While we’re not suggesting every rock star is worthy of a Nobel Prize (well done, Robert Zimmerman, if you care), there’s quite a few who are undoubtedly a few branches up the evolutionary tree from “cretinous goons.” Well, some.

In a fun celebration of the latest news in punk rock/biological research crossover, we give you, quite possibly, the 11 Brainiest Guitarists EVER!

Dexter Holland

Extracurricular skill: Molecular Biology

Yep, the spiky-haired frontman of The Offspring is our inspiration for this, as he’s recently been awarded his PhD in Molecular Biology. It’s based on his work at Keck School of Medicine (where he’s studied since 2012), and his acclaimed authorship of the research paper “Identification of Human MicroRNA-Like Sequences Embedded within the Protein-Encoding Genes of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.” Who knew? Still, Dexter’s a guy who says mathematics is “just as exciting as punk rock.” Sid Vicious would be horrified, right? But it seems like if anyone quotes Holland back and screams: “Why don’t you get a job?” he’s the one with all the options. Smart dude.


Les Paul

Extracurricular skill: Multi-track recording technology (and more)

Young Lester was no academic star in the traditional sense at school, but he was, frankly, a genius. He built his own radio aged 11, was performing semi-pro at 13, and was soon investigating the notions of multitrack recording in an age when records were all cut live. Then, of course, there’s his huge contributions to electric guitar design. Read Les Paul: In His Own Words and you’ll see someone describing what all recording musicians now simply take for granted.


Brian May

Extracurricular skill: Astrophysics

All Queen members were super-smart, but it’s Dr Brian May who has the most planet-sized brain, with his home-made Red Special guitar (including bits of a fireplace, matchsticks, knitting needles, bicycle saddlebag holder, and buttons), his phD in Astrophysics and his co-authorship (with eminent U.K. “stargazer” Sir Patrick Moore) of Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. What Brian’s brain can’t explain, though, is why his guitar playing sounds like no-one else at all.

Brian May


Sterling Morrison

Extracurricular skills: Medieval Studies... and Seamanship

The Velvet Underground are sometimes caricatured as a gaggle of nihilistic druggies obsessed by weird sex, but let’s not forget Sterling Morrison’s degree in English, his phD in Medieval Studies which focussed on the works of 9th Century English poet Cynewulf (no-one in Spinal Tap can even boast that!) and the fact that, when he hung up his rock’n’roll shades, he qualified as a master mariner and captained a tugboat on the Houston. Morrison died at just 53 from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cutting short a life rich in sleazy rock’n’roll, olde odes and superior knowledge of seafaring knots. What a guy.


James Williamson

Extracurricular skill: Consumer electronics technology

The Stooges were/are another bunch of rock’n’roll reprobates, but James Williamson has led a double-life of proto-punk guitar innovator and Silicon Valley tech-nerd high flyer. He’s designed micro-processors for AMD and he’s been Sony Vice President of Technical Standards. He undertook extensive work on the development of the Blu-ray format, and for that, he’s an American National Standards Institute Awards winner. He probably doesn’t care the Stooges never won a Grammy.


Jeff “Skunk” Baxter

Extracurricular skill: Ballistic missile technology

As a member of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and as a session player for Carly Simon, Bryan Adams, Ringo Starr and many others, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is a guitar hero. But he’s also been a covert hero for the U.S. military. While bandmates played cards, video games and slammed shots on the tour-bus, Baxter preferred to read military technical defense magazines.

Long story short, technical boffin Baxter had a military tech friend and kinda got carried away... Baxter ended up submitting his own paper on defense tech to Congressman Dana Rohrbacher, who showed it to his associates. Baxter recalled, “His friends said, ‘Is this guy from Raytheon or Lockheed?’ And he said, ‘No, he’s the guitar player for the Doobie Brothers.’”

By the 2000s, Baxter was an adviser to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and has also served as a top military adviser for numerous congressmen and senators. “He knows all about weapons technology and has a better understanding of the strategic game going on than I do,” said Rohrbacher, “and I’m on the International Relations Committee!”

Baxter’s own signature Gibson Firebird has lots of buttons. Of course it does!

Skunk Baxter


Marty Friedman

Extracurricular skill: “The Ryan Seacrest of Japan”

In Megadeth, Friedman was the shredder who wasn’t Dave Mustaine. But when he flew the ‘Deth nest, Marty’s own secret but estimable talents came to the fore. He moved to Japan (he was long-fascinated by the country and had basically taught himself Japanese as a hobby) even though he barely knew anyone, and soon became a pan-media superstar. He’s known as “Mr Heavy Metal”, is now fully fluent, and has appeared on over 600 Japanese TV shows, be they news, politics, music or cookery shows – Friedman does it all! He also moonlights as a songwriter for various “J-Pop” bands. “For someone like me who's been playing metal forever,” he once told Rolling Stone, “it's really fresh to hear. I mean, I can hear another Pantera song, and it's great, but we've heard it before a billion times.” Awesome, Hebimetal-San.


David Byrne

Extracurricular skill: Music science author

The one-time Talking Heads master was a design college dropout but you kinda guess higher education was too limiting for him. “I was a peculiar young man,” he’s recalled. “Borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.” Byrne could play all sorts of instruments before high school, and his myriad musical explorations have earned him Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar awards, and also a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

David Byrne

Just to prove his intellect, Byrne wrote a book, loftily titled How Music Works. It’s arty, of course, but it’s also seriously intellectual, including Pythagorean Acousmatics, his views on the compositional limitations of MIDI software, 16 briefs for successful nightclub design and much more. Byrne even authored Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, which used Microsoft Powerpoint as an art medium. He never stops making sense!


Robert Fripp

Extracurricular skills: Music tech, motivational speaking and education

Robert Fripp comes across as an archetypal upper-class English intellectual, but he’s actually just a “normal” son of an estate agent in a working class family from rural Dorset. He’s devilishly clever, though, picking up a guitar aged 11 (“almost immediately I knew that this guitar was going to be my life”) and mastering jazz and modern jazz by 15. King Crimson has been Fripp’s major vehicle, though his contributions to recordings by David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Blondie, Talking Heads (them again), David Sylvian and others are also legendary.

Robert Fripp

He “invented” his own Frippertronics and Soundscaping tape-looping techniques, his Guitar Craft personal-development classes, his own New Standard Tuning of C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4, has served as a board member of the American Society for Continuous Education, and he is also a motivational speaker (see the e-book Good To Great: Beginner To Mastery (with his sister Patricia Fripp, NSA (National Speakers Association) Hall of Fame!) Fripp revels in his own uniqueness. He says: “When I read interviews with old King Crimson bandmates, they suggest that the difficulty lies with me... And I agree with that.”


Tom Scholz

Extracurricular skill: Mechanical Engineering

He had a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and was a senior design engineer for Polaroid before he became a most un-rock-star-like rock star. He only even started playing guitar in college, and recorded Boston in his basement (the recordings we so good, Sony believed his lies about working in a pro studio). Soon after he formed his own Scholz Research and Development company. He’s been profiled in NOVA’s web-doc series The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers... we guess some science people haven’t heard of Boston, right, and he’s actually a secret musician?


Sully Erna

Extracurricular skill: Professional poker

Frontman of Godsmack and also a successful solo artist, Salvatore “Sully” Erna has a fallback skill. He’s also a professional poker player. Many rockers play cards, sure, but Erna is a real earner: he played in the 2007 World Series of Poker main event, and was placed 2nd in a preliminary event at Bellagio's 5 Diamond World Poker Classic, grabbing a $307,325 prize. Playing poker well is generally considered to be a mix of higher IQ and emotional intelligence, but as with chess players, time could soon be up – January 2017 saw an AI poker computer known as DeepStack wreak havoc on 11 pro players, winning $800,000 in the process. Erna should maybe get back to the guitars – he designed his own Gibson Les Paul. And the drums as well. He can play both.

And with that esteemed list, we’ll have to harshly file Tom Morello and Rivers Cuomo as “also-rans”, even though they are both Harvard alumni (3rd Best University in the World: 2017 QS rankings).

If you’re feeling a little “challenged” after all this, fear not. There are many studies that support the notion that all musicians are “cleverer” than average.