15 Iconic Axemen Who Can't Read Music

author: UG Team date: 08/30/2013 category: artists' discussions

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15 Iconic Axemen Who Can't Read Music
As of the everlasting debates among guitarists and guitar aficionados, the subject of the importance of ability to read music constantly has the crowd divided over various points.

With valid arguments on both sides, one thing is definitely certain - reading music isn't crucial for reaching superstardom. So right now we'll focus on some of the legendary guitarists who made their way to the big league without music reading skills.

Iron Maiden's Adrian Smith once said that "most rock musicians play by ear - if it sounds good we do it," pretty much summing it all up. So without further ado, let's get on with the list and check out 15 greatest guitarists who can't or couldn't read music.

Robert Johnson

We'll kick it off with one of the forefathers - Robert Johnson. Born in the early 20th century to a single mother, Johnson began working in the cotton fields as a young boy, living unprosperous life with basically no chance for music lessons or exploring his musical talent. Therefore, he couldn't read music sheets.

Johnson's life was short-lasting, as he passed away at the age of 27, making him one of the first members of the infamous Club 27. He didn't receive much recognition while he was alive either, and it was only during the '60s when he got the props and legend status he deserves. Eric Clapton once named him "the most important blues singer that ever lived."

The Beatles

They dropped on the world's music scene like an atom bomb, but couldn't read music. And in all fairness, hardly anyone cared about it.

"None of us could read music," John Lennon said during a 1980 Playboy interview. "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

Arguably the ultimate guitar icon, Jimi Hendrix, wasn't skilled in reading music either. Of course, such circumstances didn't discourage him from taking on the axe and delivering such guitar classics as "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Child."

"Because he was unable to read or write music, it is nothing short of remarkable that Jimi Hendrix's meteoric rise in the music took place in just four short years," reads the official bio. "Entirely self-taught, Jimmy's inability to read music made him concentrate even harder on the music he heard."

Eric Clapton

Right there among the guitar history greats stands another classically untrained axeman - Eric Clapton. In his autobiography "Slowhand," Clapton touched on the subject of music reading, describing the anxiety he felt 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," he said. While we're discussing blues guitarists, we should also note that Stevie Ray Vaughan couldn't read music either.

Eddie Van Halen

The man who basically put neoclassical shredding and two-handed tapping on the map in under two minutes with his "Eruption" tune, Mr. Eddie Van Halen, once claimed he couldn't read music. Despite taking music lessons and admitting that piano training had its role in his guitar playing, Eddie also confessed that he never actually learned how to read music sheets.

When asked in 1985 edition of Guitar World magazine on whether piano classes transferred themselves to the guitar, Van Halen replied: "Oh, definitely, but in a very subliminal way. Because I never learned how to read, really; I used to fool the teacher. I did it all by ear."


Another icon, another musical non-reader. Slash of Guns N' Roses stresses the importance of jamming and has no problem with his inability to read notes.

"No, I can't read music," the axeman said during Snakepit Q&A. "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."

Angus Young

Despite not being able to read music, Angus Young of AC/DC could most certainly deliver and his legendary riff legacy only confirms it. When once asked by Guitar Player magazine on whether he knows what he's playing in musical terms, Young simply replied with "I haven't a clue."

Tony Iommi

The father of metal, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, wasn't too keen on reading music when he invented the genre. As a solid portion of guitar pioneers, Iron Man simply did what he thought was best at the time.

"Beforehand [we were doing] jazzy blues. It certainly wasn't something I thought about - I didn't read music," Iommi once told BBC. "I had no terms for anything. I like all sorts of classical stuff - various sorts of music, jazz, blues, to classical played a big part in my writing."

Tom Morello

Rage Against the Machine shredder Tom Morello is known for being mostly self-taught, with a number of sources clearly indicating he couldn't read notes either. Reportedly, Morello picked up on reading music sheets after joining Audioslave in the early 2000's.

"As a teenager, Morello became infatuated with both rock music and politics, as he was almost entirely self-taught on guitar (in fact, he learned the most about the instrument while practicing up to eight hours a day during a stint at Harvard University, where Morello majored in political science)," reads his bio over at MTV.

Adam Jones

Being self-taught, Adam Jones of Tool mastered the ways of the axe in his own unique way, so it comes as no surprise that Tool have one of the most distinctive music signatures in history. Although it's not entirely certain whether Jones is able to read music, several sources clearly rank him among the non-readers, earning him a spot on our list.

"Jones, as well as being a pretty talented self taught guitarist, handles the concepts behind Tool's videos," reads an interview over at ABC.

James Hetfield

Metallica frontman James Hetfield had his first encounter with the guitar way back during his childhood. As he pointed out on several occasions, the instruments were like toys to him, so learning how to play came in a natural manner.

As James noted in one of the "Black Album" documentaries, the band hired an orchestra to help them out with a few underlying parts for "Nothing Else Matters." The film shows Hetfield remembering the way he explained the tune to musicians, admitting he didn't even know the note names, let alone how to read music.

Dave Mustaine

Another metal master, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, had a difficult upbringing and his single mother couldn't afford music lessons, not by a long shot. His sister broke the first guitar he got off his head, but that didn't prevent him in becoming one of the greats.

"I'm self taught, so no one should hold it against me that I cant read music," Dave said during a Death and Taxes interview.

Dimebag Darrell

Rounding up the metal gods, late great Dimebag Darrell of Pantera also didn't possess the music reading skills. He wasn't too shy about admitting it in his "Riffer Madness" book either.

"I'm not heavy on theory or reading music books," he said. "I only know two or three scales."

Rosenberg Trio

Now let's delve into the jazz domain for a while. The fact that rock and metal musicians can't read music can come as somewhat unsurprising, but the jazz guys tend to have formal music education more often, only garnering additional respect and surprise for axeman who actually can't handle music sheets.

Which brings us to Rosenberg Trio, one of the greatest and technically most skilled groups of the gypsy jazz. Interestingly enough, none of the three Rosenberg brothers can read music, and their official bio only goes to confirm it.

"Neither of the three can actually read or write music, but they are nonetheless one of today's most impressive jazz bands, and certainly the best around when it comes to 'Gipsy Jazz,'" reads the official website.

Tommy Emanuel

Finally, a true super-virtuoso. People tend to find this one hard to believe, but Australian guitar extraordinaire Tommy Emanuel can't read music. As his official bio clearly states, 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," reads the 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."

So there's the big 15, but we've still only scratched the surface here. Also, don't think that learning how to read music doesn't help, just look at the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

So what are your thoughts on this one and how crucial do you think music-reading is? Also, if you can remember a few other notable non-readers, don't hesitate to share in the comments.
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