Famous musicians, including the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, and Slash, never knew how to read music. Their performances or recordings would, however, never let you know about this fact. Know more about such ‘born-with-a-sense-of-music’ personalities.
When asked if piano training transferred itself to the guitar, Eddie Van Halen answered, “Oh, definitely, but in a very subliminal way. Because I never learned how to read, really; I used to fool the teacher. I did it all by ear.”
What if you can compose some decent music?; it comes to you naturally. Your hand simply strums the right strings and holds them for the right length of time. You know when it sounds good to the ear, and when it doesn’t. In that case, who needs notations to tell you about making good music.
This probably must have been the thoughts of the few blessed souls who could create melody from scratch, without taking any help from what is called sheet music. How brilliant! It is known that, the system of standard notation has been developed in the first place for the piano. Guitarists or other string instrument players are bound to find it difficult. Also, there were some popular music personalities that did not need any kind of noting, or reading of the scores they performed. As amazing as it sounds, this ‘musical illiteracy’ never came in the way of these prodigious musicians while they were being extraordinary.
Famous Musicians Who Could Never Read and Write Music
Robert Johnson (lived 1911 – 1938): Living with his mother on the cotton fields, young Robert could hardly be given formal training in music. He was a less-known-about artist, until his recordings of 1936 and 1937 were reissued in the year 1961 through an album ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’. According to one of his school friends, Robert was known to play the harmonica and jaw harp well. His style of singing and playing the guitar is seen to have influenced many future instrumentalists. He is today considered the master of the Mississippi Delta Blues style. Eric Clapton called him ‘the most important blues singer that ever lived’.
The ‘King of Rock and Roll’, Elvis Aaron Presley, the famous singer to sway the hearts of millions, did not know the theory of music either. He had an exceptional voice, which was never formally trained. He played his guitar relying entirely upon his own sense of music. Listening to the songs of Hank Snow and Jake Hess, he developed his own style.
Paying to record some songs in his voice at Sun Records initially, he attempted to hear his own voice. He is also believed to have been turned down at an audition for a local vocal quartet for not having a ear for harmony.
The Beatles (1960 – 1970): John Lennon (lived 1940 – 1980), George Harrison (lived 1943 – 2001), Paul McCartney (born 1942), and Ringo Starr (born 1940)
Who does not know them! But not many know that this band of four did not know how to read and write music. Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? It is a fact though. ‘The Fab Four’ mesmerized the world audience with their rock music. The ‘Beatlemania’ of the 1960s proved their mass appeal and popularity. As told to ‘Playboy’ in a 1980 interview, John Lennon said, “None of us could read music,” … “None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they are as good as anybody.” (when speaking of Paul and Ringo).
Jimi Hendrix (lived 1942 – 1970): James Marshall, or Jimi, known for his iconic compositions like ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, was an American singer, guitarist, and songwriter. One of his first instruments was a one-stringed ukulele which he had found in the garbage of an older woman’s home. He followed the songs of Elvis Presley and learned music by ear. As his biography mentions, his inability to read or write music made him focus better on the music he heard. His praise in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ‘arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music’, qualifies him to be the most influential musician emerging to fame in a short span of just four years.
Tony Williams (lived 1945 – 1997): Anthony Tillmon ‘Tony’ Williams was one of the most influential American jazz drummers. Innovator of the groundbreaking jazz fusion, he became famous in the 1960s through the band of trumpeter Miles Davis. In his autobiography, Davis talks about Tony to be ‘the center that the group’s sound revolved around’. Alan Dawson, a well-known and respected percussion teacher in Boston, was Tony’s teacher too when he was a kid. Still, he did not know anything about notations.
Eric, also known as Slowhand, himself honestly shares about not being able to read music, in his autobiography. He mentions about his anxiety while at a guest session with Aretha Franklin as, “I felt so nervous, because I couldn’t read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands.” Besides being a blues guitarist, he is also a songwriter and singer.
Another distinct attribute of this British artist is that, he is the only one to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ‘thrice’. Out of the many of his guitar playing influences, he admits to Robert Johnson being the most significant of all.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (lived 1954 – 1990): A popular electric guitarist in the history of blues music, he is described by AllMusic as ‘a rocking powerhouse of a guitarist who gave blues a burst of momentum in the ’80s, with influence still felt long after his tragic death’. His older brother Jimmie was his inspiration for taking up the guitar when he was just seven; also for trying instruments like the drums and saxophone. He learned entirely by ear, listening to songs by the Nightcaps and blues artists like Albert King, Otis Rush, and rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix.
Eddie Van Halen (born 1955): Edward Lodewijk, or Eddie, is an American musician who was born in the Netherlands. Popular as a lead guitarist, he founded Van Halen, the rock band. His father was a clarinetist, saxophonist, and pianist. He learned how to play the piano along with his brother. Eddie could never read music, and he learned by watching and listening, as told in an interview. After hearing his brother play the drums at a performance, he changed from playing a drum-kit to a guitar. Listening to recitals of Bach and Mozart, he tried to reproduce them without any practice.
Tommy Emmanuel (born 1955): Known as a virtuoso guitarist and songwriter, William Thomas ‘Tommy’ Emmanuel learned to play the guitar from his mother since he was 4 years old. He had never otherwise received any other formal instruction. He has never been able to read music. Nonetheless, performing with the family band as a professional by the age of six, he would not perhaps feel the need to learn it the theoretical way.
A British-American musician, Slash Hudson is the former lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that he became popular the world over. You may not want to believe it, but this guy cannot read musical notes. In an interview during Snakepit, Slash had shared about it: “No, I can’t read music, I play by ear. I try to make what I hear (sometimes just in my head) come out my hands into the guitar. When I write music, I usually write on my own at least to start.”
One of the family friends, Seymour Cassel, gave him the nickname ‘Slash’, because he was ‘always in a hurry, zipping around from one thing to another’.
Tom Morello is another guitarist and activist who did not know how to read music sheets for a long time. It is also believed by some that Jimmy Page, Danny Elfman, The Rosenberg Trio, Kanye West, Frank Sinatra, Sylvia Fine and Danny Kaye, Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, and Harry Lillis ‘Bing’ Crosby, Jr. were musically illiterate too. Sooo not in tune!