Skip to main content

10 guitar heroes' day jobs before they were famous

(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty)

It’s easy to forget that Slash was not born in boots and a top hat, nor did Keith Richards appear as a fully-formed rock ‘n’ roll pirate. Rock’s biggest names once held down all sorts of day jobs to make ends meet, here we give you a window into the pre-fame worlds of 10 electric guitar heroes…

1. Zakk Wylde - gas station attendant

If you’d pulled up at a New Jersey gas station circa 1987, and had a hairy man enquire if you “want some motherf***in’ petrol”, you may have been filled up by Zakk Wylde. “I had nothing to lose,” he recalls, “but I ended up getting my demo tape to Ozzy…”


2. Joe Perry – burger joint busser

There’s something fundamentally depressing about the thought of a future Toxic Twin lurching from table to table, clearing the mess left behind by fast food fanatics.

Nevertheless, Perry admits it was a "great summer job" and luckily The Anchorage at Sunapee Harbor was also where Perry first came across Steven Tyler; who left another mess for him to clear up, as the guitarist reveals in the video above.


3. Slash – shop assistant 

Slash set new lows for customer service at Tower Video on Sunset Boulevard, slurping screwdrivers and playing porn on the big screen. “I’m sure the customers knew what we were up to the moment we breathed on them,” he wrote in his autobiography.

And the shop actually played a central role in the formation of Guns N' Roses, as the video above explains. 


4. Jack White - furniture upholsterer

Guitar lesson

(Image credit: Kevin Winter / Getty)

5 guitar tricks you can learn from Jack White

As rock’s chief luddite, perhaps it was inevitable that White fell into this earthiest of old-school trades, launching his own Third Man Upholstery company. 

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

It was during this time he formed his first duo, The Upholsters, with fellow upholsterer and musician Brian Muldoon. The pair hid 100 copies of their song, Y Furniture Was Always Dead … I Was Just Afraid To Tell You in reupholstered furniture around Detroit in 2004. Two were found in 2016. 


5. Elvis Costello - data entry clerk

Nothing warms up an angry young man’s resentment quite like computer-based box ticking, and after a few months at cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden, Costello had enough venom to fuel his entire career. He would later refer to the business as ‘the vanity factory’ on I’m Not Angry.


6. Johnny Cash - cotton picker 

Despite the title of the song above, Cash worked in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Great Depression. Bet you feel guilty for complaining about your overflowing e-mail inbox now, don’t you?


7. Eric Clapton - labourer 

Back in 1962, Slowhand supplemented chump-change on the pub blues circuit with stints on a building site, where those era-defining hands were presumably used to flick through The Sun, smoke cigarettes and make the odd wolf-whistle. 

"I would have been a bricklayer or a plasterer," said Clapton at the UK premiere of documentary Life In 12 Bars when he was asked what he'd have ended up doing if he wasn't a musician.

"For a little while, I worked for my grandfather." added. "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'."


8. Noodles - janitor

A life of mops, clogged urinals and jock morons was averted when pop-punk world domination came knocking. “It was weird,” Kevin 'Noodles' Wasserman recalls. “High school kids would go: ‘Aren’t you that guy from The Offspring?’ and I was sweeping up leaves and emptying the trash.”


9. Keith Richards - supermarket loader

Keef especially took exception to the duty of loading sugar during his manual work stints as a teen. He humped the sweet stuff from lorry to supermarket during school holidays. Not the sweetest gig, he recalls in autobiography Life: “It came in great bags, and sugar cuts you up like a motherf***er and it's sticky.  You do a day's loading of sugar and you’re humping it on your shoulder and you’re bleeding.” 

Keef got his revenge by writing Brown Sugar and pocketing several great bags (of cash).


10. Tom Morello – exotic dancer 

Newly arrived in LA and “literally starving”, Morello unexpectedly followed his Harvard politics degree by earning a living stripping down to his boxer shorts and making his pecs dance for gaggles of cackling harpies to the tune of The Commodores’ Brick House. “All I can say is ‘Thank God it was in the days before YouTube,’” the Rage guitarist reflects.

10 rock 'n' roll guitar brainiacs