October 22, 2010
The Rewards For MasteryOne thing that the vast majority - indeed, probably the entirety - of the world's greatest rock and jazz guitar players have in common is that they all spent many thousands of hours by themselves in their bedrooms practicing.
During this time, they were not getting rich, they were not getting famous, and they were not getting laid.
Now, the guitar's kind of a romantic instrument. The girls love a guy with a low-strung strat bashing out those power chords.
Take it too far with the technical ability, though, and most girls completely lose interest. Strum a few open triads like Pete Docherty and you'll be packing venues and pulling supermodels. Throw in a couple of interesting seventh chords and a bit of melodic minor and you'll be playing to a small audience of hardcore music fans, almost all of them in possession of a penis.
In music, technical and artistic mastery is the surest route to financial mediocrity and relative anonymity. Just ask Chris Poland. ("Who?") The more interesting your music is, and the more practiced and fluent your playing, the less albums you'll sell and groupies you'll attract.
So why in Hades would anyone do it? I mean all those thousands of hours of hard work and dedication - blood, sweat and calluses - to end up playing smokey little clubs to a bunch of sweaty, nerdy blokes.
I'll tell you why. They just couldn't help themselves. They learned the four open chords needed to play 99% of all pop music. The world was their oyster. But somehow they just weren't happy stopping there. It got boring. And they knew in their heart of hearts that they weren't fit to wipe the snot off Al Di Meola's shirt sleeves.
So they kept going. They learned some blues riffs and learned to bend the string and soon they could play 99% of blues and rock, too. They knew they should have stopped there. I mean, Hendrix got the chicks. So did Clapton. But they still weren't happy.
They kept on going. They learned their diatonic scales and modes. They learned 7th chords and 9th chords and sus4 and sus2 and aug and dim and they learned their jazz scales and got into proper alternate picking and sweeping and legato runs and really worked on their vibrato.
And the music they were making was really, really wonderful and interesting. To about 12 guys.
And at this point, someone's bound to say "well, they should have made music for the masses" and then they'll bang on about "value" and "giving the customer what they want" and how that's the real art etc etc etc.
But here's the thing. The guy who dedicates himself to learning - really learning - the guitar, and who constantly strives to create something more interesting or more challenging or more surprising or more beautiful than the last thing he created, is never going to be happy bashing out 4 chords, no matter how good the money is or how hot the chicks are. Not ever.
When they dedicate themselves to mastering something, they're striving for something that's of most value to them; more valuable than money, or fame, or unlimited amounts of uncomplicated sex (okay, maybe not that last one). And there will always be a minority who, despite all the temptations, just can't help wanting to get better. Without those "nerds" - be they guitar nerds, acting nerds, sports nerds (yes, if you get up every day at 5am to swim 1000m, you're most definitely a swimming nerd) or programming nerds - life would be an enormous sea of utter mediocrity; one big, flat, dull grey ocean of average.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye that's exactly what life does look like. But those who have developed an ability to distinguish shit from shinola can spy those tiny little volcanic islands of true greatness from a thousand miles away. Reaching those islands is what they live for. Maybe they never will. Maybe they get to one and after a while they see another, even better island and jump back in and start swimming again. Because they're just built that way.
And maybe this sounds like a pretty miserable existence to someone who is happy playing the same 4 chords, or who's happy listening to the same 4 chords. But to them I say this: what about the people who need more from their music? More variety. More surprise. More innovation. More richness and complexity. What of them if everybody decides that 4 chords is plenty?
Somebody somewhere is buying Steve Vai albums. Indeed, his biggest solo album, "Passion & Warfare", went double platinum in 1990 and he's done a pretty brisk business since then and has a big international following. Even Chris Poland seems to get by quite happily. And, of course, when one of the 4-chord wonders needs a session guitarist to do a "fiddly bit" or "make rock guitar noises" on their next smash-hit record, who do they call? And if you want to learn guitar, do you go to someone who knows just 4 chords? A really great guitarist can make a decent living, even the ones you've never heard of.
If enough people out there can spot the shinola, and want the shinola, then you have a market for shinola. And some would argue that anyone who can make a decent living doing something they truly love - something they'd be doing even if they never made a dime out of it - then such a person is very lucky indeed.
I, too, consider myself very lucky that I can earn a living doing something I love, even though my commitment and dedication to creating shinola is not always appreciated, and even though I have a very long way to being a Steve Vai of programming (yes, they do exist, I think), and though I know I'd make considerably more if I just went out and got certified in those 4 chords that an army of consultants seem to trade on. Good luck to 'em, I say. They're welcome to it. For me, the growing number of developers and companies who are learning to tell the difference represents a market - a market for better software, and for the training and coaching they might need to help them produce their own shinola (which is the bit I really get a kick out of).
Never underestimate the satisfaction of a job well-done.
Posted 10 years, 5 months ago on October 22, 2010