By all appearances we live in an era of super-specialisation. Experts are not just experts in one thing anymore. There’s an increasing microscoping of skill sets, zoning down on a specific thing of a specific thing of a specific thing. It’s not enough that you’re a brain surgeon. You’ve got to be an expert in a subset of a subdivision: Vascular neurosurgery, oncological neurosurgery, neuropsychiatric surgery. Remember how you wanted to be a rocket scientist? You’d better narrow your love, dreams and training to the component that suits you more. At best, you’ll be a micro-cog in a vast wheel, but a highly valuable one.
The world of music, as ever, turns that notion on its head. It used to be that you just wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Or drums like John Bonham. Or take Level 42’s bass-playing singer Mark King’s otherworldly abilities to the next level. You picked your instrument and you practised until your capillaries and your tendons threatened to leap out of your body. These days, though, it is becoming less a world of singular skills than of multifarious proficiencies. Welcome to the age of the multi-instrumentalist.
The multi-instrumentalist is not a new species. There have been some pretty famous ones. Paul McCartney, who had already been exploring his versatility with The Beatles, played every instrument on his debut solo album, McCartney, which was released soon after the Fab Four’s dissolution. Ten years later, in 1980, British band Traffic’s frontman Steve Winwood released his critically and commercially successful one-man-band solo record Arc of a Diver. Eschewing all session musicians, Winwood played acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards, and sang all the vocal parts—lead and backing. The chartbusting album was no exercise in egotism. Winwood was a master craftsman, scoring high as writer, composer and performer.
The impossible talent that is Stevie Wonder goes well beyond being an amazing singer equally adept at playing funky keyboard parts as he is at tooting out sweet harmonica lines. On his mammoth hit ‘Superstition’, Wonder is credited with playing all instruments apart from guitar and horns. Rock-and-soul wonder Lenny Kravitz is no slouch either, renowned for playing a multitude of instruments on his self-produced work, including guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, harmonica and sitar. Equalling Kravitz’s palette of talents is punk poet PJ Harvey, who plays guitar, piano, bass, autoharp and saxophone as she continues to gather acclaim and accolades.
But no one wears the multi-instrumentalist crown like Prince. While his repertoire may pale in number next to American alt-pop singer-songwriter Sufjan Steven’s (who plays guitar, bass, drums, banjo, piano, vibraphone and a swathe of wind and brass instruments), no one plays them like the Purple One. Prince’s virtuosity as a guitar player, keyboardist, drummer and dancer (okay, that’s not an instrument, but the way he dances, it deserves mention every time) is outstanding at the very least. I wouldn’t be surprised if he added master confectioner and ikebana exponent to his credits.
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)