20 Famous Musicians Who Can’t Read Music
It’s possible to be a fantastic musician without having much of a musical education. Some of the most popular musicians of all time had no formal music training whatsoever!
A musician is someone who plays an instrument, especially professionally. Nowhere in that definition does it state that formal musical education is needed. Reading music is beneficial but not a must in order to make it. That being said, a music education is indeed valuable and not to be taken lightly in any case.
Here are some famous musicians who can’t read music.
- 1. Jimi Hendrix
- 2. Michael Jackson
- 3. Hans Zimmer
- 4. Eddie Van Halen
- 5. Eric Clapton
- 6. Paul McCartney
- 7. Bob Dylan
- 8. Slash
- 9. Prince
- 10. Taylor Swift
- 11. Aretha Franklin
- 12. Noel Gallagher
- 13. Stevie Wonder
- 14. Lionel Richie
- 15. Irving Berlin
- 16. John Lennon
- 17. Ringo Starr
- 18. Danny Elfman
- 19. Bob Weir
- 20. Elvis Presley
1. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix needs no introduction whatsoever and is the perfect example to start off this list. He was born in Seattle in 1942 and picked up the guitar at a young age.
Although Jimi Hendrix is one of the greats, he actually could not read music, and instead relied solely on his ear and musical intuition to create some of the most iconic guitar solos of all time.
He is an example that practice makes perfect and that with enough dedication, anyone can learn to play an instrument proficiently – even if they don’t read music. His legacy still lives on today, and his music is still enjoyed by people all over the world.
2. Michael Jackson
Another perfect example is Michael Jackson. No one can argue his musical worth and what he has accomplished despite not being able to read music or have formal music education.
Michael was born in 1958 and is a prime example of what musical instinct is! Through sheer will and dedication, he is one of if not the best to ever do it. It just goes to show that even without reading music you can still make it.
Granted, Michael’s legacy is near impossible to reach, still, many can make it and breakthrough in the industry even without formal training but with dedication and practice.
3. Hans Zimmer
Certainly many will find themselves shocked that the great Hans Zimmer, the man behind such memorable and amazing soundtracks cannot read music very well. However, he’s an absolute expert at using the piano roll in his favorite DAW (Cubase), which shows that you can definitely compose music without using sheet music.
The genius that is Hans Zimmer and his musical resume become all that more impressive once you know this little detail. In an industry where reading music is often seen as a key skill, it’s amazing that Zimmer has been able to achieve the level of success that he has without this ability.
4. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen is another familiar name that might come as a shock. Without the ability to read music, Van Halen is still up there with some of the best to ever go near a guitar!
Eddie started playing guitar at a young age and was self-taught. He quickly became one of the most popular guitarists in the world. He is known for his unique style and innovative techniques. Eddie’s skills on the guitar are undeniable. He has won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
You’d be amazed at what you can achieve if you only sit down and practice. No formal education is needed when you have dedication. Eddie is a good example of this statement.
5. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton was born in 1945. He is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He, too, is self-taught and like many others on this list, he also cannot read music.
Eric started playing guitar at a young age and was very passionate about it from the start. He quickly gained popularity and became one of the most famous musicians in the world. Clapton is known for his soulful voice and bluesy guitar style. He has won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Just because you can’t read music, doesn’t mean you can’t be a great musician. If you have the talent and the drive, anything is possible. Eric Clapton is living proof of that!
6. Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney was born in 1942 and is another one that joins the ranks. He, too, can’t read music and he’s one of the most successful songwriters in history!
McCartney started playing guitar at a young age. He was taught by his father, who was also a musician. The Beatles are one of the most successful and popular bands of all time. McCartney has written or co-written, some of the most famous songs in history. He is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Again, the lack of formal music education doesn’t stop you from becoming a successful musician. All these names are living proof of that.
7. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was born in 1941. He is an American singer-songwriter, author, and artist. He is considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Dylan started playing guitar at a young age and was self-taught. He is known for his poetic lyrics and unique vocal style. Having won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bob Dylan is another example that reading music isn’t a must in order to make it!
Sometimes, having a good musical instinct can take you further than just formal education. Music comes from the heart and is not just some formula used repeatedly as a way to break through.
Another big name on this list. Slash is also a very popular musician who, in fact, cannot read music. Slash was born in 1965 and is most famously known as the lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses.
Slash’s father was a musician and he started teaching Slash how to play guitar at a young age. He is known for his skillful solos and unique style. Slash has also won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To become a technically proficient guitar player or any kind of musician at that, doesn’t necessitate knowing how to read music. Slash is another proof of that!
Prince was born in 1958 and has an impressive resume. The legacy he has left behind in the music industry is undeniable.
Prince was born into a musical family and started playing instruments at a young age. He can play multiple instruments but is most famously known for his guitar playing and vocal abilities. Prince has won numerous awards and like many others on this list, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He didn’t learn how to read music until he was in his twenties, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most successful musicians of all time. Prince is yet another example that formal education isn’t everything when it comes to music.
10. Taylor Swift
Most would think that Taylor Swift, with her professional approach to music, would in turn mean that she can read music but actually does not know how to. She started playing guitar and writing songs at a young age and is currently one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Swift has written all of her own material since the age of 14. Her music is heavily influenced by pop and country music. She has won numerous awards, including being the youngest winner of the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Her lack of music reading skills has not prevented her from becoming one of the most successful and popular singers in the world.
11. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin was born in 1942. Like Michael Jackson’s title “King of Pop” and Elvis Presley’s title “King of Rock N’ Roll”, Aretha Franklin is known as the “Queen of Soul”.
She has an impressive list of awards, including 18 Grammy Awards. Franklin started singing at a young age in her father’s church. She is known for her powerful voice and soulful music.
Franklin never learned to read or compose music, yet she was one of the most accomplished vocalists in history. She has inspired other musicians and is considered a musical icon.
12. Noel Gallagher
Noel Gallagher is an English musician, singer, and songwriter. He is the lead guitarist and vocalist of the rock band Oasis. You probably know the logical conclusion – he also cannot read music.
Gallagher started playing guitar at a young age and was self-taught. He is known for his unique style and songwriting abilities. Gallagher has won numerous awards, including being inducted into the Brit Awards Hall of Fame. He is also a two-time winner of the NME Awards.
Like the other artists on this list, Noel Gallagher’s inability to read music has yet to prevent him from becoming a renowned musician.
13. Stevie Wonder
This one is fairly obvious but serves as a good example. Stevie Wonder, born in 1950, is a musical prodigy even though he is blind. His inability to read music due to his situation has not stopped him from becoming one of the most successful and well-known musicians of all time.
Stevie is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. He is considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music. He has won 25 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I think that there is no better proof than Stevie Wonder when on the subject of famous musicians who can’t read music.
14. Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie is another pioneer in the music business. From his work with the Commodores to his successful solo career, Richie has done it all.
Richie can’t read music, but that doesn’t stop him from being a successful musician. He started playing instruments at a young age and taught himself how to write songs. Lionel Richie is an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He has won numerous awards, including 5 Grammy Awards and an Oscar. His music is influenced by soul, funk, and disco. Lionel Richie is yet another artist who demonstrates that you don’t need to know how to read music to succeed in the music business!
15. Irving Berlin
A name probably not as familiar to most is Irving Berlin. He was born in 1888 and is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of all time.
He began his musical career as a singing waiter in a nightclub. Berlin wrote “God Bless America” and is credited with writing over 1000 songs in his lifetime. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
Other songs like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” were written by Irving Berlin. Although Irving Berlin never learned how to read or write music, he was nevertheless one of history’s most renowned songwriters.
16. John Lennon
John Lennon was born in 1940 and, like Bob Dylan, is an English singer-songwriter. He was one of the founding members of The Beatles.
Lennon played guitar and piano and was mostly self-taught. He wrote some of the Beatles’ most famous songs, including “Imagine,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.” Lennon is also an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lennon’s lack of music reading skills still proved nothing, as he wrote songs that are still popular to this day, songs that we all still listen to!
17. Ringo Starr
You probably already know who Ringo Starr is. Ringo Starr was born in 1940 and is an English musician, singer, and songwriter. He is best known as the drummer for the Beatles.
Starr was born into a musical family and started playing drums at a young age. The Beatles are one of the most successful and popular bands of all time and Ringo Starr is a big part of that.
Joining all the other Beatles on this list, we can conclude that all of them were not formally educated in music reading, yet they all became extremely successful. So don’t let that discourage you in any way if you cannot read music.
18. Danny Elfman
Here’s one you probably won’t recognize immediately. Danny Elfman is an American composer, singer, songwriter, and record producer. You’ve probably heard his music even if you don’t know his name.
Elfman was born in 1953 and started playing an instrument at the age of 15. He is known for his work on movie soundtracks like “Batman”, “Spider-Man”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and many more. Elfman has won numerous awards and is considered one of the most successful film score composers of all time.
His achievements like all the other musicians on this list, don’t come from having a formal music education. Elfman can’t read or write sheet music, still, he broke through the music business.
19. Bob Weir
Almost to the end, we have Bob Weir. Bob Weir was born in 1947 and is an American singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He is best known as a founding member of the Grateful Dead.
His resume is also an impressive one. Most notably, Weir has won a Grammy Award for his work with the Grateful Dead. Weir is self-taught and does not know how to read music. He is known for his unique guitar playing style and vocal abilities.
Again, we see that formal education isn’t everything when it comes to becoming a successful musician as the founding member of the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir also persevered.
20. Elvis Presley
Finishing this list is the great Elvis Presley. Elvis was born in 1935. He was an American singer and actor. Considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Elvis was a pioneer of rock and roll music and is often referred to as the “King of Rock N’ Roll”.
Elvis couldn’t read music, he was more interested in learning how to play the guitar and sing. He is credited with popularizing rock and roll music and is one of the best-selling artists of all time.
I don’t think we need to spend time analyzing his incredible accomplishments. Elvis is a perfect example that you can succeed in music without having to read sheet music.
Knowing that some of the most famous and successful musicians in the world can’t read sheet music, should give you a little peace of mind if you’re someone who struggles in this area. Music is about creativity and expression, not necessarily being able to read notation.
All these musicians on this list achieved great things without being formally educated in music. So don’t let that discourage you, continue working on your skills, and who knows where they’ll take you!
Jimi Hendrix Image by: Original photographer unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Jackson Image by: Zoran Veselinovic, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hans Zimmer Image by: ColliderVideo, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Eddie Van Halen Image by: See page for author, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Eric Clapton Image by: Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Paul McCartney Image by: Eddie Janssens, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Bob Dylan Image by: Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slash Image by: Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Prince Image by: penner, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Taylor Swift Image by: Toglenn (Glenn Francis), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Aretha Franklin Image by: The White House from Washington, DC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Noel Gallagher Image by: Batiste Safont, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Stevie Wonder Image by: Antonio Cruz/ABr, CC BY 3.0 BR, via Wikimedia Commons
Lionel Richie Image by: Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Irving Berlin Image by: Al Aumuller, World Telegram staff photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Lennon Image by: Joost Evers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ringo Starr Image by: dearMoon, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Danny Elfman Image by: Danny_Elfman.jpg: The Kuhnsterderivative work: Electroguv, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Bob Weir Image by: Thekingdekalb, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Elvis Presley Image by: PresleyPromo1954.jpg: Photographer unknown (commercial work-for-hire)derivative work: Dockino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons