What Van Halen, Johnny Cash, and Guitar Say About Talent vs. Hard Work and Experience
Our myths about creativity and creative work feed a mythos we have about work in general. That mythology can be summarized by 2 prevalent delusions about playing the quintessential instrument of popular music—the guitar.
Myth 1: You can play guitar with 3 (or some number of) chords.
Heard in countless coffee shops: “You know, a lot of songs are just 3 chords. Johnny Cash played all his life with 3 chords. If you know those chords, you can pretty much play guitar your whole life that way.”
Myth 2: Most of the greats are naturals who are self-taught.
Said in countless diners: “You know, if you’re a natural, you can learn by ear. Eddie Van Halen never took lessons. A lot of the greats are self-taught.”
These comments are so common as to be axiomatic. I can’t tell you how many people, spit these out as what they know about guitar. There’s a kernel of truth in both comments, but a lion’s share of false assumptions. And they’re not just assumptions about music, but about WORK in general.
First, as to the music…
The music = x# of chords myth: Playing an instrument is not about stringing chords together. It may be that the Xbox game Guitar Hero has the player forming chords in a particular order, but that’s because the gamer is holding a plastic guitar with no strings. And because it’s a game. It’s making music the way miming sex is having it.
Music is about rhythm, melody, timing, tone, and a host of different things that neither require chords nor are replaced by them. Music involves improvisation. Techniques like swing and syncopation far exceed memorizing a chord chart. Knowing WHICH chords you might want to base a song upon and how they can be modified, transitioned, or augmented requires at least rudimentary music theory, and no musician whose record we ever heard of lacks that much. Not even Richard John Williams of Kansas.
You cannot become a musician playing three chords. Johnny Cash played a hell of a lot more than three chords. He modified chords. He played single notes. He arpeggiated. He did alternate picking. You could fill a book. And he had sufficient knowledge of theory to do these things. So did Blind Willie Johnson and anyone else we can think of.
The “learn three chords and take your guitar to a coffee shop” singer-songwriter myth, frankly, cheapens the work required to effect even basic songs. It’s why the average singer-songwriter lasts ten minutes, and there are so many brand new Yamaha guitars and practice amps on eBay.
As to the “natural musicians are self-taught” myth, which seems to suggest that, for the talented, it comes easily (i.e. ‘naturally’)… For every epic musician who figured out a few things, there are 100 that took lessons and/or studied music. This myth is best countered with examples:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
Lastly, on this point, ALL musicians learn by ear. Beethoven might have lost his hearing, but he started out with it. Neil Young, Pete Townsend, and countless musicians of the genres I love, blew their hearing or contracted tinnitus from what those Marshall stacks will do to you without protection. But they LEARNED with their hearing engaged. Precisely because music is not some formulaic combination of chords, they have to be able to tell what they are doing tonally, in what key, to create sustain, to overlap notes, and so many other things.
One could sum it all up with: all learning of music involves learning from others, learning by ear, and learning through deliberate, dedicated hard work. No one is born doing it. A similar truth applies to excellent work of any format.
Our myth of work, like our myth of creativity, derives from an illicit devotion to the concept of talent.
We are led astray by myths about talent.
- 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.
Talent, you ask? Talent grows on trees. It’s ubiquitous. It’s cheap. We can find it collecting coins on street corners. It works thirty stories up, doing construction. It’s in prisons and mental wards. We can lift a rock and get talent.
Talent is what you have when the teachers in school keep patting you on the head and saying “you have potential… you can do anything you want… you can go far…” And then school ends, and no one is buying talent. They’re buying something more expensive… experience and a proven track record of actual ability. Resumes are replete with internships demonstrating that fact.
“Potential” is talent without work, and it can’t beat out competitors for a job or a client. Talent, without work, is hypothetical*. To be realized, talent has to produce the same thing non-talent does—demonstrated output in the form of examples. In other words, talent-be-damned, doing anything worth doing, takes concerted, relentless hard work.
Anything worth doing is worth doing as work. It’s a maxim I still swear by.
I don’t want things in my life you can trip over and fall into, and I don’t have them. I hear it a lot: “you’re talented, you’re brilliant, you’re clever…” But what if everything I have achieved has less to do with BEING something and more to do with WORKING at it? What I can do is because I have never stopped doing it.
As for learning, my own comes from a mix of formal study, learning from others, and improvisation. I still use the logic I studied in college in my daily work. I watch other entrepreneurs and investors go at problems and learn from their results. And I improvise my own techniques and bring my own flavor to the problems I solve for others.
There are people who frame it as wizardry, and others who try to pick it up (as though it were just a few chords) from a list of “best practices”. It’s neither innate magic nor a list. Whatever I have has arisen entirely from the union of God’s mercy, the generosity of a community of relationships, and hard work. That’s where everything I value comes from, including music.
* And hypotheticals aren’t real.