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I believe they are both great piano players. But, how do we judge that? Are we comparing apples to apples? Let’s first distinguish between two types of playing these artists might do. The first type is the accompaniment to the song they are singing concurrently. Yes, there are exceptions, but most times this type of playing is very straightforward requiring only chords and their variations and transitions. The other type of playing is passage work. This is the type of piano playing you hear when the last verse of a song is “instrumental” or when Elton extends “Benny and the Jets” or “Rocket Man” into a 12-minute song.

Elton is probably more of a technical piano player in that his passage work is fast, crisp, and accurate. I have seen and listened to probably hundreds of his performances and I have not detected a bad note. On the other hand, Billy is more of a slower piano player – not a bad thing – this is what I believe people are referring to when they say he plays with “soul”. In all fairness, I have also listened to and watched a lot of Billy Joel; I have not heard him miss a note either. Elton has defined a handful of inventions at the keyboard – call them riffs, slides, transitions, etc. By this I mean that looking back through piano playing history, no one else used them – he did not copy them from someone else. This would include (among others) Professor Longhair, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Liberace, Billy Joel, and so on. So, when you listen to the long piano solo in the middle of “Bennie and the Jets”, it will not ever sound like anyone else’s piano playing – even Billy Joel’s. As one other answer noted by using a YouTube clip, Billy “out-riffed” Elton – but not necessarily by playing better but by playing differently.

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Playing for accompaniment is completely different. In many cases, we are just listening to chords and strums on the piano while the artist is singing. Yes, there are exceptions – “Benny and the Jets” is more than chords…it’s rhythm and style. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” has a very melodic unmistakable accompaniment. “I’m Still Standing” and “My Life”, on the other hand, are mostly piano chords during the vocals. It is worth pointing out that Elton and Billy play two completely different pianos. And these pianos are voiced quite differently which yields a contrasting sound. This can trick the listener to an extent. Elton’s piano is very bright and sharp. So much so that by typical standards, it should be corrected for a warmer tone. But obviously Elton has chosen this as his preference. Billy’s piano is not bright – it is mellow and warm (just as you would expect of a “typical piano”). Billy’s piano helps him deliver that soulful sound everyone is commenting on. I would like the chance to answer this question again, but only after Elton and Billy have switched pianos and exchanged songs – maybe Elton on “Prelude/Angry Young Man” and Billy on “Bennie and the Jets”. I think we would all be surprised at the outcome.

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