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10 Musicians Who Changed How Everyone Plays Their Instruments

by Phil P.
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Music, an ever-evolving art form, has seen its fair share of revolutionaries, but few have truly transformed how instruments are played. From the haunting melodies of a guitar to the vibrant rhythms of a drum, these musicians didn’t just play music; they redefined it. This list celebrates ten such trailblazers who didn’t merely master their instruments—they changed how everyone else approached them, too.

As we explore the unique contributions of each artist, we find a common thread of innovation and influence that transcends genres and generations. These musicians didn’t just play music—they inspired new ways of listening to, understanding, and ultimately loving music. Their legacies are not just in their recordings but also in the enriched language of the music they left behind for others to explore.

Related: Top 10 Musicians Who Were Ahead Of Their Time

10 Jimi Hendrix and the Electric Guitar

Why Jimi Hendrix is the electric guitar G.O.A.T.

Jimi Hendrix, often hailed as the greatest electric guitarist in the history of rock music, redefined what the instrument could achieve. Arriving on the scene in the 1960s, Hendrix brought an explosive new sound to the electric guitar, marked by an innovative use of amplifiers and effects that turned the guitar into an almost unrecognizable sonic force. His performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he famously set his guitar on fire, was not just showmanship but a declaration of his musical revolution.

Hendrix’s approach to the guitar involved a blend of blues, rock, R&B, and jazz influences fused into a style that was entirely his own. He experimented with feedback, distortion, and sustain to produce sounds that had never been associated with the guitar. Songs like “Purple Haze” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” are quintessential examples of his ability to transform the guitar into a tool for aural and emotional impact, pushing the boundaries of what music could express.

Beyond his technical prowess, Hendrix was a master of expression. His guitar became an extension of his voice, conveying a range of emotions from melancholy to ecstasy. This emotional depth, combined with his technical innovations, influenced a multitude of genres and generations of musicians, ensuring his legacy as a pioneer who changed how the guitar is played.[1]

9 Charlie Parker’s Jazz Revolution

The Genius of Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker, affectionately known as “Bird,” is often credited with being one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz. His virtuosic saxophone playing in the mid-20th century catapulted jazz into a new era characterized by complex solos and rapid chord progressions that became hallmarks of the bebop genre. Parker’s innovative approach to improvisation not only elevated the saxophone’s role in jazz but also challenged other musicians to elevate their own craft.

Through classics like “Ko-Ko” and “Ornithology,” Parker demonstrated unprecedented technical prowess and harmonic knowledge. His ability to play swift, complex chord changes at breakneck speeds while maintaining melodic integrity was nothing short of revolutionary. This technical brilliance was paired with a profound emotional depth that resonated in his performances, making his music profoundly impactful on both peers and future generations.

Parker’s influence extends beyond jazz, affecting musicians in myriad genres who admire his innovative techniques and emotional expression. His legacy is evident in the work of countless artists who have sought to mimic his style or been inspired to push their own boundaries. Charlie Parker changed how the saxophone was played and transformed how music was conceptualized and appreciated.[2]

8 Jacqueline du Pré and Her Emotional Depths

Tribute to Jacqueline du Pré | by AllegroFilms

Jacqueline du Pré, a name synonymous with exceptional cello performance, brought a profound emotional intensity to classical music that remains unmatched. Her interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor is legendary; it is not merely played but deeply felt. Du Pré’s ability to convey a spectrum of emotions through the strings of her cello transformed how the instrument was perceived, moving it from mere accompaniment to a profound vehicle for human expression.

Du Pré’s playing style was characterized by its expressive depth and technical precision. Her performances were a fusion of her vibrant personality and meticulous musicianship, which allowed her to connect with audiences on an emotional level seldom seen in classical music circles. Her interpretation of the music went beyond notes on a page—it was a visceral outpouring of her inner life.

Tragically, her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. Yet her influence continues to resonate in the classical music world. Jacqueline du Pré’s recordings are still celebrated for their emotional intensity and technical finesse, inspiring cellists and all musicians to strive for a deeper, more personal connection with their art.[3]

7 Eddie Van Halen’s Tapping Technique

Guitarists Who Changed Music: Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen, a virtuoso guitarist whose name is nearly synonymous with guitar innovation, transformed rock music with his electrifying playing style. He is best known for popularizing the “tapping” technique, a method that involves tapping the strings on the fretboard with both hands to create rapid arpeggios and fluid, lightning-fast runs. This technique became a staple in rock guitar solos and has inspired an entire generation of guitarists.

Van Halen’s landmark album Van Halen, released in 1978, showcased his groundbreaking technique to the world, especially in the instrumental track “Eruption.” This solo piece, often considered one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, displays not just technical skill but also a new way of thinking about the electric guitar. The speed and complexity of Van Halen’s play, combined with his melodic sense, allowed him to create such unprecedented sounds.

His influence extends beyond just technique; his innovations in guitar design and amplification have also contributed to his legendary status. Van Halen’s approach to his instrument was holistic—constantly tinkering with his gear to produce unique sounds that matched his revolutionary playing style.

Eddie Van Halen didn’t just play guitar; he reimagined what it could be. His legacy is heard in every rippling solo and seen in the fingers of guitarists around the world today. The music industry and guitar enthusiasts continue to celebrate his contributions and the doors they opened for future musicians.[4]

6 Ravi Shankar’s Global Influence

How Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Became America’s Obsession

Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso from India, not only popularized classical Indian music worldwide but also revolutionized how the sitar was played and perceived. Through his collaborations with Western musicians like George Harrison of The Beatles, Shankar bridged the gap between Eastern and Western music, bringing the sitar to the global stage and influencing the psychedelic sound of the 1960s.

His approach to the sitar was both deeply rooted in the complex traditions of Indian classical music and innovative in its adaptations to Western musical styles and audiences. Shankar’s performances were characterized by intricate raga improvisations that mesmerized audiences worldwide. His music went beyond mere performance; it was a spiritual experience that invited listeners into the depths of Indian culture and music.

Furthermore, Ravi Shankar was instrumental in transforming the teaching of the sitar and Indian music on a global scale. He founded music schools in India and the United States, authored instructional texts, and tirelessly advocated for the appreciation and understanding of Indian music. His efforts ensured that the sitar was not just an exotic novelty but also a respected voice in the international music conversation.

Ravi Shankar’s legacy as a musician and teacher continues to influence and inspire artists across the globe, making him a pivotal figure in the history of world music.[5]

5 Keith Moon’s Explosive Impact on Rock

The Genius Of Keith Moon

Keith Moon, the legendary drummer for The Who, was more than just a musician; he was a force of nature whose energetic and explosive drumming style reshaped the role of percussion in rock music. Known for his wild antics both on and off the stage, Moon’s approach to drumming was characterized by a frenetic and innovative style that pushed the limits of conventional rock drumming.

Moon’s technique was distinguished by rapid rolls, sudden flourishes, and an unpredictable, often chaotic flair that mirrored his vibrant personality. He did not just keep time; he infused The Who’s music with a dynamic pulse, making each performance a spectacle. His drum solos, particularly in tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You,” showcased his ability to command the listener’s attention, turning the drum kit into the centerpiece of the musical experience.

Beyond technique, Moon’s influence extended to his choice of equipment and set-up, opting for larger drum kits that allowed him a broader range of sounds and expressions. His legacy lives on, not just in rock and roll history but in the inspiration he provides to drummers who aim to break the mold and add their own unique spin to rhythm.

Keith Moon transformed the drums from a background instrument to a leading, compelling element of rock music, leaving an indelible mark on the industry and music enthusiasts around the world.[6]

4 Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Revolution

“The Mandolin of Bill Monroe: One-on-One With the Master”

Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” fundamentally transformed how the mandolin is played and perceived in American music. His aggressive, fast-paced picking style turned the mandolin from a background rhythm instrument into a leading force in the bluegrass genre he pioneered. Monroe’s approach to the mandolin, characterized by rapid notes and complex melodies, laid the groundwork for modern bluegrass and influenced countless musicians.

Monroe’s music was technically proficient and emotionally resonant, conveying stories and feelings of the American South with authenticity and passion. His landmark compositions, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” are celebrated for their inventive use of the mandolin, showcasing Monroe’s skill in integrating it seamlessly with other instruments to create a rich, full sound that became synonymous with bluegrass music.

Additionally, Monroe was a bandleader and a mentor, shaping the sounds and careers of future bluegrass legends. His vision and dedication to the genre helped establish the mandolin as a central instrument in American folk music, inspiring a new generation of musicians to explore its possibilities.

Bill Monroe’s legacy endures through his recordings, the annual music festival he founded, and the legions of mandolin players who continue to draw inspiration from his innovative style. His contributions to music altered the course of American folk and created a lasting blueprint for mandolin playing.[7]

3 Cliff Burton and the Heavy Metal Thunder

Cliff Burton’s Bass Rig: The Keys to His Unforgettable Sound 🔑🔓

Cliff Burton, the bassist for Metallica, redefined the role of the bass guitar in heavy metal with his complex solos and aggressive playing style. Before Burton, bass in metal often lingered in the background, providing support but rarely stepping into the spotlight. Burton changed that with his use of distortion, wah pedals, and a lead guitar approach to the bass, which he showcased brilliantly on tracks like “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

His technique combined elements of classical music with the raw power of metal, crafting parts that were both melodically compelling and ruthlessly heavy. This approach not only pushed the boundaries of the bass guitar but also influenced Metallica’s sound, contributing to their rise as one of the genre’s defining bands. Burton’s solos were not mere interludes but pivotal parts of a song, driving the music forward and adding a new layer of depth.

Tragically, Burton’s career was cut short when he died in a tour bus accident at the age of 24. Still, his influence on music continues to resonate. His pioneering work on the bass has inspired a generation of musicians to explore the instrument’s potential and challenge the conventions of their genres.

Cliff Burton’s legacy is a powerful reminder of how creativity and innovation can forge a new path in music and elevate an instrument to new heights.[8]

2 Robert Johnson Redefines the Blues Guitar

Artists Who Changed Music: Robert Johnson – The Father of Rock N’ Roll

Robert Johnson’s brief but impactful career left an undeniable mark on the trajectory of the blues, particularly in his mastery of the Delta blues style. Before Johnson, the focus of blues music often leaned heavily on vocals and storytelling. While his singing possessed a captivating, raw quality, Johnson’s true innovation came through his revolutionary guitar playing.

He wasn’t just a skilled guitarist; Johnson’s technique was unlike anything heard before. He incorporated elements of slide guitar, where a bottleneck or other object is used to press against the strings, creating a haunting, expressive sound. This technique, often called “bottleneck” or “slide” guitar, wasn’t entirely new, but Johnson elevated it to a central feature. He combined slide with his innovative use of rhythm and phrasing, transforming the guitar from a background accompanist to a powerful lead voice in blues music. Songs like “Cross Road Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago” became testaments to Johnson’s groundbreaking style. These recordings showcased his ability to weave intricate melodies and wailing solos that perfectly complemented the vocals and storytelling aspects of the blues.

Johnson’s influence extends far beyond the Delta blues. His revolutionary approach to the guitar directly inspired countless blues and rock guitarists. From the soulful slide work of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to the psychedelic explorations of Jimi Hendrix, Johnson’s legacy lives on in the hands of these and many more musicians.[9]

1 Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Revolution

Zakir Hussain Meets Berklee – Ustad Zakir Hussain Tabla Solo

The tabla, a pair of twin hand drums from the Indian subcontinent, has a rich history deeply intertwined with classical Indian music. But thanks to the artistry of Zakir Hussain, the tabla’s influence transcended geographical and genre boundaries. Hussain’s mastery of the instrument lies in his incredible virtuosity. His rapid-fire playing, intricate rhythmic patterns, and dynamic control push the boundaries of what the tabla is capable of. He possesses an unmatched understanding of the instrument’s tonal possibilities, coaxing an incredible range of sounds from the seemingly simple drums.

However, Hussain’s impact goes beyond technical brilliance. He actively championed cross-genre collaborations, performing with artists from various musical backgrounds. These collaborations, which include jazz (John McLaughlin), rock (Mickey Hart), and even flamenco (Paco de Lucía), showcased the tabla’s versatility in a way that had never been seen before.

Hussain wasn’t just demonstrating the instrument’s technical capabilities; he was actively building bridges between musical traditions. These collaborations introduced new audiences to the instrument’s captivating sounds and inspired countless musicians to explore the possibilities of incorporating the tabla into their own music.

Hussain’s dedication to artistic exploration and global exchange transformed the tabla from a traditional instrument to a powerful voice that transcends borders and ignites a passion for music across the world. He is not just a virtuoso player but a true ambassador who has redefined the role of the tabla in the global musical landscape.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen