10 iconic guitarists who had surprising day jobs before they were famous

[L-R] Slash, Tom Morello, Jack White and Kurt Cobain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's hard to imagine the world's best-known guitarists – who routinely travel around the world, playing to thousands of adoring paying fans every night – working normal jobs just like the rest of us.

For many, though, before they were able to line their pockets and make a living tearing up the fretboard, they had far humbler gigs in order to pay the bills.

There were times when Slash, Tom Morello, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards weren't household names at all, and did whatever they could to get by and, in some cases, fund their budding music careers that would eventually take flight.

Below, for your perusal, we've listed 10 guitarists who had surprising day jobs before they became famous.

1. Slash – shop assistant at a video store

Slash

(Image credit: Conor Kinahan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Before he became internationally known as the top-hatted, Les Paul-toting, solo-savvy axeman of Guns N’ Roses, Slash paid the bills by working at Tower Video on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. And it was his friend and future GNR bandmate, Axl Rose, who tipped him off about the job.

As the story goes, before Slash began working at the video store, he confronted Rose about rumors he had slept with his then-girlfriend. After clearing up that he, in fact, had, but it was before Slash entered into a relationship with the woman, the two reconciled, and Rose, manager at the store, offered him a job as a token of their renewed friendship.

It was a perfect example of the trappings of nepotism, though, as Slash would reportedly drink screwdrivers and play pornography on the monitors while on the job. “I’m sure the customers knew what we were up to the moment we breathed on them,” he wrote in his 2007 autobiography. We’re just glad he eventually found his calling in GNR, although the debauchery certainly didn’t stop when he did.

2. Tom Morello – exotic dancer

Forget Magic Mike. Forget the Chippendales. Long before the days of Rage Against the Machine, bachelorette parties across Los Angeles would flock to see the man who would become the group’s axe-slinger, Tom Morello, strip down to his boxer shorts.

When questioned in an interview back in 2018 on whether there was truth to the rumors of his raunchy dancing days, Morello replied: “I’ll answer by saying the rent is not going to pay itself.”

The Harvard-educated guitarist continued: “I couldn’t get hired to sell Iron Maiden T-shirts on Hollywood Boulevard with my Harvard degree. I said, at least I can sell a Maiden T-shirt, and they said, ‘No thank you – you have no retail experience.’ So I turned to stripping.”

3. Noodles – janitor

Noodles of The Offspring

(Image credit: Aldara Zarraoa/Redferns)

Prior to The Offspring’s mainstream success following their monolithic third album, Smash, guitarist Noodles – aka Kevin John Wasserman – earned an income as a janitor at Earl Warren School in Anaheim, California. And surprisingly, he continued to work there for months after the band began earning the big bucks.

As he told Kerrang! (opens in new tab) in 2019: “Prior to Smash, we were pretty much a part-time band. Even when we blew up, I didn’t even quit my job [as a janitor] outright – I took a three-year leave of absence. I was still working there when we were blowing up ‘cause I’d promised my boss I wouldn’t quit until the end of the school year.

“There was this one high school girl that I knew [there] and she used to see me in the morning and say to me, ‘Man, what are you doing? I just saw you on MTV!’”

4. Jack White – furniture upholsterer

Jack White

(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

Prior to the stratospheric rise of the White Stripes, Jack White opened an upholstery studio in 1996, with the same name he'd later give to his independent record label, Third Man Records upon its launch five years later.

“My whole shop was only three colours: yellow, white and black,” he once said. “I had this yellow van, and I dressed in yellow and black when I picked up the furniture. It was pretty cool.”

During his time as owner of Third Man Upholstery and prior to the launch of the White Stripes, Jack White formed his first musical duo, the Upholsterers – fitting, right? – with fellow upholsterer and musician Brian Muldoon.

The act was short-lived, but during its lifespan White and Muldoon hid 100 copies of their song, Your Furniture Was Always Dead... I Was Just Afraid to Tell You, in reupholstered furniture in Detroit in 2004. To our knowledge, not all of them have been found. So if you're a Detroiter, you might just be sitting on a piece of history.

5. Kurt Cobain – janitor

Nirvana

(Image credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Though he later became one of the world's most renowned rockstars, Kurt Cobain – like Offspring six-stringer Noodles – held down a position as a janitor for a brief time in order to finance Nirvana's first demo.

Yes, it was humble beginnings in Seattle for Cobain, who recalled some rather grizzly details about his time cleaning toilets, likening the activity to the grunge genre itself.

“When I was a janitor I used to work with these guys Rocky and Bullwinkle. They’d clean the toilet bowls with their bare hands and then eat their lunch without washing their hands. They were very grungy,” he once said.

Cobain's Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic commended his work ethic too, saying, [per Far Out Magazine (opens in new tab)]: “Here was a man who would never clean his kitchen or take out the garbage, or do those kinds of chores, but Kurt Cobain was not a lazy person. Basically, he cleaned toilets – that's how he paid for our demo.”

And in a nod to Cobain's former role, Nirvana's iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit video features a dancing janitor.

6. Eric Clapton – laborer

Eric Clapton

(Image credit: Harry Herd/Redferns)

Long before electric guitar great Eric Clapton donned the “Slowhand” moniker, he paid his way as a laborer on building sites, assisting his grandfather, a master bricklayer and plasterer.

And if music never worked out for Clapton, he says he'd probably have been a laborer all his life.

“For a little while, I worked for my grandfather,” he said in his 2017 documentary, Life in 12 Bars. “And he was very strict and very noble. He never took a raise. He worked for the same amount of money all his life. And he was a master craftsman. And that was very important for me to observe – that I could take that ethic anywhere.

“He worked me very hard. So, I always thought, well, if music doesn't work... ‘Cause I had the time of my life on that building site.”

7. Keith Richards – supermarket worker

Keith Richards performs with The Rolling Stones at Colston Hall in Bristol, England on March 9, 1971

(Image credit: David Redfern/Redferns)

Keith Richards eventually found monumental success with the Rolling Stones, but before that, he took a job as a supermarket loader in order to pay the bills. Specifically, he was tasked with offloading bags of sugar from lorries onto the shelves.

As he recalls in his autobiography, Life: “It came in great bags, and sugar cuts you up like a motherfucker and it's sticky. You do a day's loading of sugar and you're humping it on your shoulder and you're bleeding.”

Of course, Keef eventually shook off the shackles of shelf stacking and hit the big time with the Rolling Stones, but he immortalized his early days by co-writing 1971's Brown Sugar with Mick Jagger.

8. Tony Iommi – welder

It's a tale older than metal itself, but for those who haven't heard it: when Black Sabbath axeman Tony Iommi worked as an electrical and gas welder in a metal factory as a nipper in Birmingham, he was the victim of a terrible accident which cost him the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand.

After an initial period of depression at the thought of never being able to play guitar again, Iommi got his mojo back, and fashioned two thimbles to place on the ends of his severed fingers, determined to regain his ability to play.

The irony is, as he explains in the above interview with Gibson, the accident happened in the afternoon, and after working in the morning, he told his mother he didn't want to go back to the factory to finish his shift. But his mother insisted he go back to “finish the job properly”. 

“And then that's what happened,” Iommi says. “So I blamed her then.”

9. Noel Gallagher – roadie

Noel Gallagher

(Image credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Once proclaiming to The Sun (opens in new tab) that he was the “best-dressed roadie in rock 'n' roll history”, former Oasis leader Noel Gallagher cut his teeth as a roadie for Manchester rockers Inspiral Carpets.

And he even said that had Oasis not taken off, he'd still be setting up gear for bands to this day. “I would have been out there now in an ill-fitting black T-shirt with a tattoo and scruffy Converse trainers. Because that is what they all wear,” he said.

Fortunately, though, Oasis hit the big time in some style, and Gallagher's duties migrated from backstage to center stage.

10. Eddie Vedder – night security guard

Eddie Vedder

(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Before the Pearl Jam frontman found superstardom, Eddie Vedder worked night shifts as a security guard at California's La Valencia Hotel.

We'd imagine the hours of downtime associated with the job allowed him to cook up ideas that later laid the path for his musical success.

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Sam Roche

Sam is a Staff Writer at Guitar World, also creating content for Total Guitar, Guitarist and Guitar Player. He has well over 15 years of guitar playing under his belt, as well as a degree in Music Technology (Mixing and Mastering). He's a metalhead through and through, but has a thorough appreciation for all genres of music. In his spare time, Sam creates point-of-view guitar lesson videos on YouTube under the name Sightline Guitar (opens in new tab).