13 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Musicians Who Are Self Taught

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Written by Andre Roberts
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Despite what society might say, yes, it’s possible to become a world-famous musician if you’re self-taught. History has proven this with the many musicians in rock and jazz that are known as music legends without any formal music training. Even jazz musicians known for their technical skills, like Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, taught themselves their instruments. 

And in rock, self-taught musicians are even more prevalent. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest and most famous self-taught musicians that took the world by storm. 

1. Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was without question one of the most famous and accomplished jazz musicians to ever live.

A legendary trumpeter, Armstrong was also a unique vocalist with an instantly recognizable voice. He’s probably best known for the hit, “What a Wonderful World.” 

Armstrong was born in a New Orleans district so poverty-stricken and dangerous that many called it “the Battlefield.” A kind Lithuanian-Jewish family in the area helped him buy the first instrument Armstrong ever owned. 

But, what’s amazing considering his musical knowledge and technique is that he would never have formal musical training.

Juvenile detention was the only place anyone ever took the trouble to guide Armstrong with this music. 

2. Kurt Cobain

If you’ve ever taken guitar lessons, you know how little you learn in just one month. And that was the extent of the legendary front man of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain’s formal musical training.

He felt constrained in his creativity and wanted to make his own music right away.  Cobain formed Nirvana in 1988.

It took several years of work before this iconic band rocketed through the charts and ended up establishing a new music genre: grunge.

Kurt Cobain became one of the most world-famous and culturally significant guitarists ever. 

With that, the American music scene made a drastic change from the exuberance and confidence of the 1980s. 

3. Richard Wright

Richard Wright’s achievement of teaching himself how to play the keyboard and guitar become even more impressive when you consider he was a member of Pink Floyd.

This British band is renowned for its sophisticated sound. Wright and the other members of Pink Floyd grew up in London, and the band was formed there.

He always had multifaceted musical interests, ranging from jazz to rock. Pink Floyd always pushed boundaries. 

Wright’s keyboarding was integral to the band’s trademark sound. Pink Floyd’s best-selling albums include The Wall, and The Dark Side of the Moon, as well as Wish You Were Here

4. Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa was one of the most extraordinary and unique musicians of the 20th century. A brilliant self-taught guitarist, he was also a composer and singer with expertise in a wide variety of genres. 

With 60 albums to his name, Frank Zappa was still creating music at the end of his life.

Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland but he spent his later childhood near Lancaster in California. This was when Zappa’s eclectic musical tastes started to form and grow. 

That Zappa was able to reach such heights as a composer without formal training is a testament to his genius. 

5. Jack White

Like the other self-taught musicians on this list, Jack White always had impressive natural talent.

He never formally studied music, instead just following his own path with how to learn and what approach to take. 

He learned four instruments without lessons: as well as the guitar, he plays the keyboard, the bass, and the drums.

The instruments he started with weren’t even purchased for him. He just used instruments his siblings had tried and lost interest in. 

White has his own individual style both in terms of his music and instrument collection. He is renowned for enjoying vintage instruments

6. Elton John

It’s difficult to think of any other artist with more natural musical talent than Elton John.

Remarkably, this pianist and singer taught himself the piano when he was a small child. 

Three-year-old Elton John, then Reginald Kenneth Dwight, simply listened to songs and replicated them on the piano.

Later on, Elton did end up completing some formal piano training.

The classical training he gained at London’s Royal Academy of Music as a teenager further refined his already tremendous talent. He attended this institution as an adolescent.

250 million Elton John albums have been sold all over the world, achieving critical acclaim.

7. Dave Grohl

A member of Nirvana until Kurt Cobain’s death, Dave Grohl would go on to front the Foo Fighters.

Nirvana was a cultural phenomenon and the Foo Fighters is enormously successful, continuing to make music today. 

Dave Grohl makes his accomplishments even more impressive by the fact that he’s a self-taught musician playing both the drums and the guitar to an extraordinary ability.

Remarkably, Dave has admitted to not fully knowing any guitar chords. He explains he has a different understanding of the instrument than formally instructed musicians.

When it comes to drums, Grohl only had a single lesson before deciding to teach himself. 

8. Prince

Prince liked to maintain an aura of mystery around his past. To be fair, he had a painful childhood.

His father abandoned the family, but he did leave a piano that Prince gravitated to.

Prince was self-taught on the piano, and he soon expanded his horizons to other instruments and a variety of genres. 

Prince was a hugely successful and popular artist, boasting nominations for 38 Grammy Awards. He won seven of those.

This artist even won an Oscar for the film Purple Rain when he created the song score.

Prince maintained popularity throughout his career until tragically, he died in 2016. 

9. Thelonious Monk

A legendary jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk was primarily self-taught. Monk started his life in New York at the age of four, when his mother moved there.

It didn’t take long for this musician to take an interest in music. He was six when he started trying to learn. 

The fateful moment when Thelonius Monk started playing piano took place when he was 10. Fortunately, his grandparents owned one of these instruments.

Another element of Monk’s musical evolution was taking part in a Baptist church choir.  Louis Armstrong was among Thelonious Monk’s many musical idols. Others included Duke Ellington and Fat Waller. 

10. David Bowie

A true musical maverick, David Bowie was one-of-a-kind who was born as David Robert Jones in Brixton, a legendary area In London, the United Kingdom.

His determination was as remarkable as his originality. 

Bowie was known for playing many instruments, including the guitar, the bass, percussion, the piano, and the harmonica. He was self-taught on all these instruments. 

Most of us don’t realize that David Bowie was pretty much ignored when he released his first album in 1967. That is why you never hear about David Bowie in discussions of the Summer of Love.

He would eventually make his breakthrough, though.

11. Keith Moon

Even someone often called the greatest drummer in rock history can be self-taught. Keith Moon was part of a legendary band, The Who, and he was a self-taught musician. 

Keith Moon featured a unique drumming style that was key to his band’s critical acclaim and commercial success.

He was a pioneer in rock drumming, creating a new style that made the drums more of an “up-front” instrument. Keith Moon’s drum kit was distinctively large.

This self-taught drummer started out with teenage bands where he was born in northwest London, in the suburb of Wembley. His style was noticeable from the beginning. 

12. Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher is a self-taught guitarist who was the lead guitarist and a singer in the iconic British ‘90s band, Oasis.

Still legends, especially in their hometown of Manchester, Oasis had a distinctive sound that was partly created by Noel Gallagher’s playing. 

This guitarist is notable for the unique way he sequences chords and how he creates rhythm with his guitar.

Noel was just 13 when he started teaching himself the guitar, and his natural talent soon became obvious. 

Noel Gallagher was joined in Oasis by his brother, Liam, the lead singer. Conflict between the brothers has become famous, but it hasn’t diminished the band’s reputation. 

13. Jimi Hendrix

If you ask most people to name a guitar genius, they’ll probably say Jimi Hendrix. Making his skill even more remarkable was the fact Hendrix was entirely self-taught.

The left-hand musician never even had the chance to learn sheet music reading during his short life. 

Jimi Hendrix started life in Seattle, Washington. Childhood was a terrible time for Hendrix, with all the stress caused by poverty and his father’s alcoholism.

From the moment Jimi Hendrix discovered music, it was his solace and the most important thing in his life.His first instrument was a ukulele he found in a pile of garbage. 

Summing Up Our List of Famous Musicians that are Self-Taught 

Clearly, there are many self-taught musicians that have reached the most impressive heights of fame and fortune. 

Hopefully, you’re inspired to spend more time practicing your instrument by this surprising list.

Don’t worry if you can’t afford lessons.

If you’re dedicated and willing to put in the work, you can become accomplished on your instrument.