R E writes:
Nesmith was not hired as a musician. He was hired as an actor.
His role was to play a musician, not be a musician. And to sing. The first records were cut by the best studio musicians in LA. Later the guys in the band got to play on some recordings, but the core of the sessions were always a team of studio hotshots. They made great records.
I think Michael Nesmith was more concerned with producing and singing than playing guitar or pedal steel guitar. Apparently he did multiple takes of songs that didn't even make the cut on Monkees records, songs like Nine Times Blue and Carlisle Wheeling. Plus, towards the end of his first go round with the Monkees, he was grooming himself for a solo career.
Hi, I’m noticing that other answers are concentrating on the period from 1966–67, when Mike and Peter (and to a lesser extent, Micky and Davy) fought for and eventually got creative control over the show and the music, got Don Kirshner fired, and eventually recorded the Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones albums as a real band playing their own instruments.
During this time, Mike Nesmith was absolutely playing his own instruments. Mostly guitars, though he put his turn in on keyboards and percussion from time to time. Headquarters in particular features almost no session musicians at all, with Chip Douglas (of The Turtles, working as producer) playing bass on most of the songs so Peter Tork could switch to keyboards and banjo, and play guitar on songs where Mike was using pedal steel.
Peter was always more of a guitar and keys player than a bassist anyway.
But you asked about their recordings from 1968 onward! Starting with The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees (released April ‘68), the band began to fragment. Amid hints that the show might not see a third season, the members drifted apart into their own areas of interest and quit collaborating on new music. Micky and Davy turned to other collaborators for songwriting, or brought Boyce/Hart compositions in, Mike leaned even harder on his own songs, and Peter brought in several songs that were generally ignored by the rest. In the end, each Monkee worked on their parts of the album like solo projects, each with his own hand-picked session players and only occasionally featuring each other.
During this mess, Mike also put out a sort-of-anonymous solo album. He had a LOT of songs saved up.
Which brings us to the answer to your question. Michael Nesmith was always, first and foremost, a singer/songwriter. Sure, he played a passable rhythm guitar and a quite good steel guitar, definitely no slouch in the chops department, but when he had the chance to pick session players who could make his songs sound better than he could by himself, the songs always came first. His compositions on later Monkees albums, from Birds, Bees, etc. to the Head soundtrack to the stuff they put out under the Monkees name after Peter quit in 1969, featured arrangements that didn’t fit with his playing style, so he got session players to do them. By then, at least from Nesmith’s perspective, “Monkees” was just a brand name. No longer the group, the band, they’d fought so hard to become. So his songs, and Micky’s and Davy’s as well, became more like solo project works released under the Monkees name.
After he quit The Monkees in late 1969, Mike went back to playing all his own guitars. Mostly because he couldn’t afford all those session hotshots any more.