What Van Halen, Johnny Cash, and Guitar Say About Talent vs. Hard Work and Experience

  1. Musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, whose father gave him a cigar box guitar at five years old, learned in a community of other people who were also learning, playing, trading information, and passing down generational knowledge. Self-taught? Not a chance. They sat on stoops, porches, and curbs as their music labs, and learned the way most people learn most things—empirically—i.e. from listening and/or observation. They would have fumbled, made strings buzz, and every other mistake one makes while putting in the actual work.
  2. Eddie Van Halen was a prodigy—no one denies that. But before he ever picked up a guitar, he also took classical piano lessons starting at 6 years old and cut his teeth on Bach and Mozart. While he didn’t read music, he based his learning on watching it being done, and improvising, just like Blind Willie Johnson. A similar narrative, while untrue, persists about Mozart. I suppose we WANT to believe people who achieve things that require relentless dedicated hard work actually arise from innate ‘talent’, because it excuses our dissatisfied lack of achievement in one or more of those areas.
  3. The MYTH of Eddie, that he is entirely self-taught, invented the technique of “tapping”, etc, drives the oversimplified legend, despite the fact that he consistently denied it. Ever since then, scores of musicians who took lessons, studied books, or learned from other musicians, claim “it just came to me… I just sat down and you know figured it out… my mother always said I was special…” and add any other bullshit you want. Eddie wasn’t such a poser. He said it best (to a reporter — paraphrased): “You people seem to think we were born with guitars in our hands, and could just pick them up and play, but learning this is hard work.”
  • Some people, the best ones, we are led to believe, are born able to do it—the work equivalent of Eddie Van Halen.
  • A lot of people are greats, we are to suppose, but they actually have it pretty easy—they’re just cleverly stringing formulas together. These are the Johnny Cash-es of work.
  • A few people, perhaps the dopes, the less talented, learn from other people—if they must. This mythology says a lot about our attitudes toward education too, but that’s a topic for another time.

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Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz

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Daniel DiGriz is a digital ecologist® who tells brand stories. This profile is not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect, etc.