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8 huge artists who started out with less musical knowledge than you might think
What the hell is the circle of fifths? Here are some artists, composers and producers who might not know as much about music as you might expect.
Date published: 13th Jan 2023
Ever felt a prang of imposter syndrome when creating music? Or even just been straight-up wowed by the incredible artistry of the artists you listen to? Well, you might be interested to hear that lots of them have no idea what they’re doing.
Okay, we that’s an exaggeration. But a fair few of the biggest names in the industry have never taken music lessons or learned how to read sheet music.
Here are just a few artists, composers, and producers who started out with less musical knowledge or training than you might expect them to have had. And some who still don't have as much as you might expect.
As everyone and their grandma knows, Dave Grohl’s been in not one but two generation-defining rock bands - Nirvana and Foo Fighters. He even smashed the skins up in Queens Of The Stone Age for a bit. Dave did actually have a drum lesson. But only one before quitting and teaching himself, hitting pillows in his bedroom. He can’t read music and never had a guitar lesson.
Grimes had no formal music training and couldn’t play any instruments when she asked a friend to teach her how to use GarageBand. Shortly after, Grimes had created tracks, released an album, and became a huge name on the scene.
Based on the tunes Brianstorm and I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, it might be hard to believe Arctic Monkeys’ drummer Matt Helders didn’t really have a clue what he was doing at the beginning. But Helders didn’t have drum lessons and once stated he picked up the sticks because it "was the only thing left” left as his mates had already picked up guitars. Guitarists Turner and Cook also stated they learned chords from an Oasis chord book, and now they’re one of this generations biggest bands.
Avicii was inspired to start mixing by his brother, who was also a DJ. He started creating music using a pirated copy of FL Studio, later saying, “I've been DJing since I was 14 and producing since I was 17. I kind of just mashed them together.” He also commented on how he never had any formal training in music production. And now, there aren’t many people who haven’t heard his name or one or two of his tunes. Rest in peace, mate.
If any of the entries on this list are a shock, it’s this one. Hans Zimmer is the genius behind the soundtracks for Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Night, and many, many more huge movies. Surely if you’re working with horns, strings, percussion, keys, brass, and more, you’d need to be able to read music, right? Wrong. Zimmer cannot read conventional music notation. Despite this, he’s composed some of the most memorable, stunning pieces of music in history. What a legend.
Prince is often hailed as one of the greatest of all time. He knew how to play at least 27 instruments, could sing his arse off, and of course had that incredible swagger despite his pocket-sized stature. But Prince was mostly self-taught, and it's believed he couldn’t read music. Prince went on to have vocal lessons though, and possibly expanded his knowledge in more formal environments after his rise to fame. Which, y'know, makes sense.
Considering just how big SZA is, you might think she’d been grafting at music since she was a toddler. But the singer actually said she never wanted to do music, worrying it’d ruin the listening experience. She said it was her brother got her to provide vocals for an album he was making. Her brother began training her, forcing her out of her comfort zone by making her sing Biggie lyrics over MF DOOM production. She said, “he would Joe Jackson me for like weeks, but only for the sole purpose of his album. And, I don’t know, I just started making my own stuff.”
In 2017, she tweeted she had her first singing lesson a few months after the release of her debut album Ctrl.
Jus had my first official vocal lesson . Praise God for new beginnings and learning🕊
Noel was in Oasis (duh), one of the biggest bands in the world, before going on to form his High Flying Birds. He taught himself guitar aged thirteen, learning on a right-handed guitar despite being left handed. Noel went on to say guitar chords are “completely meaningless” to his songwriting and that he prefers to focus on the melody. He also stated that his 10 year old son taught him how to play Back in Black by AC/DC on guitar. If you don’t play guitar or just don’t like rock music, Back in Black is one every beginner guitarist can play.
Noel was the guitarist in one of the world's biggest bands but still doesn’t know everything and isn’t scared to admit it. We love to see it.
While what these artists have achieved is incredibly impressive and inspiring, it’s important to note they spent hours and hours practising, grafting, and learning what they could. And many of these artists will have had some lessons or begun teaching themselves music once their careers took off to reach the levels they have.
Still, it goes to show you don’t need to know everything about everything to break into the industry and leave your mark. Although lessons will certainly help if you can get them!
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