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Jimmy Castor with two types of saxophone

A multi-instrumentalist is a musician who plays two or more musical instruments[1] at a professional level. Multi-instrumentalists who play closely related instruments, a practice known as doubling are common in orchestra (e.g., flute players who double on piccolo and percussion players, who play snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, etc.), in jazz (e.g., saxophone players who double on clarinet or flute; or double bass players who also play electric bass); in music theatre pit orchestras (e.g., reed players who are required to play numerous reed instruments); and in other areas of classical music (e.g., church piano players are often expected to play the church's pipe organ or Hammond organ as well). Popular music composers and songwriters are often multi-instrumentalists. In pop and rock, it is more common than in classical or jazz for performers to be multi-instrumentalists on instruments that are not from the same family: it is common for pop and rock musicians to play both guitar and keyboards. Many bluegrass musicians are multi-instrumentalists. Some musicians' unions or associations specify a higher rate of pay for musicians who double on two or more instruments for a performance or recording.

Early music[edit]

The European Piffari, Stadtpfeifer and Waits were multi-instrumentalists, who played trumpet, sackbut, shawm, cornett, recorder and string-instruments.[2] Musicians with an education of a Stadtpfeifer were Gottfried Reiche,[3] Johann Joachim Quantz,[3] Johann Christof Pezel and Sigmund Theophil Staden.[3] Also many European church musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries were multi-instrumentalists, who played several instruments. Georg Philipp Telemann for example played violin, viola da gamba, recorder, flauto traverso, oboe, shawm, sackbut and double bass.[4]

Classical music[edit]

Some famous classical composer-performers could play multiple instruments at a high level, such as Mozart, who was a virtuoso on keyboards and violin. Music written for symphony orchestra usually calls for a percussion section featuring a number of musicians who might each play a variety of different instruments during a performance. Orchestras will also often, but not always, call for several members of the woodwind section to be multi-instrumentalists. This is sometimes referred to as doubling. Typically, for example, one flute player in the orchestra will switch to playing the piccolo or alto flute when called to by the score. Similarly, clarinet players may double on bass clarinet, oboe players on cor anglais, and bassoon players on contrabassoon. Trumpet players may switch to piccolo trumpet for certain Baroque literature, and first trombone players may switch to alto trombone. Organ players are also commonly expected to master the harpsichord as well. Doubling elsewhere in the orchestra is rare. With musical theatre pit orchestras, woodwind players are expected to play a large number of woodwind instruments.

Jazz, modern, and contemporary music[edit]

Guyanan-Swedish musician Colin Dyall (father of actor Karl Dyall and singer Sharon Dyall) is a known multi-instrumentalist.

Many professional jazz musicians have become multi-instrumentalists. In the swing big band era, woodwind players were expected to be able to play multiple woodwind instruments. Some jazz saxophonists are offered gigs where they are also required to play clarinet, for example. So they spend time learning the differences and then continue to develop their ability over the rest of musical careers. The different types of saxophone use similar designs, varying mainly only in size (and therefore pitch), meaning that once a player has learned to play one it is relatively easy for her/him to translate the skills into another. As a result, many jazz saxophone players have made careers playing several different instruments, such as John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, both of whom have frequently used both tenor and soprano saxophones. To a lesser extent this is the case across the range of woodwind instruments: Jazz flute players often play other instruments as well, such as Eric Dolphy and Herbie Mann, both of whom frequently played flute and saxophone. Dolphy was also frequently recorded on bass clarinet. In the early years of jazz, when the genre was still linked to the marching band genre, many double bass players doubled on tuba. From the 1950s onwards and particularly since the development of jazz-rock fusion in the late 1960s, many double bass players doubled on electric bass. Notable examples of bassists who are virtuosi on both instruments include Stanley Clarke and John Patitucci. Many jazz instrumentalists whose main instrument is a horn or bass also play jazz piano, because piano is an excellent instrument for composing, arranging, and developing greater harmonic knowledge.

Many famous jazz musicians including James Morrison, Don Burrows, and Brian Landrus are multi-instrumentalists.

Rock and pop music[edit]

In popular music styles, many musicians and songwriters are multi-instrumentalists. Rock guitarists often also play electric bass or piano. Songwriters often play both piano, a key instrument for arranging and composing, and popular pop or rock instruments such as guitar. Often, multi-instrumentalists are solo artists who overdub several tracks themselves, rather than hiring session musicians, but they can also be found within backup bands or working under various monikers. A backing band member who doubles will be instructed by the bandleader when to switch instruments (e.g., from bass to Hammond organ). However, when playing live, most multi-instrumentalists will concentrate on their main instrument and/or vocals, and hire or recruit backing musicians (or use a sequencer) to play the other instruments, thus benefiting from economies of scope.

In most cases, a multi-instrumentalist will play several types of keyboard and plucked string instruments. Keyboard instruments include piano, synthesizer and organ. Plucked string instruments include guitar, bass and mandolin. Some multi-instrumentalists also play percussion and drums. They may also play brass and woodwind instruments, although this is fairly rare within popular music. The voice is sometimes, albeit rarely, listed amongst a multi-instrumentalist's instrumental repertoire. One of the pioneers of multitrack recording of all of the instruments by one performer (one instrument at a time) was Mike Oldfield on his LP Tubular Bells, where he played organ, guitar, honky-tonk piano, bass, glockenspiel, the tubular bells, and more.

Some musicians have pushed the limits of human musical skill on different instruments. The British entertainer Roy Castle once set a world record by playing the same tune on 43 different instruments in four minutes.[5] Anton Newcombe, frontman for The Brian Jonestown Massacre, has claimed to be able to play 80 different instruments.[6]

Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was one of the first well-known pop musicians to be a prolific multi-instrumentalist,[citation needed] popularizing diverse instrumentation in rock music and promoting an important influence on multi-instrumentalists, world music. Jones also played the majority of the instruments on the soundtrack to the 1967 West German film "A Degree of Murder". John Lennon of The Beatles played guitar and keyboards, while Paul McCartney could play guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. The band's guitarist, George Harrison could play the guitar, sitar, keyboards and bass. Stevie Wonder is known to be skilled in several instruments; on his 1972 hit "Superstition" he played all instruments except horns and guitar. Widely considered to be one of the most critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalists of all-time, Todd Rundgren wrote, played, sang, engineered, and produced the landmark album Something/Anything? in 1972. Rundgren's overall talent, eclecticism, and body of work between the late 1960s and late 1970s would have a profound impact on the artist who is arguably the most famous pop multi-instrumentalist of all-time, Prince. Paul McCartney performed the entire McCartney album by himself, all instruments and voices (except a few backing vocals done by his first wife Linda McCartney).

John Fogerty played all of the instruments on his first three solo albums: John Fogerty, Blue Ridge Rangers, and Centerfield, just like Dave Grohl did the same on Foo Fighters' debut album.

Both halves of Scottish pop and folk-rock duo Gallagher and Lyle are accomplished multi-instrumentalists. Benny Gallagher is proficient on acoustic guitar, piano/keyboards, bass guitar, accordion, mandolin, ocarina and harmonica, sometimes using the latter instrument on a harness. Graham Lyle is a skilled lead, slide and acoustic guitarist, mandolinist and banjoist, and has also been known to play violin, harmonica and drums on disc.

Multi-instrumentalist Yuri Landman not only plays several string instruments, but also creates several new instruments with alternative scalings, constructions and string combinations to reach new playing techniques. His work is mainly based on resonance, string pitching and overtones.

Bassist Geddy Lee is one half of the songwriting team for the band Rush (the other being guitarist Alex Lifeson; drummer Neil Peart contributes only lyrics to Rush's songs) and has prolific skills as a songwriter and composer. He has stated that although he plays bass in the band, melodic instruments like the piano, synthesizer and keyboard are his preferred instruments when writing songs. But as the band is strictly a trio, accommodations must be met within the confines of three performers in order to play Rush's complex, multi-layered music in a live setting. For this reason, pedals such as the Moog Taurus and other sample triggers have been incorporated into Rush's live shows. This enables Rush to play these songs live and have them sound like they do on the studio recording and not have to add a fourth performer. Thus, in addition to the unique timbre of his voice and his considerable proficiency on the bass, Lee is universally hailed among progressive rock fans in general and Rush fans in particular for his skills at not only playing several instruments, but playing them simultaneously.

There are a number of other artists in pop, rock and electronic music that are known for their proficiency on many instruments. Some lesser known multi-instrumentalists include John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Jon Foreman of the rock band Switchfoot, singer/songwriter/producer Bruno Mars, Rick Wright of Pink Floyd, of The Black Eyed Peas, French singer Sébastien Tellier, AJ McLean of Backstreet Boys fame, actor Hugh Laurie, singer-songwriter Rozalind MacPhail, and Serj Tankian of the music group System of a Down.

One of the most notorious examples of multi-instrumentalist members in a rock band is Gentle Giant. All musicians who participated in the group played, at least, three different instruments. The three Shulman brothers (the founders) played about 23 instruments, whilst Kerry Minnear alone handled about 13.

At least one band is composed by more than two members who are multi-instrumentalists. All the members of Tortoise, the post-rock Chicago outfit, play several instruments—often switching instruments within the course of one piece. Their live setups include two drum sets, several keyboards, electric guitars and basses (all with their respective amplifiers), and electronic as well as traditionally tuned percussion instruments. Over the course of live performance, generally switching between pieces and often within a single piece, individual performers will take several turns playing different music instruments, rotating as needed.


In bluegrass music, it is very common for musicians to be skilled on a number of different instruments, including guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass.

List of multi-instrumentalists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Multi-Instrumentalist". Merriam-Webster. 
  2. ^ Riemann Musiklexikon 1967: Art. Stadtpfeifer
  3. ^ a b c Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
  4. ^ Telemann: Singen ist das Fundament zur Music in allen Dingen; Ed. Werner Rackwitz; Reclam
  5. ^ Moreton, Nick (February 19, 2010). "Sign up for Race for Roy to raise funds for the Roy Castle Fund". Southport Visiter. Retrieved October 9, 2012. 
  6. ^ Power, Ian (March 26, 2009). "Best Comeback Ever?". Minnesota Daily. Retrieved October 9, 2012. 

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