10 Famous Singers Who Can’t Play Any Instruments
Occasionally, I’ve encountered singers and/or songwriters who felt self-conscious about the fact that they could not play any musical instruments. On top of this, I’ve also encountered anonymous arguments on the internet espousing the belief that singers are not real artists because they don’t compose their own backing music.
I disagree with this conclusion and would argue that the voice is an instrument; being able to tame the human voice and teach it to produce on-pitch and pleasant musical noises requires skill, and the production of melody through your vocal cords is a form of music creation. Even if you do not compose your own vocal melodies, you perform like a flutist would perform a sonata by Debussy. I may even argue that the voice is a harder instrument to master than the piano or guitar, both of which come with standardized keys or frets to help you hit the right note.
So today, I present to you a list of 10 famous singers who do not play any instruments (other than their own voice). While a few of these people may have dabbled with a few strums on a guitar or humming a few notes through a kazoo, for the most part their success and impact on the music industry derives from their singing and/or songwriting prowess.
If you are a singer and you’re worried that your lack of instrument-playing experience diminishes your musical legitimacy, I hope that the following list show you how significant a singing voice can be on the realm of music. Also, just to clarify, this list is in no particular order.
1. Frank Sinatra
Ol’ Blue Eyes was quite the crooner, bandleader, and even an arranger, but it appears that he was not an instrumentalist. While Sinatra sat down at the piano in a few filmed scenes as if he was playing, it was actually his longtime music partner Bill Miller who played the piano for him.
2. Mariah Carey
This singer could probably sing in a whistle tone high enough to communicate coherently with birds, but her skills on the keyboard may leave something to be desired. While she has stated that she is somewhat “familiar” with the piano, Mariah Carey is not known to be fluent in piano-ese and has not composed any songs using one. According to her memoirs, she does not know how to read music and considers her voice to be her instrument.
3. Christina Aguilera
This blue-eyed and bubbly former Mouseketeer is obviously a well-known and award winning singer. And I know what you’re thinking: do genie lamps or leather chaps count as musical instruments? Apparently, no. According to her fellow singer Jewel, Aguilera does not know how to play any instruments but has a personal appreciation for singers who can.
4. Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Anthony Kiedis’, the frontman of classic alternative rock band The Red Hot Chili Peppers, is living proof that spouting incoherent word salad lyrics into the microphone can bring you fame…if you’ve got some awesome instrumentalists to back you up. I’m just teasing, I’m a solid Chili Peppers fan. While Kiedis technically knows how to strum a chord or two on guitar, and has picked one up for a few live performances, he would not be considered proficient on any instrument other than his voice. He also does not use a guitar (or anything else for that matter) during the composition or recording process.
Lorde is not your typical singer. She states that she doesn’t play any instruments because she doesn’t need them. Rather, her songwriting process involves her singing out the chords that she wants. When asked if she would ever learn an instrument to aid her process, she declined. Clearly for this New Zealand artist: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
6. Henry Rollins (Black Flag)
For those of you uninitiated into the world of hardcore punk, Henry Rollins was the vocalist for the punk band Black Flag throughout the 1980s. He has stated quite bluntly in interviews that he cannot play any instruments and he does not consider himself to be a musician. Some critics would argue he’s not a singer either, more of a screamer or channeler of lyrical aggression. For some fans, that is exactly what makes his songs so great.
7. Morrissey (The Smiths + a solo career)
Morrissey made this list because I’ve been told tugging on heartstrings does not qualify as playing an instrument. This pale lyric crooner has picked up a guitar on a few occasions, but he doesn’t really play them. Morrissey’s primary contribution to music remains to be his witty lyrics and vocal melodies. He actually did “play” a piano on The Smiths’ song “Death of a Disco Dancer” but it was mostly just atonal diddling.
8. Gwen Stefani (No Doubt + a solo career)
The former No Doubt punk rock princess admitted in an interview that she has “no idea how to play an instruments” but can dabble on guitar a little. Stefani has even regretted her lack of instrument expertise, saying “[what] if I could play every chord [on guitar]? I feel like I could write a million songs if I had that”. Primarily, she considers herself a singer and even feels a little self-conscious referring to herself as a songwriter.
9. Kanye West
Kanye needs little introduction. While he’s made contact with a piano on occasion, he has previously admitted that he does not know how to play an instrument. He too appears to suffer from a slight case of imposter syndrome, feeling that he’s not a real rapper or artist because he does not come from a traditional music background.
10. Mandy Moore
Hollywood’s Y2K sweetheart has stated in interviews that she does not play any instruments. In fact, it was apparently a point of contention in her marriage with musician Ryan Adams, who seems to have bullied her over the fact and told her she was not a “true musician” because she couldn’t play anything. Harsh. But that has not stopped her from releasing seven studio albums anyway.
I believe that singing is an art-form unto itself and a singer should not be belittled simply because he/she lacks multi-instrumental skills.
Even if a singer cannot read music or play an inorganic instrument, they are still projecting musical notes through an organic wind instrument: their own vocal cords. People tend to look down on singers because…well, everyone has a voice. As if “it’s not that hard” to control muscle tension, air flow, and internal resonance to create a melodic noise that’s both pleasing to the ear and discernible in meaning—and all that without any kind of built-in tuning system. The human voice is perhaps the most expressive instrument that can be “played”, and the ability to tame that emotive yet fickle aerophone should not be taken for granted.
While I personally think that adding a chordophone to your skillset will grant you greater creative freedom over your compositions, I don’t believe it’s a prerequisite to musical craftsmanship.
If you’re a singer-songwriter and you want to make music…then make music. I’ve written articles on how you can do it without compositional experience or an instrument. If you want to expand your skill set for the future, learn guitar or piano along the way. But don’t limit what you can do now by what others say you need to do first.
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