Mike, Peter, Davy and Mickey were musicians prior to the formation of The Monkees. They didn’t play on first two albums (Mike was the only one who did and on his own compositions only) due to an arrangement Screen Gems did with Don Kirschner that put him in charge of all Monkees music. That changed with the ouster of Don Kirschner and the album Headquarters. Davy was more than just vocals or maracas and would fill in for Peter Tork on bass when Tork was on keyboards and vice versa. The most accomplished musicians of the group were Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork. Mickey played guitar in a rock band prior to joining The Monkees project and switching to drums. He was good enough a musician and drummer for Frank Zappa to consider him for his band after the first Mother’s split up. I think that says a lot about the four of them.
They all were.
Peter Torkelson was a multi-instrumentalist who’d been playing in the Greenwich Village folk scene for years before his fellow musician Stephen Stills recommended him to the producers of the Monkees. He was particularly adept at guitar, banjo and piano.
Peter Torkelson on stage with his Banjo in Greenwich Village circa 1964, long BEFORE the Monkees
Michael Nesmith was a folk-rock guitarist who’d already had two of his songs recorded by others: “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys and “Mary Mary” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
“Different Drum” by the Stone Poney’s. Note the songwriter’s name.
Davy Jones was a former child star who performed in numerous musicals. He was trying to become a solo musical act when he got the Monkees gig. By then, he had already released his first solo album, “David Jones” and his first single “What Are We Going to Do?” reached the lower half of the Billboard Top 100 for several weeks in August 1965.
The sleeve of Davy Jones’ first single “What Are We Going To Do?” off his first album, “David Jones” released in 1965 BEFORE he was a Monkee. The single would reach the lower end of the Billboard Top 100 in August 1965.
Mickey Dolenz was the lead vocalist of a band he started in high school, Mickey and the One Nighters. They recorded two singles for the Challenge label in 1965 but they weren’t released until after the Monkees broke. He also had innate musical talent, becoming a competent drummer in a matter of weeks after being cast as the Monkees drummer.
One of two Mickey Dolenz singles, “Don’t Do It” recorded in 1965 BEFORE he became a Monkee.
For some number of years, to the general public, The Monkees was “two musicians” - Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith - “and two actors” - David Jones and Micky Dolenz. In some circles, it was “Mike was the only talented member of the group.” Even the timbre of this question is tinted with the old, tired “Did the Monkees actually play their instruments?”
As with everything in life, it’s not that simple:
By far and away, Peter was the most instrumentally talented member of the band, classically trained on piano, keyboards, guitar, banjo, bass, and harmonica. He was a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, like his buddy Stephen Stills. (The pair worked the Greenwich Village clubs before they headed west. Stills auditioned for The Monkees, and when he didn't make the cut, he recommended his buddy, Pete.)
Michael’s main instrument was of course the guitar, although he played bass and organ as well. (The latter on “For Pete's Sake" from HEADQUARTERS.)
Micky was strictly a Hollywood actor…until The Beatles came to town in 1964! Like so many other young dudes at the time, he was soon motivated to pick up a guitar and started/joined bands hoping to be the next Beatles. He played with several L.A. groups until the Monkees project came along. He, in fact, never touched a drum set until then.
You can hear Mick's acoustic picking with his sister Coco on HEADQUARTERS-era tracks like “She'll Be There" and “Midnight Train.”
David, a West End/Broadway actor, was the only member of the band who possessed no previous instrumental ability to speak of. But the other guys taught him enough basics to play rudimentary instruments on-stage, like drums (“Mary, Mary, “Goin' Down"), organ (“Circle Sky), and bass (Steppin' Stone”). In fact: