What Does It Mean To Be A Classically Trained Rock Musician

If you do any amount of reading about rock and metal musicians, you’ll likely come across the term “classically trained rock musician.”  You may even have found the term a bit oxymoronic — after all, it seems like rock and classical are musical opposites. What does it mean to be a classically trained rock musician? Any rock artists who received formal teaching in classical music are “classically trained.”  Some examples include musicians who played in an orchestra, took college opera classes, or were a part of their high school marching band.  Classically trained rock musicians often demonstrate their classical training while playing. What’s the fuss? Are classically trained rock musicians better players? Is formal training the key to all great musicians? We will find out below.

What is a Classically Trained Musician?

Classically trained rock musicians start with the fundamentals.
Image by Edward Eyer via Pexels
While being classically trained comes down to formal training, this isn’t an adequate definition for most.  Inevitably, not everyone is going to agree on the requirements that make a musician classically trained. However, the consensus of what a classically trained musician is tends to include one or all of the following: Classically trained artists also have skill with one of the following instruments:
  • Piano
  • Guitar
  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Clarinet
  • Vocals (as a singer in an opera or as part of a chorus)
  • A few others
Formal training gives classically trained musicians a few tricks. They often know more about harmony, chord types, technique, time signature, and other elements.  While this doesn’t mean they play better, they’re better at using math and music theory to assist in a classical style.

Benefits of Being Classically Trained

Music reading isn’t the only thing rock artists take from classical training.  In addition to musical literacy, a formal music education gives aspiring songwriters and rock stars many advantages.

Knowledge of Music Theory

Theory knowledge gives classically-trained rockers a leg-up over their untrained colleagues.  They’ll know the how and whys of music, including structure, texture, and harmony, on a fundamental level.  Thus, they’ll be able to turn to their knowledge of music theory to write songs when intuition and experimentation aren’t enough. Classically Trained Musicians Have a Refined Technique Classical training means that a guitarist may better play an electric guitar in a heavy metal band.  Of course, this requires the right mentality. Simply learning a different instrument with the rigors of classical training will create diligence and attention to detail other musicians won’t have.  Therefore, a classically trained rock musician may produce more precise, more defined sounds with their instrument. A less sloppy technique won’t make audio engineers pull their hair out in the studio, either. Classical Musicians Have A Better Ear For Determining Sound Quality and Tone A refined ear for music is a side effect of formal training.  Thanks to reading sheet music and playing melodies over and over to the point of perfection, classically trained rockers tend to have a knack for quickly understanding notes, scales, and chords.  Their music theory knowledge also plays into it, as they are better at navigating song structure just through listening.

An Appreciation For A Wide Range of Genres

Diverse music preference is an element we tend to overlook.  Because rock offers few courses, classically trained rockers tend to have a passion for other genres like classical (obviously) and jazz. To go from being a classical musician to a rock musician requires diverse music tastes.  Therefore, classically trained rock musicians are more likely to bring elements from other genres into rock, creating innovative styles and subgenres. Consequently, someone with classical training will have an easier time becoming a great rock artist.  Scales, chords, and intervals apply to all genres of music.  It’s just that formal training hammers these things into students’ minds.  So when someone goes from an orchestra to a heavy metal band, they’ll already have the fundamentals down pat.

Famous Classically Trained Rock Musicians

Countless rock musicians thank formal training for their talents.  While the following musicians might not fulfill all criteria, they’ve at least dabbled in classical music training.

Richie Blackmore

Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple, one of the pioneers of heavy metal, took a year of classical guitar lessons.  His father encouraged this by buying him a guitar and classical studies. Still, nothing else about young Richie Blackmore fits in with the stereotype of a classical musician.  He did not get along with his teachers and left school early to work as a radio mechanic.  He later joined the band Roundabout, which would become Deep Purple, as a rebellious rock guitarist.

Pat Benetar

Pat Benetar, a classically trained mezzo-soprano, got introduced to music in elementary school. At the age of eight, she performed her first vocal solo.  She undertook most of her classical training as a member of her high school’s musical theater.  She thought about attending Julliard, but her claim to fame came at an open-mic night where her manager discovered her.

Synyster Gates

Synyster Gates of Avenged Sevenfold, a successful metal band of the 2000s, was classically trained.  His father brought him into music, where he took piano lessons and learned to read sheet music. Synyster Gates went on to study jazz and classical guitar at the Musician’s Institute of Holywood.  After graduating, he set up an online school to teach kids and music enthusiasts the guitar basics.

Richard Wright

Pink Floyd‘s keyboardist Richard Wright took lessons at the Eric Gilder School of Music.  He learned to play saxophone and piano while there. This training was after he’d already taught himself trombone, trumpet, and guitar.  His experience taking private lessons gave Wright an incredible passion for traditional jazz, which no doubt influenced Pink Floyd’s eclectic style later on. So the next time you listen to your favorite rock bands, take note if any members have classical training.  If they are, listen closely and note how their playing sounds.  You might find you appreciate the classical influences.

Classically Trained vs. Self-Taught – Which is Better?

While many famous rock musicians developed incredible skills via formal lessons, another group called “self-taught” rock musicians, what’s the difference? First off, many musicians are both.  For example, Richard Wright was classically trained and self-taught.  But strictly self-taught musicians generally can’t read sheet music well (or at all) and often don’t have formal technique. However, this doesn’t mean that self-taught musicians do not play as well.  Legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton developed their skills through experimentation and practice. When it comes to rock, how a musician learned to play their instrument doesn’t matter.  What matters is creativity, skill, and a willingness to give everything to great music.  And if there’s ever any reading, it’s usually in the form of tablature.

What is Ear Training?

Self-taught rock musicians may learn songs through ear training.  But what is it? Ear training is a method for playing songs accurately without notation.  All you need to play by ear is to hear music.  The learning process follows a general procedure for the musician.
  1. First, the musician isolates a particular line in the song.  Ideally, you’d be able to pause and rewind as much as you need.
  2. Then, they may attempt to isolate the root note of the melody, using trial-and-error until the played note sounds close to home.
  3. Finally, the musician may play notes in the appropriate scale until they match the song.
Many famous musicians have relied on ear training.  The straightforward approach skips the theory and history lessons of classical training. Instead, it favors picking up an instrument and having a go at it.  Those who stand by ear training will say that becoming a better player comes down to playing more often. Intuitively, you’ll understand how each note sounds because you’ve played them all to death.

Famous Rock Musicians Without Formal Training

While there are dozens of rock musicians who thank a classical upbringing for their success, there are plenty who made do without.  And by “made do,” they become rock music legends. So while being classically trained offers many advantages, it isn’t a necessity. For example, many regard Jimi Hendrix as the greatest rock guitarist of all time.  In becoming so iconic, he broke many rules. In the 1950s, when guitar makers didn’t think about left-handed musicians, Jimi Hendrix needed to be creative. Thus, 16-year-old Jimi Hendrix flipped his first guitar upside-down and restrung it.  He learned by devoting his free time to teaching himself while working multiple jobs and being in the army. Eric Clapton is another name that pops up a lot when you look up self-taught musicians.  His grandparents exposed him to music and nurtured the passion of a legend. For Eric Clapton‘s 13th birthday, he received a guitar.  His passion for the blues and rock ‘n’ roll drove his playing throughout the rest of his teenage years.  The rest is history.


Classically trained rock musicians are an interesting breed.  Their strict attention to formality and technique flies in the face of how rock artists usually play.  Yet, their musical upbringing provides a unique perspective on rock bands.  Thanks to them, hard-hitting riffs and hastily whacked drums meet extraordinary technique. Sure, classical music training isn’t the only key to fantastic talent. Plenty of successful rockers have done very well with only an instrument and a dream. Nevertheless, a classically trained rock musician provides a welcome playstyle to an amazing genre.

Samuel Kesler

Hey, I'm Sam. I'm a heavy metal enthusiast who plays guitar, bass, and keyboard whenever I have free time. I can't think of a more enjoyable hobby, which is why I'm devoted to writing about it.

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