Elvis Presley built a legendary career around his unforgettable voice, but it wasn’t his only instrument.
What instruments did Elvis play? He played guitar, bass and piano, and often toyed with instruments like the drums, accordion and ukulele. While he couldn’t read or write music and had no formal lessons, he was a natural musician and played everything by ear. He could often hear a song, pick up an instrument, and play. He often played an instrument in his recordings, and always produced his own music. Elvis was simply born to create music and he was always learning new ways to do it.
Endlessly creative, Elvis often jumped at the chance to play around and practice with whatever musical instruments were available.
Elvis famously picked up a guitar as an 11-year-old in Tupelo, when his mother, Gladys, purchased a guitar for him for his birthday from Tupelo Hardware. He used that guitar all through high school, and even in his early career. He owned many more, and much nicer, guitars during his career, and used many prop guitars in his movies.
The guitar is the instrument most associated with Elvis, and while he was a good player, he wasn’t a virtuoso. But what may be more important than that was the whole appearance: Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, always looked even cooler with his guitar in hand. He influenced many young fans to pick up a guitar, just like he did. If it wasn’t for Elvis and his guitar, we probably wouldn’t have The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and many, many more.
Speaking of guitars, Elvis played bass, too.
On May 3, 1957, Elvis and his band were working on a soundtrack session for “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill Black had a difficult time laying down the bass line for “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” on his new electric bass, and he eventually gave up, frustrated. Elvis surprised everyone by picking up the bass and playing the part – so perfect that Jerry Lieber performed a scratch vocal, and the two recorded the perfect instrumental master for Elvis to sing a new vocal track over.
When The Beatles visited Elvis in California in 1965, they all jammed, with Elvis on bass.
“He had a massive amplifier with a bass plugged into it, and he was up playing bass all the time…” John Lennon later recalled. “So we just got in there and played with him. We all plugged whatever was around, and we played and sang.”
Like the guitar, Elvis learned the piano early, and played it by ear.
Elvis often played piano during rehearsals, and occasionally on stage. He especially loved to gather around a piano for gospel jam sessions. One of the most stunning Alfred Wertheimer photos features a 21-year-old Elvis sitting at a piano, playing and singing gospel songs to himself.
Elvis may have never played drums on an album or on stage, but Elvis – always full of energy and musical curiosity – tried his hand at the drums many times.
In fact, the very first gift his future wife, Priscilla Presley, gave him was a set of bongo drums.
Elvis, the accordion player? It’s not exactly a rock star’s instrument, but Elvis, who loved all kinds of music, never hesitated to pick up the instrument and see what he could play.
This photo was made right after a gig in Richmond, Virginia, on June 30, 1956. He wasn’t tired after his performance; in fact, he joked around with a deck of cards and an accordion – performing a magic trick, perhaps? – all while chatting with reporters.
Want to know even more about Elvis? Check out his home, Graceland, where you can see what instruments Elvis played and learn more about Elvis the musician, Elvis the singer, Elvis the entertainer, Elvis the actor and, of course, Elvis the man.