These rockers played every instrument and sang on an album.
Up until 2016, Trent Reznor was the only actual member of Nine Inch Nails, which he started by himself in 1988. Though he’d always been backed by a band live, he performed nearly all the instrumentation on most of Nine Inch Nails’ albums until the late 2000s. During an interview with Option Magazine in the early ’90s, he recalled learning how to do everything by working in a recording studio, and being inspired by Prince to be a one-man band.
“I had this romantic notion that, well, Prince did it himself, and I fully respected him for that. So I just started to do it. I was intimidated by guitars because I always liked them but couldn’t play them worth shit. I thought if I could come up with a guitar part, every guitar player in the world would say that’s easy, anyone can do that. And then I realized, like, who the fuck cares?”
Atticus Ross became the only other official member in 2016 after they’d collaborated for several years.
And that, of course, leads us to Prince, who is one of the artists most known for recording all the instrumentation on their own albums. He played a total of 27 instruments on his 1978 debut album For You alone, and only several albums later started to recruit the talent of other musicians for his work.
Dave Grohl had actually written a lot of the material for the Foo Fighters album while he was still in Nirvana. Following the death of Kurt Cobain, music was what kept Grohl going, and instead of forming a new band, he wanted to record all of the songs he’d written outside of Nirvana and release them under a band name so that people wouldn’t consider it a solo project.
“I wanted to start a label on my own, release the album with no names on it, no photos, call it Foo Fighters so people thought it was a band, kinda like Stewart Copeland did with the Klark Kent record,” the rocker told Mojoin 2005. “The intention was to make music, and knowing I was still in the shadow of this thing that was Nirvana, in order for people to be objective, it had to be completely anonymous. That was the original idea.”
Of course, the plan eventually changed, and by the time Foo Fighters released The Colour and the Shape in 1997, Grohl wasn’t the only member of the band.
Wolfgang Van Halen
Grohl certainly served as an inspiration for a younger generation of rockers in more ways than one, but he especially made an impact on Wolfgang Van Halen. Despite playing bass in Van Halen as a teenager, the young rocker wanted to do his own thing when the time came. In late 2020, shortly after the death of his father Eddie Van Halen, Wolf unveiled his project Mammoth WVH, and its debut single “Distance.” He played every instrument on the first album, and plans to continue doing so going forward.
“I’ll definitely do it again, just because it’s so much fun. At first, it was like a personal challenge — I wanted to see if I could do it, just like Dave Grohl did with the first Foo Fighters album. That’s what I was really inspired by,” he told us in an interview in 2021. “It was like, I can play this all too, why don’t I try to do this? And after having done it, I can say that it was so much fun and so rewarding to put it together that I’m really excited to do it again.”
Van Halen’s upcoming album Mammoth II see him play every instrument as well.
Though Eddie Vedder is typically associated with Pearl Jam, he’s released a couple of solo albums as well. However, whereas he recruited the help of fellow musicians on 2022’s Earthling and he didn’t have any instruments but a ukulele on Ukulele Songs, he did perform all the instrumentation on 2007’s Into the Wild Life. The album was his first solo venture, and also served as the soundtrack for Sean Penn’s 2007 film of the same name.
During an interview with Billboard [via Pearl Jam Online], Vedder admitted that he was inspired by Pete Townshend to record all of the instrumentation himself, as The Who guitarist had done on his first solo album.
“It was a different character than a band playing it – it’s simpler, but it’s also purer,” Vedder said of the experience. “The writing was so easy and the music came together in strange ways where beats would land on a shutting car door or the pump organ would mesh with the way Emile’s shoulders were going up and down. It was almost as if someone was helping from a non-tangible dimension. There was some really strange and quite beautiful elements that helped us along.”
Caleb Shomo was not only the founder of Beartooth, but he was also the mastermind behind all of their albums. Like the other musicians on this list, Shomo has always been backed by a live band, but the recordings have always been a product of his creativity solely.
Though John Frusciante is most-closely associated with Red Hot Chili Peppers, considering he joined the band at 18, he’s put out many solo works as well, most of which he played all of the instrumentation on and programmed.
“When you’re in a popular band, you tend to do what you think the audience of that band will respond to. But my tastes have always been very different from that style,” Frusciante told Guitar World a few years ago.
“As far as electronic instruments, you just have to understand that the reason I learned to play all these instruments is I believe in my own vision of music, and I didn’t want to just contribute to a piece of music like I did when I was in a band,” he continued. “I want to create a piece of music by myself. So I want to play drums the way I want drums to sound and play synthesizers the way I want synthesizer to sound. And I want to use samples because I feel they’re the strongest and most powerful instrument in the world. So that’s the reason these are the instruments I play, because as a musician I desire to hear my complete vision realized.”
Lenny Kravitz is another rocker who’s played nearly all of the instrumentation on his albums, save for some orchestral and brass bits that were performed by outside musicians. He told Guitar World in 2008 that he started playing piano at about 5 years old, and then he started experimenting with his dad’s acoustic guitar over the next few years as well.
“Later, my family moved to L.A., and I started playing the drums when I was in junior high school. Back in New York, we lived in a little apartment, so I couldn’t have a drum set, but I had always wanted to play the drums. When I got to high school, I bought a bass and began to play that. I never dreamed I would end up making music this way — playing all of the instruments — I just liked switching around from instrument to instrument,” he continued.
As for what inspired him to play every instrument on his debut album Let Love Rule, which came out in 1989, he said, “When I was getting my songs together to make that record, the plan was to have a band. I kept bringing different people down to the studio to play with me, but something wasn’t working; you can have great players, but the personality and the character of the recording is what’s most important, and it just wasn’t happening.”
Thus, his engineer suggested he play it all, and he did.
Not only was Pete Townshend the primary songwriter for The Who, but he was also a multi-instrumentalist, which he demonstrated on his first solo album Who Came First (1972).
“Since the band began I have written songs at home in my studio and served them up to the group as completed single tracks, with all instruments either played already, or at least indicated… After seven years I’m getting to be pretty good at a whole range of instruments, even the violin!” Townshend wrote in a promo ad for the album [via his website].
“These tracks are all tracks that I’ve recorded at home,” he continued, noting the contributions of a few other musicians. “Apart from these two exceptions, all the music is from my own head.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival were one of the most well-known bands of the 1960s and early ’70s, but they called it quits in ’72. Vocalist and guitarist John Fogerty — who wrote nearly all of CCR’s songs — wasn’t about to end his musical career, though, and he released The Blue Ridge Rangers the following year. Though it was a covers album, he played all of the instrumentation on his own, as he did with his next couple of albums as well.
Paul McCartney started working on his first solo album in 1969 while The Beatles were still technically together. Aside from some contributions from his wife Linda, McCartney played all of the instruments on the album. In an interview with Uncut [via Guitar.com], Pete Townshend claimed that he gave McCartney the idea to self-record the album, as he had been working on his solo debut at the time as well.
In a promotional interview for the release of McCartney in April of 1970, the musician explained why he was pursuing a solo career, and simultaneously announced the breakup of The Beatles.
“I got a Studer four-track recording machine at home — practiced on it (playing all instruments) — liked the results, and decided to make it into an album,” McCartney said, adding that the band’s break was a result of “Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don’t really know.”
McCartney has performed solo on many other albums since then.