.
Music makes life better. It heals, unites and inspires, and it makes us better people . . . I want every child to have access to music experiences that ignite something wonderful inside of them, just as music delivered something incredible for me.
Lang Lang (Lang Lang International Music Foundation)
For Piano Players, By Piano Players
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Famous Pianists: Jazz
1. Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
One of the foremost names of jazz, Duke Ellington is responsible for composing more than a thousand 20th-century hits including “A Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Mood Indigo”—melodies that have become standards. A charismatic bandleader, Ellington often led his ensemble from his place at the piano, setting the mood and tempo. He achieved this by playing unique piano introductions—the intro to “In a Sentimental Mood” is iconic. While he never aspired to be a soloist to the caliber of artists like Art Tatum, Ellington made an indelible impact on jazz, collaborating with other giants like Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, and Max Roach.
2. Fats Waller (1904-1941)
Hidden beneath his clownish exterior, Fats Waller was a sophisticated musician from a musical family. He grew up playing harmonium and organ before becoming a student of stride pianist James P. Johnson. He later made his name as a rambunctious entertainer who created rowdy, celebratory atmospheres through his stride piano style and occasional ad-libbing. Waller was also sarcastic; he would make fun of songs he was asked to record that he didn’t like, which ironically turned them into good songs. Fats Waller made film appearances too and his most well-known numbers include “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
3. Art Tatum (1909-1956)
Blind from youth, Art Tatum was mostly self-taught—he memorized piano rolls and learned radio music by ear. But while his technical abilities were unparalleled, Tatum did receive criticism for being overly ornamental. But as one critic puts it, “that is the essence of Tatum.” Tatum never composed but was a prolific soloist whose shows attracted the likes of Vladimir Horowitz and George Gershwin. In the 90s, an MIT Master’s student proposed the concept of the “tatum”—the smallest unit of music in a song’s rhythmic structure.
4. Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
Mary Lou Williams played piano to survive. As a little girl, her white neighbors would throw bricks at her family home until she played piano for them. By age 15, was a professional musician supporting her family. As a band pianist, she was known as “the lady who swings the band.” Williams mentored many of the jazz greats, including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. After converting to Catholicism, she dedicated her life to others, even offering her home as a recovery space. Today, Williams is remembered both as one of the few famous women in jazz and one of the genre’s most influential and impactful figures.
Americans don’t realize how important jazz is. It’s healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere — in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can.
Mary Lou to the New York Post in 1975
5. Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
It’s hard to separate Thelonious Monk the personality and Thelonious Monk the musician. Perceived by some as “odd,” Monk wore funky hats and would get up and dance during his bandmates’ solos. Often credited for his contributions to the emerging bebop style, Monk’s playing was notoriously unconventional to the extent that he wasn’t recognized as a “good pianist” for a long time…until a gig with John Coltrane changed minds because the audience was finally ready for his approach. Unfortunately, his mental health issues were poorly understood during his life and he suffered from flawed medical help and prescriptions.
The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.
6. Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)
Dave Brubeck was nearly expelled from the College of the Pacific because he couldn’t read sheet music, but he nevertheless became one of the most important figures in the development of jazz. The album Time Out and its popular track “Take Five” cemented Brubeck’s mastery of odd time signatures. Brubeck also paid homage to Chopin in “Thank You,” which was partially inspired by his Cold War visit to Poland. “People in the U.S. don’t realize that jazz brings freedom to these other countries almost more than anything else we can do,” he was quoted as saying.
7. Bud Powell (1924-1966)
Another major name in jazz piano was Bud Powell. He was often nicknamed “the Charlie Parker of piano.” A talented virtuoso, Powell was imitating his jazz heroes as a child and was performing in public by his teens. He was unfortunately beset by health problems, alcoholism, violent altercations with the police, and was institutionalized more than once. Nevertheless, he was a productive musician and was considered a pioneer of the bebop style of improvisation. He also enjoyed a healthy fanbase in Paris when he played there.
8. Oscar Peterson
Also read: Oscar Peterson’s Jazz Legacy
Widely revered as one of the top—if not the top—jazz pianists of all time, Oscar Peterson was nicknamed “the man with four hands” by Duke Ellington, which speaks to his virtuosic technique and characteristic swing. Classically trained, Peterson burst onto the Montreal jazz scene before catching the ear of Norman Grantz, who brought him to Carnegie Hall. He went on to have a prolific career and earned many accolades including eight Grammys and the Order of Canada (Companion). In 2022, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorated Oscar Peterson with a special edition loonie ($1 coin).
9. Bill Evans (1929-1980)
The portrait of Bill Evans at the piano with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth is iconic. It exudes the classic jazz aesthetic: loose, relaxed, cool, stylish. Evans is beloved for his pianistic touch, which may have been inspired by his proficiency in the violin and flute. These are instruments whose tone is “sung,” and Evans may have transplanted those nuanced techniques to the piano. Because his mother collected classical scores, Evans also studied classical composers like Debussy and Stravinsky. He had imposter syndrome and often felt he needed to work hard to make up for lack of talent.
Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned with feeling being the generating force.
Bill Evans to Gene Lees
10. McCoy Tyner (1938-2020)
A renowned pianist, composer, and bandleader, McCoy Tyner grew up in a musical environment in Philadelphia, just down the street from Bud Powell. In fact, Powell, who didn’t have a piano at home, came over to play at the Tyner house. Tyner is perhaps best known for his involvement with the John Coltrane Quartet and Coltrane’s seminal album My Favorite Things. Today, he is remembered for his large palette of influences—from African and Latin rhythms to post-bebop modal harmonies—and percussive attack on the piano.
11. Herbie Hancock (1940-)
Today, Herbie Hancock is one of the biggest names in keyboard music. He first appeared in the music scene at age 11 with his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Major with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While studying at Grinnell College, Hancock majored in electrical engineering and music. These two seemingly unrelated disciplines would come in handy as Hancock would become a true pioneer in electronic music. Hancock has enjoyed a colorful career with the hit single “Watermelon Man,” the album Head Hunters, supporting the Civil Rights Movement with Africa-inspired music, and winning 12 Grammys. Check out his inspiring interview with the National Endowment for the Arts.
I do recommend that openness is the best policy and to explore and find out as much about things as you can because music is not about music. Music at its best is about life. And so the more you develop your life, the more you expand and stretch yourself and the more you develop a broader palette, the more you have to express in music.
Herbie Hancock interview with National Endowment for the Arts
12. Chick Corea (1941-2021)
Chick Corea is one of the most recognizable names in jazz fusion. He challenged the limits of the jazz genre and played a central role in Miles Davis’ experimental Bitches Brew album. Perhaps best known for his Fender Rhodes sound, Corea also formed his own electric group Return to Forever and a more experimental group called Circle. When Corea died at age 79 from a rare form of cancer, his last words included the following:
It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.