If music is the universal language, then where does sheet music fall into place? It’s easy to assume that playing music and understanding music go hand in hand. But there are actually numerous renowned musicians who have no idea how to read sheet music, communicate chords, understand theory, or even jot down their own songs. (And while we’re on the topic, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters couldn’t tune his guitar at first due to partial tone-deafness, so pianist Rick White had to tune up for him before each show.) Although many famous rockers never had “All Cows Eat Grass” or “Every Good Boy Does Fine” drilled into their heads, it didn’t seem to hold them back. Here are a few that may surprise you.
The Beatles: Despite being one of the most influential bands of all time, no one in the Fab Four could read or write all that black and white. In a 1980 interview, John Lennon told Playboy Magazine, “I think Paul and Ringo stand up with any of the rock musicians. Not technically great – none of us are technical musicians. 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.” Paul McCartney has also said, “I’ve never practiced scales in my life.”
Jimmy Page: The Led Zeppelin guitarist has made a career out of songwriting, but has said in the past that music notation is foreign to him, once calling it “crows on power lines.” When speaking of his early work as a session guitarist, Page explained, “In the initial stages they just said, play what you want, ‘cause at that time I couldn’t read music or anything.”
Jimi Hendrix: The guitarist has been called one of the greatest musicians in history, so it may surprise you that he wasn’t the least bit fluent on paper. 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.”
Elvis Presley: Believe it or not, the King of Rock and Roll couldn’t read music and never received formal training. In fact, the only class he ever failed in school was music. Elvis learned everything by ear and became the King without a single lesson under his sparkly belt.
Eric Clapton: He is only musician in history to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, but sheet music is all a blur for him. In his autobiography, Slowhand, Clapton spoke about his anxiety during a guest session with Aretha Franklin. “I felt so nervous because I couldn’t read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands.”
Amazingly, this list barely scratches the surface. Other notable non-music-readers include B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Bee Gees, Eddie Van Halen, Robert Johnson, Slash, Tommy Emanuel, George Lynch, Rosenberg Trio, Angus Young of AC/DC, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Adam Jones of Tool, Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden, Dave Mustaine of Megadeath, and James Hetfield of Metallica. Obviously, blind musicians like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Andrea Bocelli belong to the bunch as well. So what do you think? Is it is important to learn music theory, or is it better to just feel it?