In order to find success in their field, musicians must create art that differentiates itself from the hordes of recycled idioms found in respective genres and appeal to a mass audience. This isn’t easy to do, and is the reason why the dream of being a musician stays a dream for most of us. But for those who are able to actually live the dream it’s thanks to their ability to continuously produce something unique and to stay innovative over the course of their careers.
Having the talent to be a musician is outstanding, but there are those who’ve not only established themselves as great musicians but have branched out and found success in other fields. To be really good at one thing is rare enough but to be so multi-talented that you excel at a number of different creative outlets is damn incredible.
This list is a collection of some of the best musicians who’ve shown great talent in both their initial field as well as other outlets.
10. Jared Leto — Musician/Actor/Director
Jared Leto got his first acting gig on the ABC sitcom Camp Wilder in 1992, and in 1995 he debuted on the big screen in How to Make an American Quilt. Since his acting debut Leto’s done pretty well for himself starring in movies like American Psycho, Requiem for a Dream and most recently Dallas Buyers Club. In 1998 he and his brother Shannon formed Thirty Seconds to Mars where Leto is not only a key contributor on lead vocals, guitar and bass but in the director’s chair as well, directing several of the bands music videos. The band has released four albums since their inception in 1998. Outside of the art world Leto is ever present as an activist, particularly for same-sex-marriage, animal rights and other humanitarian causes.
9. Steven Wilson — Multi-Instrumentalist/Engineer
Steven Wilson has been giving his fans unique jams since 1983. In 1987 he started Porcupine Tree, where he contributes on vocals, guitar, piano, and hammered dulcimer among other instruments. The group mixes together several different genres from progressive to psychedelic and experimental. Apart from Porcupine Tree Wilson is involved in a ridiculous number of side projects, not counting his own solo career. No-Man, I.E.M., and Bass Communion are just some of them. As if being a ridiculously talented multi-instrumentalist wasn’t enough Wilson is also a self-taught producer and audio engineer, and recently released Ghostwriter, virtual instrument software in collaboration with EastWest.
8. John Frusciante — Multi-Genre Musician
Perhaps best known as the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante has worked with a number of bands and artists in his career. From the aforementioned Chili Peppers to such bands as The Mars Volta and Swahili Bolnde, Frusciante’s unique style of play has allowed him to collaborate with a number of different artists from a wide range of genres. His more recent work – a venture into electronica – has best represented his ability to transition into new genres of music.
7. Geoff Barrow — Musician/Producer
Geoff Barrow has had quite the career in the music business. Probably best known as the instrumentalist for the trip-hop group Portishead, Barrow is also a talented producer and has worked with a number of artists such as Paul Weller and Depeche Mode. Barros is also a member of the band Beak and the massive supergroup Quakers. He formed his own record label Invada Records in 2001 and in 2008 Barrow produced The Horrors’ Primary Colours album. That same year Portishead released their third album Third to critical acclaim.
6. Dave Grohl — Multi-Instrumentalist/Director
The man who has pretty much done it all, no doubt Dave Grohl is the most active musician today. Having started out as a drummer for punk band Scream and later on Nirvana, Grohl later moved on to start his own band – Foo Fighters – where he would be the primary song-writer, lead vocalist, guitarist and occasional drummer. Grohl has collaborated with an insanely huge variety of musicians, anyone from Paul McCartney, to Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. In 2013 he made his directorial debut with the music documentary Sound City and is responsible for the creation of the upcoming HBO documentary Sonic Highways.
5. Frank Zappa — Guitarist/Producer/Director
There has never been another guitarist quite like Frank Zappa. The self-taught musician composed a variety of different musical genres, often mixing various aspects of rock, jazz, and classical music as well as electronica. This unique blend of genres makes Zappa’s music difficult to categorize. As a producer Zappa was responsible for producing most of the albums he released alongside The Mothers of Invention as well as his solo works. In the 1970s Zappa began directing both music videos and feature length films. Zappa’s music has influenced all kinds of artists from metal groups like Black Sabbath and System of a Down to progressive groups like Primus and Henry Cow. Even The Beatles themselves have been inspired by the works of Frank Zappa.
4. Trent Reznor — Musician/Composer/Producer
The man behind Nine Inch Nails is widely regarded as one of the best producers in music. Starting in 1989 with the debut album Pretty Hate Machine, Trent Reznor established the distinctive sound that Nine Inch Nails would come to be known for and that countless other artists would try to duplicate. Reznor was credited as the composer for the 1996 video game Quake, and composed the theme song for the 2012 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II. He won the Academy Award for Original Score alongside Atticus Ross for the film The Social Network. The duo took home a Grammy for their work on the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a year later and will be collaborating on yet another David Fincher film; Gone Girl.
3. John Paul Jones — Multi-Instrumentalist/Composer/Producer
Led Zeppelin was one of the greatest and most influential rock bands of all time. Looking back at the talented men of which the band was comprised it’s no mystery as to why. Maybe the most talented of them all was John Paul Jones. Whether it’s his galloping bass lines on “Achilles Last Stand” or his brooding slow-paced keyboards on “No Quarter”, Jones has left his mark on many iconic Zeppelin tracks. Primarily a bassist as well as a pianist, Jones also plays a number of other instruments including the mandolin, violin, sitar, cello and lap steel guitar among others. This versatility has helped add to the distinct sound of Led Zeppelin as well as his solo works.
2. John Lennon — Multi-Instrumentalist/Political Activist
As a member of The Beatles, John Lennon wrote and co-wrote some of the most inspiring, and influential pieces of music that defined a generation and still lives on strong today. The band’s later works starting with the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album were heavily produced and showed off many of Lennon’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist. After The Beatles broke up Lennon continued to find success as a solo artist. It was during his solo career that Lennon became increasingly active in his political activism. As an activist Lennon was not afraid to speak out for human rights and against political corruption.
1. Paul McCartney — Multi-Instrumentalist/Composer/Activist
The other half of the Lennon-McCartney duo, Paul McCartney has had one of the most celebrated careers in music. As a member of The Beatles, McCartney established himself as a top tier songwriter and bassist, and along with Lennon the two created some of the most recognizable melodies of the 20th Century. His distinctive bass playing on many Beatles favourites such as “She’s a Woman” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” earned him a reputation as one of the best in the music industry. McCartney also contributed a great deal of keyboards, guitar and even some drums when in The Beatles – as well as his post-Beatles project Wings. Outside of the music world McCartney is active in a number of causes including animal rights and vegetarianism.