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Is Musical Talent Overrated?


My wife and I have a long-running disagreement on the nature of musical talent.  I don't believe in innate abilities --and I obviously don't have any --whereas she believes that some people are just born with a musical gift. 

I've written previously about the stages of learning as described in the book "Mastery: The Keys to Success." These stages can apply to sports, music, business or almost any endeavor.   I believe that "brute force" practice and determination can make up for lack of innate talent in lots of different areas, whether training for a marathon or learning to play guitar.  

More recently, I've been reading Geoff Colvin's terrrific book "Talent Is Overrated" which reaffirms my views.  The book explores the myth of innate talent and how experts really develop their abilities. 

Early in the book, Colvin describes a UK study of 257 music school students that sets the stage:

The results were clear.  The telltale signs of precocious musical ability in the top-performing groups --the evidence of talent that we all know exists --simply weren't there.  On the contrary, judged by early signs of special talent, all the groups were highly similar...
Still, the students obviously differed dramatically in their musical accomplishments, and even if extensive interviewing turned up no evidence of particular talent, weren't the differing levels of achievement in themselves evident of talent?  What else could it be?  As it happens, the study produced an answer to that question.  One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.  
Specifically, the researchers studied the results of those nationally administered grade-level exams.  You would expect, of course, that the students who went on to win places at the music school --and this was a school whose graduates regularly win national competitions and go on to professional music careers --would reach any give grade level more quickly and easily than the students who ended up being less accomplished.  Thats the very meaning of being musically talented.  
But it didn't happen.  On the contrary: The researchers calculated the average hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students to reach each grade level, and they calculated the average hours needed by each of the other groups.  There were no statistically significant differences.  For students who ended up going to the elite music school as well as for students who just played for fun, it took an averaged of twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example,  The music school students reached grade levels at earlier ages than other students for the simple reason that they practiced more each day.  

Colvin goes on to describe the notion of "deliberate practice," the way in which people learn new skills through concentration and focus.   It is an approach of learning to learn, that is applicable to music, sports, business or creative endeavors.  In my experience, until you have the right approach to learning, you're just dancing in the dark.  

Deliberate practice is quite different from the usual mind-numbing playing of scales or familiar songs that you may think of as practice.  It also explains why some people never seem to get better despite years of playing the same thing over and over again.  You really have to push yourself to learn new things and practice not with your fingers, but with your mind.  These ideas are applicable to individuals and to businesses.  You can read a longer excerpt of Colvin's book at Fortune magazine.  

There are also links below to guitar DVD courses from Metal Method and Learn & Master which I consider to be quite good at helping with the deliberate practice that is essential to developing your skills.

What do you think?  Can brute force match innate talent?  Let me know...

Update: Some of these links were not working previously

Guitar Center's King of the Blues Backing Tracks


A while back, Guitar Center held a massive competition in which they crowned Kirby Kelley as King of the Blues.  Well, you might not play as well as he does (I sure don't) but you can still practice with the same backing tracks he used for his winning performance. 

Guitar Center has made available MP3 files of all of the backing tracks.  There are over 20 tracks of various blues styles --Chicago blues, Texas blues, Big Band,  Swing, Shuffle, Mambo, you name it.  Although the key is not always indicated, they are mostly in A, D, E or are fairly easy to figure out.  Check out the backing tracks and the video for some great blues inspiration!

You can also check out even more Rock and Blues backing tracks (some of dubious origin) over at  Bust out your Pentatonics and enjoy!

Thunder: Out with a Bang!

A while back, I happened to be reading a UK music magazine, Classic Rock, as I sometimes do.  English reporters and writers are the best in the world, whether it's in music, technology, business or just about anything.  One of the cool things in reading a UK magazine is you can learn about music or trends going on outside of the good old USA. 

There was a review for the UK band Thunder's latest CD called Bang!  Never heard of 'em.  But there was something about the review that sounded interesting.  I'm a classic rock kind of guy, so I thought I would check it out on Amazon.  Most of the time when I read about some new great band and listen, I'm left wanting. 

The first song off the album, "On the Radio" got my attention.  Big riffs, stadium drums, wailing guitar solo, great vocal harmonies and plenty of rock & roll attitude.  Who are these guys?   How come I've never heard of 'em?  They opened for Aerosmith 20 years ago.  They've got a loyal following in the UK and in Japan, but never really had their big break. "On the Radio" says it all. 

Record company got me a plugger
A charming man in every way
So I paid him lots of money to tell me
"It's been tough week, but what can I say?"
Working on my video
Because I can't you on the phone
So I know you're never gonna get this on the radio

People come to watch the show Thunder_3
Because my aim is straight and true
Twenty years I make a living at this
No thanks to you
And the TV too...

I never went to high school 
I was never in the NME
I got no chance sleeping with Kate Moss
What the hell is wrong with me?

Who did I forget to blow?
Should I go on a reality show?
Maybe then you'd vote for me
'Cause I can't get on the BBC

The album has a dozen cuts and all of them are great.  They cover all the essential elements of rock & roll: women, alcohol, road trips, blues, ballads, and, ah, more women.  The songs have great hooks and powerful vocals.  There's a couple of acoustic rockers including "Carol Ann" and "Turn Left at California,"  blues influenced songs like "Retribution" and "One Bullet" and some big old stadium rockers like "Miracle Man," and "Love Sucks."  Thunder may not breaking new ground, but it's a fresh take on a classic sound.  The music is authentic, up-beat and better than most of what I hear on the radio. 

But, here's the downside of discovering bands that have been slogging it out for 20 years in the UK.  A week after getting into it and before I could even write this post, Thunder decides to call it quits.  Argh!  I seem to have a habit of discovering great rock bands just before they implode.  It happened with Brainpool, The Hellacopters and now Thunder.   Still, I don't think I'm to blame.  But you never know.   Thunder will complete their current European tour as well as a series of dates in Japan in April and in the UK in the summer, and that's about it.  They've done one US gig in the last 15 years, so I'm not counting on any gigs closer than Glasgow.

Nonetheless, if you like 70's style classic rock like Bad Company, Thin Lizzy, The Guess Who, April Wine or the fictional Strange Fruit, then go get Bang!   Immediately.  An MP3 version of Bang! is available on Amazon: 12 great songs for nine bucks with no DRM.  What are you waiting for?  You can also get their previous album "Robert Johnson's Tombstone for just eight dollars.  And you can get some of their back catalog on eMusic.

Here's one of their live acoustic videos:

The Unauthorized Rolling Stones - Live

My buddy Mick (not that one) and I managed to catch The Unauthorized Rolling Stones tribute band in a local gig at Don Quixote's in Santa Cruz recently.  It's a nice small club and they serve decent mexican food and marguaritas, so it's a good time all 'round.  I always like to see a good tribute band and when the band looks and sounds the part, it makes for a fun, nostalgic evening.  I've never seen the Stones live, but I think The Unauthorized Rolling Stones do a great job.

The band came on 30 minutes late (though a more accurate tribute would have been at least 2 hours longer delay) and opened up the set with "Jumpin' Jack Flash."  They ploughed through many of the Stones hit songs, including "Sympathy for the Devil," "Brown Sugar," "Some Girls," "Beast of Burden" and others.  The first set drew from the earlier part of the catalog and the second set added more songs from the late 70s and onward, including a kick-ass version of "Start Me Up".

Musically, the band does a great, edgy version of a Stones live show.  The songs are not exactly note-by-note renditions as played on the albums; instead they are typically faster tempo and a bit more rocking.  The guitar work by Mark Banning (as Ron Woods) and Dave Garcia (as Keith Richards) was exceptional giving a Stones vibe and tone that cut through the music with force.  Banning outplayed many an arena guitarist as far as I'm concerned.

I'm not sure anyone can re-create Jagger's 70's vocals, but lead singer Johnny Moroko does a good job and is close enough to the real thing to make the whole show work.  His voice is smooth but has that Jagger twang to it when needed.  Moroko is a recent addition to the band, taking over from the original front man Rudy Colombini who has stepped down for health reasons and will be back in a couple of months time.

Check out a few of the videos below.  The Unauthorized Rolling Stones tour regularly so be sure to watch for them on tour with some upcoming gigs in California.  

Hondo Chiquita Travel Guitar

I recently picked up a unique and somewhat rare Chiquita Travel Guitar.  This guitar was designed by Mark Erlewine in the early 1980s with input from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.  The idea was to create a short-scale electric guitar that you could take as carry-on luggage and play on a bus, plane or wherever.  The guitars were manufactured by Samick in Korea and sold by Hondo, a division of IMC.   Several different colors and styles were made, including models with swtichable double-coil and single-coil pickups.

Back_to_the_future Mine is in bright yellow, same as what Michael J Fox played in the opening scene of "Back to the Future."  I must admit, when I first got the guitar and opened the hard-shell case, I burst out laughing.  It's quite something to see this bright banana-colored instrument nestled in the lush velvet interior of a case.  It's like seeing a gold record for the Ramones.  It's a great guitar but not something you need to take too seriously.

Despite it's low-cost manufacturing, the guitar is very high quality.  It has a neck-through design, a nice Schaller bridge and the original DiMarzio distortion humbucker pickup.  There's no tone control though you can back down the volume from 10 for a slightly cooler sound.  Otherwise, it's crunch all the way.

The Chiquita weighs just over 4 pounds, making it incredibly light.  It measures just 28" end-to-end, almost a foot shorter than a typical electric guitar.  The Chiquita achieves its compact size by using a short-scale of just 19" which feels like you're playing a regular full scale guitar with a capo on the 5th or 6th fret. 

Since it uses heavier gauge strings (.013) you're able to get a very good tone out of the guitar and can still play in standard tuning (EADGBE).  The Chiquita sounds great for open chords, power chords etc.  But the compact scale can take some getting used to, especially as you get to the 12th fret and beyond.  Because of the short scale, you don't have to bend very far to get a half-step or two of tone.  Which is good because the heavier gauge strings give more resistance than typical light-gauge electric strings.  But again, it's mostly just a question of getting used to it.

Unfortunately, Hondo discontinued the Chiquita in 1985 and these guitars have become somewhat rare now.    You can sometimes find them on eBay for between $250-$300.   Erlewine Guitars continues to sell high quality hand-made versions of the Chiquita, but they are quite expensive, clocking in at over $600. 

Check out the video below to see an example of the guitar in action.