The Evolution of the One-Man Band in 5 Artists

The one-man band is an age-old image, materializing as a jester-like figure, fiddling with sounds before the king’s court or as a minstrel of the streets, fashioned with every instrument, becoming one big orchestra themselves.

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It is a figure that has evolved over time; and while the one-man band may look completely different today, it lives on. See the evolution of the modern-day one-man band mapped out over these five artists.

1. Jesse Fuller

Jesse Fuller was a revolutionary of the early one-man band. Playing his brand of one-man blues, he busked for money. He played a 6 and 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo, and cymbal, along with an instrument of his own invention, the fotdella.

The fotdella was a foot-operated percussion instrument in which six bass strings would be struck by hammers. This allowed Fuller to play multiple instruments simultaneously, even more with the help of a headpiece that held his harmonica, kazoo, and microphone.

He was one of the first one-man bands to see widespread acclaim with his 1954 folk tune, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” a song that has since been covered by the likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary, and Eric Clapton.

2. Don Partridge

British troubadour Don Partridge was known for his more traditional one-man band get-up—the iconicity portrayed guitar in hand, a kazoo or harmonica fashioned to the face, a bass drum bound to his back, and cymbals and a tambourine not far away. Dubbed “King of the Buskers,” he saw unexpected success, becoming one of the first street performers to top the UK charts with songs like “Rosie” in 1968 and “Blue Eyes.”

3. Bob Dylan

From there, the modern-day one-man band began to simplify. Audiences became enraptured by a single musician, armed with just a guitar and harmonica. The combination that Bob Dylan perfected is a common one that rarely gets the one-man band stamp. However, many of Dylan’s early albums were created in this style, with just his vocals and his own playing heard throughout.

4. Paul McCartney

With the advancement of recording technology, the one-man band became a do-it-all-yourself outfit. Paul McCartney is the perfect example. After his time with the Beatles, McCartney put the “solo” in solo career, creating the three acclaimed McCartney albums virtually by himself. Receiving credit for vocals, performing acoustic, electric, and bass guitars, drums and percussion, piano and organ, the Mellotron, and even down to playing the wineglasses, McCartney did it all on these albums.

Stevie Wonder is another, transforming R&B as a one-man band. Prince, Todd Rundgren, Pete Townshend, they too could be classified as one-man bands.

5. Tame Impala

As technology has evolved, the one-man band has followed suit. Looping devices, delay effects, and the ability to mix and mash sounds with the push of a button has changed the way the one-person outfit is viewed. In fact, there are entire musical projects today that are built off the skills of a single musician, like Kevin Parker, better known as Tame Impala, Annie Clark, known professionally as St. Vincent, or Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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