Famous Musicians Who Couldn't Read Music

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Shalini Saxena

9 May,2016

“I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it. I can’t read music.”

- Taylor Swift


When it comes to playing music most of us turn towards learning how to read music. But what if I tell you that learning to read notes is not all that essential to play music? As surprising as it may sound, so very true it is that many great musicians of modern times didn't know how to read music. So let’s know a bit more about the famous musicians who instead of laying emphasis on music literacy, just went ahead and created some brilliant music that will live forever.


Elvis Presley

The 'King of Rock and Roll', Elvis Aaron Presley, did not know the theory of music but with his exceptional voice he won millions of hearts. He was never received formal music training and played his guitar relying entirely upon his own sense of music. He once quoted “I don’t know anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to.”

The Beatles

All four members of Beatles one of the most influential bands of all times did not know how to read or write music. In the 1980s during an interview with Playboy 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."


Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist is often argued to be one of the greatest musicians in history couldn’t read or write it on paper. His biography also speaks about his inability in reading and writing music. In a 1969 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Hendrix was asked if he could read music, to which he replied, “No, not at all.”


Slash Hudson was popularly known as the former lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses. "No, I can't read music," he said during a Snakepit interview. "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."

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton, the guitarist, songwriter, and singer is the only musician in history to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. He remarked his anxiety during a guest session with Aretha Franklin in his autobiography Slowhand, "I felt so nervous because I couldn't read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands."

Tony Iommi

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi also known as the father of metal wasn’t fluent in reading or writing music either. "Beforehand [we were doing] jazzy blues. It certainly wasn't something I thought about - I didn't read music," he once told BBC.

Michael Jackson

Yes, the King of Pop couldn’t read or write music too. He didn’t have any formal composition training though one could say he was trained harder than any other performer by his father. During the ‘Dangerous’ court case of 1994, Michael explained, “The lyrics, the strings, the chords, everything comes at the moment like a gift that is put right into your head and that’s how I hear it.”

Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen the Dutch-American musician, songwriter, and producer, also said he couldn't read music.  When asked in 1985 edition of Guitar World about his piano classes, Van Halen replied: "I never learned how to read, really; I used to fool the teacher. I did it all by ear."

Tommy Emanuel

Though it is really hard to believe but the true super-virtuoso Tommy Emanuel can't read music. His official bio clearly says, Tommy picked up the axe at the age of four, never learned how to read it and never looked back. "Tommy got his first guitar at age 4 and was taught by his mother," states his official website. "He quickly learned by ear, with no formal instruction, and has never read music. By age 6, he was working as a professional musician in the family band."


Besides these many other legends like Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Johnson, Angus Young of AC/DC, James Hetfield of Metallica, Kurt Vile, Jimmy Smith, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Taylor Swift, Bob Marley and many more created great music without matching up to the so called ‘music literacy’ criteria. It’s all in their mind. So if you love music and dream of learning any music instrument someday pick it up and just get started today. Tell us in the comments which instrument you’d love to learn – Piano, Guitar, Flute, Violin, Drums, Keyboard, Harmonica or any other?

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Shalini Saxena

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