Who's the worst musician to become famous as a musician?
April 15, 2021 6:38 AM   Subscribe

This is a silly question that I keep thinking about when I've got nothing else on my mind. Who is the worst musician to become reasonably famous or successful as a musician? Some examples and caveats inside.

I'm a hobby guitarist. I have minimal physical talent actually fingering chords and strumming strings, but thanks to some study of music theory both in school and afterwards, it's conceivable that I could write a pretty good song and then just not be able to play it well. It seems like this is something that could have happened to someone else in history. Or alternatively, maybe someone has a friend who's a talented songwriter/musician and needed a bassist for their band or something.

I think Meg White is the person who originally inspired the question. Her technique is pretty basic, but I can't tell if that's because she's only capable of basic playing, or if that's just what songs are asking of her. Sid Vicious is another example, I guess. He wasn't asked to join the band because of his bass playing, to be sure.

I'm only looking for people who are recognized as musicians. That is, no already-famous people who decide they want to be musicians too. And no intentionally-bad novelty acts, either. (I'm including the Shaggs here, because even though I don't think they were intentionally bad, everyone else who has ever encountered the Shaggs regards them as such.) Basically, people who are sincerely trying to be professional musicians despite their limitations.

I'll specify I'm not looking for entire acts, just individual players. I imagine it would be difficult for an entire act of completely incompetent musicians to get a record deal without some other hook, so I'm thinking situations like "this band's guitarist and bassist are good, but their drummer just can't keep time".

For technical purposes, I'll limit the scope to conventional instruments: guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, brass, woodwinds, strings, etc. No vocals or electronic stuff. There are just too many vocal styles and edge cases arising from those. Like the rapper Mase, who really just mumble-talks in rhymes. Is he actually using his voice as an instrument in the way Celine Dion does? It's not an argument I'm interested in having. And electronic stuff - sampling, drum machine programming, "production", etc. - again, too complicated to get into. Obviously requires a skill set, but it's a different skill set, and so I'm limiting the scope to keep things manageable. I don't really want this to turn into a debate about whether "knob twiddling" is music or not, so I'm excluding it.

I'll define "famous" as either having a video shown on MTV (you know, back when they did that), having a major label record deal, or having either a single or album on a Billboard chart. This excludes a lot of indie bands, Norwegian black metal, your neighbors' garage band, etc., and it's also pretty US-centric, but I'm looking for a certain level of recognition. I want people I'm likely to have already heard of, not some random guy who was in Mayhem for three weeks back in '92.
posted by kevinbelt to Media & Arts (60 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know very little about music, so I don’t know how fair this is as an estimation of his competence, but I thought Ringo Starr was supposed to be a kind of lousy drummer.
posted by LizardBreath at 6:45 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Oh, I was going to suggest Pete Best, who got replaced by the much-better Ringo Starr!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:52 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]

Florence Foster Jenkins?

Also, I feel obliged to defend Ringo Starr, who was a great drummer in a subtle way—his style wasn't flashy, his goal was to carry the song and he did. The "he isn't even the greatest drummer in the Beatles" quote is apocryphal and has been thoroughly debunked.

If you want to appreciate Ringo, listen to Pete Best's effort on Love Me Do.
posted by vitout at 6:53 AM on April 15 [23 favorites]

The other Smashing Pumpkins are, as far as I know, reasonably-fine musicians, but that didn’t stop Billy Corgan from rerecording all their parts himself. I think that’s less of a “they weren’t any good” and more of a “Billy Corgan is an insane control freak.”
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:54 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

The Ramones, especially early on, were spectacularly poor musicians.
"The lineup was to be completed with their friend Richie Stern on bass. However, after only a few rehearsals it became clear that Richie Stern could not play bass, so in addition to singing, Colvin switched from guitar to bass and Cummings became the only guitarist."
"Dee Dee realized that he could not sing and play his bass guitar simultaneously"
"Joey soon similarly realized that he could not sing and play drums simultaneously"
"While auditioning prospective replacements, Erdelyi would often take to the drums and demonstrate how to play the songs. It became apparent that he was able to perform the group's music better than anyone else"
posted by blob at 7:01 AM on April 15 [17 favorites]

Your question reminds me of awhile ago, when I watched a couple of videos of country/folk singer Nancy Griffith. She plays the guitar while she sings, with her right hand doing relatively simple chords and her left hand just nothing but a kind of strumming. I couldn't even have told you what it looks like when a really good player plays, but it seemed to me watching her that she wasn't especially adept, though she is an outstanding singer/songwriter. Here she is doing Radio, a very good song in the classic country mode of a woman walking away from her domestic duties.
posted by Orlop at 7:02 AM on April 15

posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:03 AM on April 15 [19 favorites]

Sid Vicious is another example, I guess.

I think you've already answered your question. Syd, as far as I know, never really learned how to play his instrument ... and he remains famous. As to whether he's even thought of as a musician, well, the wiki calls him a bassist in its first sentence.
posted by philip-random at 7:06 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]

I think this stuff is super subjective. My first thought was Bono. The drummer for U2 (Larry Mullen Jr.) said this:

“Then Bono arrived, and he meant to play the guitar, but he couldn’t play very well, so he started to sing. He couldn’t do that either."
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 7:06 AM on April 15 [12 favorites]

Adam Clayton, bass player for U2 really didn't know how to play at all when the band started. Even up through The Joshua Tree he wrote bass lines that were in the wrong key. I guess he actually started taking lessons around the Achtung Baby era and he's come a long way, but I think he was just the bass player in U2 because he owned a bass.

I don't know from drumming but I'm constantly reading about how bad a drummer Lars Ulrich is. I guess he's gotten worse as he's gotten older.
posted by bondcliff at 7:09 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

You might find articles such as "11 musicians you should never see live, according to fans and critics" a good starting point for finding additional musicians.
posted by blob at 7:09 AM on April 15

I'm including the Shaggs here, because even though I don't think they were intentionally bad, everyone else who has ever encountered the Shaggs regards them as such.

The Shaggs were not intentionally bad. Quite the opposite, in fact; they were unintentionally brilliant. (Have you ever met anyone who was able to play drums like Helen Wiggin?)
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:11 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]

The very worst that could be said about Ringo is that he was a highly competent and professional musician who suffered by comparison. He was an established professional with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes before he even joined the Beatles. John Lennon said some rude things about him when there was some conflict within the band, but he said a lot of things that weren't true about a lot of subjects, both during and after the Beatles.

This is a tricky one to answer, because it's really difficult to perform a lot without improving. Almost necessarily by having a successful performing career, you'll improve as a musician, even if you sucked to begin with. Even if you've got a very naive or idiosyncratic style, being successful enough to do a lot of gigs will give you a huge boost in practice and experience.

I think the only real examples of this are people like Florence Foster Jenkins, whose appeal was their lack of skill, whether or not they were aware of it.
posted by spielzebub at 7:13 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]

You might find articles such as "11 musicians you should never see live, according to fans and critics" a good starting point.

Lentz must be high up the list of "11 journalists you should never let write about anything other than food and interior design."

I mean... Josh Frusciante.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:16 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

There's also a difference between being a bad musician and just being bad live. The Cars were famously a terrible band to see live but I don't think there's any argument to be made that they were bad musicians.
posted by bondcliff at 7:23 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers "showed little musical talent" (according to wikipedia) and "frequently mimed playing the guitar during early live performances".
posted by misteraitch at 7:27 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Allegedly Andrew Ridgeley, the other guy in Wham!, could barely play, and managed to improve himself only to a very basic level. When George Michael moved along, Ridgeley made only a tiny stab at a continued music career, IIRC, and then went on to do entirely different things.

Cursory googling finds me: "Though Ridgeley was occasionally seen wearing a guitar, he was rarely seen playing it, even during actual Wham! concerts."
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:28 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]

I'd say Britney Spears, or Ashlee Simpson or pick your favorite popstar, as they don't do much other than sing on the studio albums, which sucks because they are obviously talented enough to do more, but not whatever-enough to demand to do more.

Musically, AC/DC's bass player Cliff Williams - the number of times he plays anything other than straight 8s is pretty small. Same for the Van Halen guy - but he apparently sings back up as well. That's where I would look for talentless players - in the rhythm section of hard rock bands. They were partiers and band members second.

KISS would be another place to look. They were more about the partying and the image than the music.
Parasite Lady - the transitions are terrible and completely out of time
Same song, cover by Anthrax - in time

Honesty, by the time you make big time albums, you can play. And if you play enough shows, then you can play pretty well.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:30 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Peggy Lee was really limited as a vocalist, but managed to have a successful career nonetheless. Not quite as narrow as William Shatner's, but no Yma Sumac either.
posted by adamrice at 7:33 AM on April 15

Also Syd mostly only played live- the bass playing and guitar playing on Never Mind the Bullocks is solid.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:41 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Everclear were apparently pretty bad players too. For their So Much for the Afterglow album, apparently they played everything much slower, and it was sped up for the actual album release by the editor.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:44 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Famously “adequate” drummer Robbie Bachman? (Or maybe it’s just that I categorically condemn bonehead arena rock.)
posted by scratch at 7:45 AM on April 15

I was listening to Sirius XMU yesterday and they played Suburban Home by the Descendents - wow, they were super bad! I loved them in my teens, but have to admit that a lot of the hardcore bands I was into were terrible musicians.

The next song they played was a Liz Phair song from maybe her second album? And it wasn't the musicianship that really struck me as bad, but the production was all muddy and terrible. Just a mush of sounds.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:49 AM on April 15

I used to play in a band organized by a principled lo-fi impresario whose motto was “skill corrupts”—which is how I ended up in the band at all, as I was/am legitimately terrible at playing anything but a radio. Anyway, there’s lots of punk/DIY stuff that sets the bar low out of necessity or principle or both. Like: none of the Pixies were virtuosos but that’s really not what they were after. (I heart Pixies.) But it sounds like that's not what you're looking for.

I think Michael Anthony, longtime Van Halen bassist, was pretty bad. I remember hearing an interview with him when he talked about loving the songs where he got to play just one note the whole time, and he sounded relieved in a way I can relate to as a terrible bassist. I’m sure someone will want to fight me about Anthony’s skill, so I hasten to add: this is not a strongly held opinion, I’m not a VH expert, and I can’t knowledgably wade into debates about their different lineups. Also, he was kind of perfect; plodding on one note is a great complement for, say, Eddie Van Halen. Same goes for Meg White; her unambitious drumming is a big part of what made the White Stripes so good, IMO.
posted by miles per flower at 8:05 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Peggy Lee was really limited as a vocalist, but managed to have a successful career nonetheless

Peggy Lee is one of my favorite vocalists. As long as people are debating about Ringo Starr, I have to defend her by saying that she sang the way she did intentionally. She didn't lack skill as a vocalist. From a bio on her from a jazz history site:

"While she had the ability to sing fortissimo over an orchestra, she saved those effects for special arrangements like her whirling Latin version of “Lover”. On most of her repertoire, she would sing softly so that her listeners would focus on the tiniest musical details."

posted by RobinofFrocksley at 8:10 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]

Note: OP explicitly excluded vocals.
posted by FencingGal at 8:17 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Apparently, Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode, although there’s debate as to whether he played anything at all after the first album or so.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:31 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Al Kooper's organ line on Like A Rolling Stone, while brilliantly fitting the piece, is very bad from a performance standpoint. If you listen carefully to the organ part you can hear a ton of mistakes and flubs. In fairness, he wasn't actually an organ player at the time.
posted by Candleman at 8:53 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

I think there are lots of musicians out there who are/were famous and successful because they have great hair and personalities, but not necessarily skills. That's life. I remember hearing a story back in the day about Kenny G. The executives sat around and decided who would be the "next big thing" based on who they thought would be the most marketable, and he was decided upon. Jazz musicians love to hate on him. But you can't argue with his incredible success.
posted by jabah at 9:04 AM on April 15

A friend of mine saw The Kelly Deal 6000 back in the '90s and told me it was the most incompetently-played concert he'd ever been to.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:13 AM on April 15

Half Japanese
posted by Chenko at 10:04 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Kenny G

Kenny G held the world record (or maybe still holds?) for playing sax while circular breathing, so the guy's music may suck, but he can play his instrument.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:10 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads famously didn't learn to play the bass until a few months before the Talking Heads started live performances. She turned out to be pretty damn awesome at it, though.
posted by praemunire at 10:28 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]

An instructor I once knew taught people to sing by starting with Bob dylan, because it's impossible to mess up. He has a lot of credit as a poet, though.
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:55 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

The XX. seeing them live really showcased how little (not in a good intentional meg white black keys minimalist way) they were doing. the dj (totally obscured by dark shadow) is the music. the 'show' is the (faux?) chemistry between bassist and guitarist. and the fashion.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:06 AM on April 15

The 1975 is mediocre players, a decent singer, and high production values.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:07 AM on April 15

Probably the person with the biggest differential between technical skill and influence on skilled musicians is Brian Eno. He will squawk out a sax note or strum a guitar as needed to get an idea across on tape, but his ideas have proven so valuable and he has coaxed much betters player to towards their best work when they're under his influence, either physically proximate or beholden to his theories. I'm sure like any natural born low-aptitude musician he's accumulated some skill over the last 50 years, but it has never gotten in the way of his talent.
posted by bendybendy at 11:13 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]

> Bez.
IIRC Happy Mondays “live” would have all guitar parts on tape.
posted by farlukar at 11:46 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Singing and writing music are musical skills, so if you do them well, you're a good musician, by definition.

I think maybe the word you're looking for is "instrumentalist"? As in, "who is the worst instrumentalist to become reasonably famous or successful playing their instrument?" Though that in itself feels like a bit of an oxymoron.

Kenny G's music seems a little boring to me, but I hear he puts on a hell of a show.

I can't come up with anyone. Every example I think of, I then think, sure but that one little thing they knew how to do, they really made it work them! I'm not even going to list names, it'd feel like raining on somebody's parade.
posted by bfields at 12:06 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

but their drummer just can't keep time

In this regard generally, and more specifically in terms of fame-and-commercial-success-to-overall-competence ratio, it's pretty hard to beat Lars Ulrich. And I say that as someone who loves everything Metallica did up to and including ...And Justice For All, notwithstanding what Ulrich did to the final mix (essentially suppressing the bass on the whole album) as a juvenile hazing thing.

There's a scene in Some Kind of Monster where they're Protooling out all of his fuckups in the studio because he literally can't keep time (he's always had the crutch of Hetfield filling that role as the rhythm guitar player).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:57 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]

in terms of fame-and-commercial-success-to-overall-competence ratio

IMO Madonna is the champion in that category. Through brilliant marketing, presentation and a feel for the pulse of the music-buying public, she has leveraged a pretty mediocre talent into massive fame and fortune.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:33 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Dee Dee Ramone claims in his autobiography he didn't play on End of the Century (and doesn't even know who played his parts). But the Ramones live recordings sound OK - basic, but OK.

For at least the first Manic Street Preachers album, James Dean Bradfield played all of Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards' parts - they were just there to write lyrics and come up with outrageous quotes.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:08 PM on April 15

There's a lot of things that I could think of. The Fall. The Troggs. The Raincoats.

note: T Weymouth knew how to play guitar before taking up bass for her band, so not a complete savant starter (but very good of course). B Eno famously proclaimed his non-musician status as part of his mystique, but D Byrne commented that he actually is a very talented musician who just likes to downplay the fact for mystique purposes.

Another interesting cat is John Lee Hooker, raw style and idiosyncratic timing, but it all comes together.

Oh yeah Madonna, she's actually very talented at putting her whole show together.
posted by ovvl at 5:51 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Problem is that musical skill takes many forms and is not binary “good/bad.” JJ Cale had about 9 licks he could play on the guitar, but a brilliant rhythmic feel that influenced many other guitarists with far more technical skill.

Nanci Griffith can play guitar just fine.

Musicality is not technique is not feel for a song. Charisma and skill have a complex relationship. Originality sometimes emerges from limitation.

Far worse for me than seeing someone with average or mediocre chops do their best to play good music is hearing highly skilled musicians produce derivative hack work. A thing I know a bit about as I spent my 20s making a living as a guitarist in general business cover bands. Every note had to be perfect like on the record. It took real skill. Sometimes it was fun but you always felt like a trained monkey.

He doesn’t meet your criteria for fame, but I would proffer Hasil Adkins. The dude (whom I once interviewed before a show in New Jersey and it was the single wildest interview of my radio career) had no idea what key he was in on the guitar, randomly added and dropped beats to fit warped and half remembered lyrics and often seemed to be singing and playing different songs at the same time. Cacophony. Chaos. Assault on the senses. And utterly compelling, a true outsider artist who just didn’t give a fuck about sounding like anyone else.

Here check him out covering George Jones.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]

Musically, AC/DC's bass player Cliff Williams - the number of times he plays anything other than straight 8s is pretty small.

Well I want to speak up in defense of Williams and his execution of the bass chores in AC/DC, and rock bass players in general. First of all, executing that kind of very simple part well is actually a little harder than it sounds. But more importantly, there are lots of subtleties in how bass parts, even simple parts like in AC/DC, lock with the drummer, where they push the beat and where they pull it, where they accent notes, how they are articulated. And also really inhabiting those simple parts, playing them with commitment. Williams plays every note like it's the last one he will ever play. He does not sound bored, he does not seem to be punching the clock and waiting for his solo feature. Lots of subtle stuff that no one notices or misses until the bass player is gone and replaced by one of the legion players who can play the parts note-for-note, but who don't do it quite right. The Rolling Stones auditioned bass players after Bill Wyman left. You think the players who didn't even get a callback were bad? Many thousands of professional bass players could play "Honky Tonk Woman" very well. But they were looking for The Guy, who really feels the time in the Rolling Stones and locks with Charlie Watts and the guitars right.
posted by thelonius at 7:27 PM on April 15 [9 favorites]

I am firmly in the camp that thinks that whatever the hell AC/DC were doing when they were absolutely nailing it -- everybody involved was integral.

Over in King Crimson land, Robert Fripp once gave Bill Bruford a songwriting credit on a track to which he contributed nothing ... but his silence. Because if he'd done anything, applied his virtuosity in any way, he would've ruined the mood.

So bad musicianship in this context would be the immensely talented virtuoso who couldn't check his ego long enough to actually listen to what was going on.
posted by philip-random at 9:39 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

In the Brian Zeno vein, I’d nominate pioneering music producer (and writer of the 60s instrumental hit Telstar) Joe Meek. Apparently when working with his bands, he’d just sorta hum his compositions to the musicians, because he couldn’t play any instruments or read or write music.
posted by panama joe at 9:50 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

When The Doors was recorded, Robbie Krieger had been playing guitar for about six months.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:19 AM on April 16

And Jah Wobble. When PiL was formed he couldn't play the bass at all; he picked it up as he went along. He has now, of course, become a bass god.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:28 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

I think I’m another vote for Depeche Mode’s Andy Fletcher who is an active and valued part of a colossally successful band to which he appears to bring almost zero in terms of musical ability but is nevertheless irreplaceable. Bez is an interesting contrast as he’s a polar opposite in terms of why he’s in the band.
posted by tardigrade at 1:48 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Williams plays every note like it's the last one he will ever play.
This thread is about musical talent, not about people with the enthusiasm of a puppy.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:56 AM on April 16

Williams plays every note like it's the last one he will ever play.
This thread is about musical talent,

That is an important component of musicianship. 'Selling it.' There was a video I saw on the blue a while back about some gaggle of trombonists playing a cover of... ? ... something and about every fifth was put-down-what-you're-doing-and-watch compelling. Why? Go figure. They were not playing objectively more complicated music or anything, there was just some - thing. And that's a talent and I don't think teachable.

For most success given least talent, it has to be Madonna. Go back and listen to any two tracks off "Like a Prayer" then two of "Ray of Light" and what stands out is how great the production is. Her singing is not amazing, neither was her dancing - but she could corral people to make a great album. (If her music flips your wig, that is.)

AC/DC (ridiculously) were an amazingly tight band - in memory their music is kinda slight, kinda 'oh, right - bang boom bang boom yell yell yell' but in actual playback there are not flaws. It is tight and driving and compelling. Fun. (Again, if that's what flips your wig.)

Bob Dylan is/was a competent musician, I think - I gather - rumor has it, but I saw him in concert a bunch of years back and wow was he bad. Just, bad. (The worst should-have-been-famous (maybe) concert I've ever seen was the son of Baden Powell. It was really really sad. I don't think I've ever felt so bad for a performer. All forty of us felt terrible for him.)
posted by From Bklyn at 8:21 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

Kris Kristofferson could never sing worth a shit, and isn’t much of a guitar player. He had a voice like a bag of out of tune rocks. Yet he wrote some of the best songs of his generation, many with quite extended harmonic language for country music (check out the major 7th chords and major/minor shifts in “For the Good Times”). He could be an absolutely compelling performer despite — because — of his rough Everyman voice. It added realness to the searing honesty (for the time) of his songs about sexuality and addiction.

Glen Campbell was the best mainstream country guitarist of the same generation, with a voice like butter and capable of writing beautiful songs. But he recorded tons of utterly disposable pop dreck solely to score lucrative hits, and mostly used his guitar talents as an anonymous session musician.

Ricky Skaggs is an utterly brilliant musician, again one of the best of the same generation all around, a great songwriter, and specifically a genius on the mandolin. But he’s a racist asshole whose bigotry has ruined his music for a lot of people like me.

Townes Van Zandt was one of the most poetic songwriters who ever lived, a quirky but competent singer, and a superb fingerstyle guitarist. He was also a stone cold addict for most of his career, which ended early and tragically as a result, and many nights (I was there for some) he could barely stand up, let alone play his guitar or sing, he was so wasted.

I think you need a really complicated matrix to factor absolute determinations of chops or musicianship into whether someone is “good” or “bad” as a musician overall.
posted by spitbull at 9:38 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

In this regard generally, and more specifically in terms of fame-and-commercial-success-to-overall-competence ratio, it's pretty hard to beat Lars Ulrich.

Yeah, not to pile on ol' Lars here, but I genuinely can't imagine a better answer to this question. He's known -- by name, not just as "the drummer from Metallica" -- all over the world, music has made him fabulously wealthy, and his playing is really not even mediocre, by my reckoning.

It's not a Ringo situation where he just quietly does his job and nobody notices how good he is. It's not a situation where he started off raw and got to be a better player as he gigged. If anything, he's gotten worse. And it works for him. Fans don't care. Good for him, I guess.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:21 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

No one has mentioned Bon Jovi bassist Alec Jon Such. Never played on an album in 20 or 30 years because he was so bad and never improved. He grew up in Jersey with the other band members and looked cool on stage, and they figured no one could hear him live.
posted by acridrabbit at 3:23 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

I can’t let it go that someone above suggested Nanci Griffith is not a particularly skilled guitar player. Having seen her play solo acoustic guitar many times, and being a professional guitarist myself, I feel duty bound to challenge that in this thread. She’s really quite skilled. Here she is in 1994, doing her beautiful first hit song (recorded by Kathy Mattea) solo and acoustic: “Love at the Five and Dime.

Notice how she hits those gorgeous harmonic chimes on the first beat of every bar of the verses, while never dropping the rhythm pattern or the bass line of the chords she is arpeggiating. She’s a fine fingerpicker. And each chimed note rings out roundly and with sustain. That takes real damn skill. I struggle with that myself.

She does it while singing like angel.

She plays beautifully here and she only got better as the years went by. Often when you are seeing an artist “playing” an instrument on video, even in a live performance setting with a full and competent band, you’re seeing a lead singer “synch” playing their instrument, either because they’re acting out a part for a prerecorded track or someone else in the band takes on the more prominent part (such as an acoustic guitar intro) from the record, because they play better than the singer or the singer is trying to concentrate on the vocal part or has an injury or whatever. But Nanci can absolutely play the fuck out of her guitar. Which by the way is usually a Collings, and no one who isn’t a very serious player would play one of those.
posted by spitbull at 8:38 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Sorry, she “chimes” (as country pickers call playing harmonics) on the first beat of every other bar, not every bar, in the verses. Or I t depends on how you count the beat, actually. Counting half time it’s every bar. #pedantry
posted by spitbull at 8:47 AM on April 17

All of which goes to another element of musicianship and “skill,” which someone above referred to as “selling” the effort. How a listener perceives something as simple or complex or difficult or easy very much depends on whether they know something about how the sound is achieved or are a musician themselves. Many non-musicians find absolute speed of articulation to be a marker of virtuosity for a guitar player, which of course it can be in part. But popular music guitar technique is thus full of tricks and shortcuts to sounding “fast” when you play without having to articulate every note precisely. And popular music guitarists work really hard on gaining speed of articulation even over other aspects of their musical development. Ask another guitarist what she thinks of some fiery fast virtuoso one trick pony vs. an average non-player and you may get two very different takes. I find speed without musicality to be boring AF, a circus act, basically a trained monkey thing. (Not naming any names out of respect.) Someone else might hear a machine-gun guitarist and be super-impressed. And that’s cool too of course. De gustibus...

Likewise vis a vis some of the discussions of bass players and drummers above. If you haven’t done it yourself, a lot of bass playing looks like anyone could do it. Drumming too, feels like it would be instinctive for many non-drummers.

It isn’t. Playing simple bass lines or drum beats CAN be a sign of limited chops. Or it can be the highest expression of chops there is. Playing what’s right for the song’s mood and feel, motivating people to dance (how most of us pop musicians get paid), and holding the more foregrounded and virtuosic elements of lead instruments and vocals together take experience and skill. Simplicity is very often virtuosity for the rhythm section. Knowing when not to play matters as much as knowing what to play when you do. I’ve been a bass player in plenty of bands as well (I gradually moved toward guitar over my early years as a working musician), a rhythm guitar player and harmony vocalist (and keyboardist) in more, a lead guitarist and singer in the majority. No role is easier. The weakest link will always show. You cannot fake it on bass or drums.
posted by spitbull at 9:02 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Ramones.

I was absolutely infatuated with The Cure starting in 1986-ish. In 1990, at 20, I started exchanging mix tapes with a few co-workers. I sent a friend a mix tape of the Cure and later when we talked about the tape he said “oh, Robert Smith, the monotone?”

Do bad singers count as bad musicians?
posted by bendy at 1:57 AM on April 19

Do bad singers count as bad musicians?

Nobody's mentioned Ian Brown yet.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:24 AM on April 23

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