When you think of the prototypical guitarist, you probably have a certain image in mind, right? For some of us, that image might be the sensitive, sweet guy who writes deep and meaningful poetry in his spare time. For others, the image may be the badass, long-haired rocker with a penchant for sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Whatever you imagine, the truth is usually stranger than fiction. This is a list of some of the most beloved guitarists of all time and the hidden talents you wouldn’t expect them to have. Here they are in no particular order.
Or should I say Dr. Brian May, CBE? This 70-year-old, long-haired rocker from Middlesex, England is one of the most prolific musicians on the planet. You probably know May as the legend who played lead guitar for the band Queen. But what you might not have known is that he is also an astrophysicist who was in the midst of his doctoral degree when Queen became a worldwide phenomenon.
By this time, May had co-authored some serious scientific research, but decided to quit his PhD to pursue his exploding musical career. Amazingly, this multi-talented guitarist has since re-registered for his PhD, submitted his thesis on zodiacal dust, and earned his doctorate.
If that isn’t enough, May has a few more accolades under his belt. Among them is his role as a collaborator on NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission, as well as his Chancellorship at Liverpool John Moores University. May, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and several others together founded Asteroid Day to raise global awareness about asteroids and protecting Earth. Less than a decade ago, the asteroid 52665 was named Brianmay in his honor.
Aside from all of this, the legendary guitarist and composer has long been an animal rights activist, forayed into the world of stereophotography, and had a damselfly named after him too, the Heteragrion brianmayi! I mean… what?! This man is easily the most incredible entry on this list.
Dave Mustaine is known in the thrash metal industry for a number of things. For starters, he was in the original Metallica, playing lead guitar alongside co-founders Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. I won’t get into the drama that ensued not long after the original lineup of Metallica started gaining momentum, but in short, Mustaine was soon ejected from the band. He soon went on to form Megadeth. Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer are hailed today as the Big Four of trash metal.
Considered one of the higher ranking 100 greatest heavy metal guitarists of all time, the now 55-year-old rocker also has something else under his belt. More specifically, it IS his belt. Mustaine has a black belt in Taekwondo and Ukidokan Karate. It all started back in the day when the axe man was dealing with drug and alcohol problems. Though he has practiced various martial arts in the past (since he was 12), he didn’t revisit it until 1999 when he took up taekwondo. Mustaine considers martial arts to have been instrumental in giving him the discipline and strength to kick his bad habits for good.
Not long afterwards, the guitarist suffered a nerve injury in his arm (strangely because he had fallen asleep on the arm for too long). With more than a year and a half of physical therapy and intensive continued practice in the martial arts, he has returned to playing guitar as normal, something that doctors did not expect to be possible. In 2007, Dave Mustaine was made a Goodwill Ambassador of the World by the WTF (no, that’s not what you think – it stands for World Taekwondo Federation).
Other than his martial arts, Mustaine has dabbled in what he considers not-very-metal sports like golf and hockey, even coaching his son in the latter. In between writing songs and playing gigs, Mustaine still practices his martial arts. Here he is in action back in the day.
Speaking of martial arts, did you know that Willie Nelson has a black belt in GongKwon Yusul, the Korean martial art? Here he is getting his award. If you don’t know the man for his music, you will probably know him for his activism. Or you might know him for his many legal issues. Perhaps you know him from one of his 30-something movies. Or you may know him from… well, you get the point. Everyone knows Willie Nelson. At the very least, you must have heard his cover song with Julio Iglesias (“To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) or his 1980 hit “On the Road Again”, or most likely his pro-mary jane song with Snoop Dogg.
Willie Nelson was born in 1933 and he’s still, quite literally, kicking around. This guy is the oldest on the list, and he is responsible for pioneering the country genre “outlaw country”. The Grammy award winner and Hall of Famer credits his longevity in part to his martial arts, often discussing the benefits of the practice for body and mind.
Nelson is really a jack of all trades, having done pretty much everything from playing football to writing poetry. He’s an actor, and activist, a singer, a songwriter, a guitarist, and even an author. He’s played alongside the country greats like Johnny Cash and the Highwaymen. Today he gets up to shenanigans with Snoop Dogg and practices GongKwon Yusul on his tour bus.
This guitarist is a Grammy award winner and considered one of the best guitarists in the world, and if you listen any one of this one-man band’s songs, you’ll see why. Now in his mid-fifties, Vai first began his interest in music at the tender age of 5, still able to recall that first experience of recognizing the notes on a piano. Vai later took lessons from another great, Joe Satriani, whose influence can be heard and seen in Vai’s work. He also took over from David Lee Roth as guitarist for Frank Zappa’s band back in the day, and this was how his incredible career began.
What you may not have known about this Grammy award winning and record setting legend is that since the 90s, he has also been a beekeeper. In fact, he also has his very own bees honey product, which he only auctions off for his Make a Noise Foundation. It all started in his Hollywood home when he realized his wife’s garden was flourishing thanks to the honeybees that lived in the neighbors’ walls. When they moved to Encino, California, Vai went online and learned about beekeeping, procured some of his own, and began his hobby.
Vai says that he relates to these little creatures because they “work themselves to death”, and that he could relate. This is not surprising if you know how this guy grew to be the shred-master that he is today. Vai is known for his 15-hour-a-day practice sessions. Here he is talking about and displaying his hobby.
Today, Steve Vai actively promotes beekeeping and, more importantly, he has been pushing for saving the bees since before they became as endangered as they are today. Additionally, Vai has his own record label, signature guitars and equipment (which he helps to create), and dabbles in voice acting.
No, not the drummer from Genesis, that’s Phil Collins. I’m talking about the guitarist from Def Leppard. Collen joined this iconic hard rock/NWOBHM band back in 1982 and he’s been through thick and thin with them ever since. This is the man who was once asked to be in Iron Maiden and turned it down!
In the 1980s, it really was all sex, drugs, and rock n roll, and Collen and a fellow guitarist were in deep with alcohol addiction. While Collen recognized that he had a problem and turned over a new leaf, his bandmate suffered a more tragic fate and died in 1991. Since then, Collen has adopted a health-conscious lifestyle, and has been sober and vegetarian for over 20 years. It was at this time that Collen found a new love.
A Bruce Lee fan since childhood, Collen found himself outside a dojo one day in 1991, when someone asked him if he would be interested. After learning how to escape a stranglehold, Collen says that he signed up immediately. Now, the Def Leppard guitarist is training daily under Muay Thai champion Jean Carrillo and has a black belt in Kenpo.
You wouldn’t think it to look at this Adonis-like rockstar, but Phil Collen is in his mid-fifties today. Here he is in training. And here is playing and singing one of Def Leppard’s iconic songs (mind the cursing).
The artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince was making music until he died in April, 2016. This truly talented individual was considered an innovator, a musical genius, and a true showman. He was also a quiet and softspoken man, so most people would never have guessed that he also had a great love for ping pong, or table tennis.
Prince, and yes that is his real name, came from a highly musical family, so it’s no surprise that he played just about a dozen different instruments. At the age of just seven, he wrote his first song on the piano and he called it “Funk Machine”. It seems that he was destined to be the star that he became.
As a teenager, Prince played a lot of sports, including basketball, football, and baseball, and continued playing some of his favorite sports as an adult. It was in the late 70s and early 80s, though, that he got his break in music.
Before he died, Prince had not just written dozens and dozens of albums of his own, but he had also written countless lyrics for other artists, including greats like Patty LaBelle, Tom Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and Stevie Nicks. He also wrote for newer artists like Alicia Keys. You may have heard the song he wrote sung by Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, and the famous “Manic Monday” by the Bangles. Yep, all Prince.
By the time of his death, he had won 14 awards and 48 nominations, including Academy Awards, Golden Globes, American Music Awards, and Grammy Awards. You may have caught him in one of his rare appearances too, if you watched that one episode of New Girl. Prince was a shy man, though you wouldn’t have thought it of such a high-profile celebrity, but one thing he wasn’t shy about was his passion for ping pong. In fact, he was quite competitive about it, as some of his famous challengers might tell you.
What other guitar gods do you know who have unexpected talents?