American music is vastly diverse, representing a melting pot of ethnicities, beliefs, and ideas. Through immigration, the US has a proud history of welcoming every conceivable culture across its border.
These seemingly disparate backgrounds have created a symphony of sounds that have woven themselves into the fabric of America. Today, American music’s outsized influence on world culture is undeniable. Yet, ironically, that influence only serves as a testament to how much music the world has bestowed upon America.
In this post, we’re going to dive deeper into American music and its history by examining 21 of the greatest and most famous American musicians of all time.
1. Louis Armstrong
Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was born in the jazz-rich soil of New Orleans, Louisiana. Here Armstrong began his professional career playing in brass bands on riverboats.
In the 20s, Armstrong developed his unique style while fronting his Chicago group The Hot Five.
His approach to jazz took a more focused approach on individual improvisation, something rarely seen before. He also became known for scat singing during performances.
Armstrong experienced great public appreciation, appearing in film, tv, and radio while becoming the public face of jazz. His influence over how jazz is composed, played, and sang is unmatched.
Related: Check out our article on other famous musicians from Louisiana here.
2. Bob Dylan
Named Robert Zimmerman at birth, Bob Dylan was born in the coal-mining town of Duluth, Minnesota.
Dylan began his career in the burgeoning folk scene of Greenwich Village in New York City. He fashioned his playing style after the famous American folk singer Woody Guthrie.
Dylan would compose several iconic message songs during the civil rights movement. Among the most famous of these was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” These songs signaled his change from a folk singer to a modern songwriter.
Dylan’s songwriting is some of the most vital in history. His lyrical imagery and mercurial style influence music to this day.
Related: For more famous musicians from Minnesota, click here.
3. Elvis Presley
Known as the “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. As a teen, his family would relocate to Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis would become synonymous with the city of Memphis.
As one of the earliest performers on the legendary Sun Records label, Elvis brought traditionally Black music to a white audience.
His rockabilly sound captivated teenagers and shocked adults. He immediately became a sex symbol.
Elvis starred in dozens of films on his way to becoming an early example of the hyper stardom that would pervade American culture by the end of the century. Even in the twilight of his career, he was beloved.
Related: Read our list of famous musicians from Mississippi post here.
4. Stevie Wonder
Legendary Motown singer-songwriter, pianist, and activist Stevie Wonder was born six weeks premature in Saginaw, Michigan.
Blind from birth, Wonder exhibited innate musical talent while still a child performing in his local church. As a result, Motown Records signed Wonder before he even reached puberty.
Wonder is best known for a string of albums in the 70s that are considered classics of soul music. Among these are Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.
Outside of music, Wonder is an activist and played an integral role in making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. To this day, he uses his platform for social justice causes.
Related: Check out our article on other famous musicians from Michigan here.
5. Jimi Hendrix
Johnny Hendrix, better known as psychedelic guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix, was born fifty years before grunge in rainy Seattle, Washington.
Hendrix would back several R&B acts in the early 60s with little success. Upon moving to England, Hendrix formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His raucous take on American R&B skyrocketed the group up the English charts.
Hendrix pioneered guitar sounds that were unfathomable before the 60s began. Utilizing feedback from his amplifier with heavy use of effects pedals, he revolutionized rock music.
Hendrix’s death at the age of 27 added to the mythos of The 27 Club.
Related: Read more about other famous American guitar players here.
6. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift was born in the small town of West Reading, Pennsylvania. At fourteen years old, the singer-songwriter moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue her music career.
Swift began her career as a country artist but has quickly become defined by her willingness to experiment with different genres and blend them into her confessional songwriting. She has used folk, indie-rock, pop, and dance elements in her writing.
Known for her rabid fanbase and unwavering commitment to artistry, Swift has been able to navigate mainstream music on her terms.
Most notably, by re-recording her previous work to obtain rights over master recordings. These re-recordings became hits in their own right.
Related: Check out our list of famous American singers here.
Producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Prince Nelson, known as Prince, was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Prince would become one of the most influential artists of his generation through landmark albums 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign o’ the Times. In addition, his film Purple Rain has become an iconic entry in 80s pop culture.
Prince also wrote and produced work for The Time, Vanity 6, and a slew of other pop acts. Sinead O’Connor and The Bangles had massive hits singing his compositions.
As a performer, songwriter, and personality, Prince was groundbreaking. His blend of soul, rock, and sensuality changed the course of pop music forever.
8. Jay Z
Shawn Carter, better known as rapper and record executive Jay Z, was born in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York.
Rising through the ranks of New York City’s hip-hop scene, Jay Z started Roc-A-Fella Records as a means to release his albums. This move would mark the beginning of his success as an entrepreneur.
Jay Z has experienced an unmatched level of critical and commercial acclaim. Leveraging the success of Roc-A-Fella Records, Jay Z became CEO of Def Jam Records and cultivated the careers of Kanye West and Rihanna.
Jay Z’s midas touch has led to his reputation as a mogul. He continues to make vital records and business deals.
9. James Taylor
Iconic singer-songwriter and guitarist James Taylor was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He would move to North Carolina as a child, where he discovered the work of Woody Guthrie and began learning guitar.
The first half of Taylor’s career, while bespot with addiction struggles, produced some of the finest contemporary folk songs of the time. Taylor’s defining composition, “Fire and Rain,” comes from this period.
Taylor is also a great interpreter of songs. His cover of the soul song “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” is one of his biggest hits.
Related: Our list of famous musicians from Massachusetts.
10. Alicia Keys
Singer-songwriter and pianist Alicia Keys was born Alicia Cook in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, New York. She was discovered as a teenager singing in Harlem, signing a record deal at the age of 15.
Keys would first reach success with Songs in A Minor. The album received praise for its skillful mix of classical, soul, and hip-hop.
Success would continue to follow Keys, as she topped the Billboard chart several more times with her blend of soul and classical music, along with her iconic “Empire State of Mind” collaboration with Jay Z.
11. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Nirvana’s flannel-clad singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington.
Cobain’s early punk rock influences were tempered by a love of classic rock and blues guitarists like Lead Belly, resulting in his pioneering grunge songwriting.
Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana became the biggest rock band of the 90s. Their seminal record Nevermind is an evolutionary step in the history of rock and roll and has cemented their place in music history.
Outspoken about social issues, many considered Cobain the voice of his generation. His suicide in 1994 became a pivotal moment in rock history. He was 27 years old.
12. Adam Levine (Maroon 5)
Maroon 5 singer and television personality Adam Levine was born in the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles, California.
As Maroon 5’s vocalist, Levine has sold millions of albums and garnered three Grammy Awards. His style is a blend of blue-eyed soul, funk, and pop.
For many, Levine is most recognizable as a judge on the reality tv show The Voice. His tenure on the show lasted 16 seasons.
Maroon 5 continues to record chart-topping pop hits as Levine has ventured into entrepreneurship with a fragrance line and production company.
Related: Our list of famous musicians from California.
13. Esperanza Spalding
Accomplished jazz bassist, vocalist, and singer-songwriter Esperanza Spalding was born in Portland, Oregon. Raised by a single mother, Spalding’s introduction to music came from sitting in on her mother’s college courses.
Spalding was a musical prodigy, reciting Beethoven by ear and playing violin with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at five years old.
Spalding’s classical and jazz backgrounds have influenced her recorded work, bringing technical proficiency to her funk, soul, and Latin influences.
For her prowess on bass guitar and her skilled songwriting, Spalding has received several Grammy Awards and honorary degrees.
14. James Hetfield (Metallica)
Metallica’s singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield was born in Downey, California.
Forming Metallica with drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981, Hetfield and Metallica were instrumental in bringing metal to American audiences.
From their earliest thrash metal recordings to their collaborations with the San Francisco Symphony, Metallica’s four-decade career has been one of the most influential in modern rock.
Considered one of the greatest metal guitarists of all time, Hetfield’s work with Metallica has influenced generations of guitarists. Thanks to Hetfield’s songwriting, Metallica has earned numerous Grammy Awards and platinum records.
15. John Legend
Pianist, R&B singer-songwriter, and producer John Legend was born John Stephens, the oldest of four children in Springfield, Ohio.
Legend began playing the piano at the age of four, eventually taking his preternatural musical talents to the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.
He began his career singing and playing on other artists’ records until signing with Kanye West’s label. His debut album, Get Lifted, would make Legend a household name.
In addition to his regular recording, touring, and collaborations, Legend has appeared on numerous television shows and has a high-profile marriage to model Chrissy Teigen.
Related: Read our article on the most famous American pianists here.
16. Jon Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi frontman and actor Jon Bon Jovi was born John Bongiovi in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
After several failed bands, Bon Jovi’s song “Runaway” found its way onto a compilation of local acts, and he quickly put together the band Bon Jovi.
Bon Jovi would reach international acclaim with their 1986 album Slippery When Wet. Bolstered by two number one singles, the album sold over twenty million copies.
Bon Jovi is one of the highest-selling rock bands of all time. They are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
17. Hilary Hahn
Classical violinist and renowned soloist Hilary Hahn was born in Lexington, Virginia. She would begin her musical education at the age of four in Baltimore, Maryland, eventually debuting at 11 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Hahn has played with orchestras worldwide and recorded 16 albums of modern and classical pieces.
Hahn is notable for her crossover work. She has toured with songwriter Josh Ritter and recorded with indie rock group …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Hahn also appeared on an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Related: Our article on other famous musicians from Virginia.
18. Herbie Hancock
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois, where he studied classical music early in life.
Hancock’s first solo record featured the single “Watermelon Man,” which garnered him attention from Miles Davis. Davis asked Hancock to join his group, and along with Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, this version of the Miles Davis Quintet is considered one of the best jazz ensembles ever.
Hancock would crossover from jazz to pop with soundtrack work and jazz fusion albums with his band The Head Hunters.
Then, in the 80s, he would score a surprise hit with his hip-hop-inflected song “Rockit.”
Related: Find out about other famous musicians from Illinois here.
19. Travis Barker
Blink-182 drummer and record producer Travis Barker was born in Fontana, California.
While sleeping on a couch in Fontana, Barker would join the ska band, the Aquabats. Barker would play with the Aquabats until being recruited by Blink-182.
Thanks in part to the technical prowess of his drumming, Blink-182 would go on to sell millions of records.
Barker is known for his proficient drumming style that mixes military patterns with hip-hop rhythms and punk energy.
In 2016 he was named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest drummers ever.
20. Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report)
Considered by many to be the Jimi Hendrix of bass guitarists, composer, and Weather Report member Jaco Pastorius was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Pastorius was instrumental in changing the perception of bassists in the jazz world, playing a fretless electric bass while flailing about the stage and playing lyrical, harmonic-heavy solos.
Pastorius was a vital player in the jazz fusion scene as a member of the Weather Report and as a solo artist. He also played bass on records by Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, and Herbie Hancock.
There is no doubt that Jaco Pastorius is one of the greatest bass players of all time.
Related: Our list of famous musicians from Pennsylvania.
21. Miles Davis
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois.
Davis was instrumental in pushing jazz forward throughout his career, arguably making him the most important figure of the most American art form of the 20th century.
His album Birth of the Cool single-handedly developed the genre of cool jazz. Later, Kind of Blue would push modal jazz to the forefront while employing future great John Coltrane. Later still, Bitches Brew would take free jazz and electrify it for rock audiences.
Davis’ contributions to music are unparalleled in his time. Without him, American music would not sound as it does today.
The Final Word on the Greatest American Musicians
From sea to shining sea, America is brimming with talented musicians. From flower power psychedelia to big city bebop, the traditions and histories of these forms of music help tell the story of America itself.
Through slavery, civil war, immigration, and cultural exchange, the sound of America is as complex as the influences that built it.
The greatest musicians from the US embody their discipline and expound upon it – making something new.
We hope you enjoyed our list of these top American musicians. Studying the best can elevate our playing and listening experiences while carrying on traditions for future generations.