7 Musicians Who Switched Instruments

Jul 12, 2017

Making music is usually a collaborative effort, and it’s not unusual for members of a band to switch up the instruments they play every once in a while. What is uncommon, however, is when someone picks up a new instrument and sticks with it permanently, forever changing the role they have in making their music. This week we’re going to take a look at seven of the most prolific musicians who changed their instrument for their band, and in doing so, changed their personal history.

For the record, I’m including vocals as an instrument here.

Roger Daltrey – The Who – Guitar to Vocals

Pete Townshend has long been considered the “leader” of The Who, but more credit belongs to Roger Daltrey than he usually gets. As the band’s lead singer, Roger was considered its leader in the group’s earliest days, when they were calling themselves “The Detours.” As The Detours, Daltrey and Townshend shared guitar responsibilities, while Colin Dawson provided the lead vocals. All that changed in 1963 when Dawson decided to leave the band. Daltrey took over the lead vocals duty, leaving Townshend to have the guitar all to himself. This change would prove permanent, with Daltrey returning to the guitar only occasionally.

Paul McCartney – The Beatles – Guitar to Bass

Although they became known as “The Fab Four” during the height of their popularity, The Beatles actually started out as a five-piece band. Originally, the group was made up of John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best on drums, Paul McCartney on guitar, and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. When Stuart decided to leave the band in July 1961, it fell to Paul to take up the bass. He wasn’t particularly happy about the change, but he stuck with it and the band broke out in 1963. Don’t feel too bad for him though, Paul did get the chance to go back to his guitar on many occasions throughout the band’s studio years, most notably as both the lead guitar and bass line for “Taxman.”

Dave Grohl – Foo Fighters – Drums to Guitar/Vocals

Dave Grohl started out his musical career as a drummer. He joined grunge-rock pioneers Nirvana in time to help them record Nevermind in 1991. After the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in April 1994, Dave booked himself some studio time in October, and ended up recording a 15-track demo. He also played every single instrument on the demo, with the exception of one guitar part, on one song. This would eventually become the basis on which his new band, the Foo Fighters, would be formed. Dave roamed around for a bit, performing drums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam, even turning down a few permanent gigs. Eventually his demo found traction and he put together a band of his own. After tension with the new drummer, William Goldsmith, and Dave playing the drums on the first album, he would eventually make the permanent switch to the Foo Fighters’ lead guitarist and vocalist. Dave does, however, still scratch his drumming itch with Them Crooked Vultures, and has drummed with Tenacious D, Cage the Elephant, and Queens of the Stone Age.

Mike Dirnt – Green Day – Guitar to Bass

Green Day’s punk rock bassist Mike Dirt, actually got his stage name from his adopted instrument. Born Michael Ryan Pritchard, he met Green Day’s lead guitarist and vocalist, Billie Joe Armstrong, when they were 10. Both played guitar and spent hours playing their favourite rock songs. At 15 they formed the band Sweet Children with drummer John Kiffmeyer and bassist Sean Hughes. When Hughes left the band, Mike switched to bass. After being told he couldn’t bring his bass to school to practice in the halls anymore, Mike began practicing with a make-believe “air-bass,” and vocalizing the notes with the nonsense word “dirnt.” It wasn’t long before his classmates started calling him by it.

Phil Collins – Genesis – Drums to Vocals

Drummer Phil Collins auditioned for Genesis after seeing an ad in a magazine. The audition went well, and he formally joined the band in 1970. For 5 years Genesis’ career went well, with several highly regarded albums. However, the group’s lead singer, Peter Gabriel, had started to become the focus of most critics, much to the dismay of the rest of the band. Gabriel would eventually leave the band in 1975. When that happened, the remaining members weren’t sure how to move on at first. Phil even suggested they continue as an instrumental band. That idea was quickly squashed. After a failed search to find a new lead vocalist, Phil went into the studio and gave one of their new songs a vocal track. The band liked his performance, and it was decided that he would become the new permanent lead singer.

Keith Strickland – The B-52s – Drums to Guitar

Always a little unconventional, the B-52s started out with an unusual line-up for a rock and roll group. They had no fewer than 3 lead vocalists, and no bassists. Their original guitarist was Ricky Wilson, singer Cindy Wilson’s brother. Ricky was a founding member, and played on the band’s first 4 albums. Unfortunately, in 1985, the unique guitarist succumbed to complications from AIDS, leaving a hole in the band. They nearly split up, but instead, founding drummer Keith Strickland took it upon himself to learn to play guitar in his friend’s unusual style. After a few years off, the band came back together, with Keith taking over the guitar role full time.

Joey Ramone – The Ramones – Drums to Vocals

In a pure example of punk rock logic, the roles of the Ramones’ weren’t picked based on what they could do, but rather what they couldn’t do. Originally, Dee Dee Ramone was supposed to be the band’s lead singer. But when he realized he couldn’t sing and play bass at the same time, vocal responsibilities fell to drummer Joey Ramone. The only problem was that it didn’t take long for Joey to realize that he couldn’t play drums and sing at the same time either. It was then that they brought in their manager, Tommy Erdelyi to play drums. Tommy became Tommy Ramone, and Joey took over singing full time. The rest is punk rock history.