September 7, 2008 by Lee
What is natural talent?.
If you think hard enough about it you might come to the conclusion that natural talent would be more accurately described as just natural luck. I’m a five foot ten weed and weigh around ten stone, if it was my dream to become a world class heavyweight wrestler then it’s a pretty safe assumption to say it will never happen, I simply don’t have the weight or the strength and very likely never could have. If I wanted to be a contortionist performing in a circus it’s just as unlikely I would ever get the job. Very few people will consider a wrestler or contortionist to do what they do because of natural talent, sure they both need to train to become good at it and we accept that without question.
Before I carry on with this, note I am not saying there aren’t some people that seem to have that “magical” element and they excel at amazingly fast rates to an amazing level. These people do exist without doubt but they are among the few, not the many.
So let’s forget about the amazing minority and concentrate on the rest of us and our quest to reach good levels of musicianship. I’ll divide them up into six categories.
- Absolutely gifted, very few people ever reach this level
- Highly professional
The playing ability of each category isn’t important, these are hypothetical just to make a point but lets say Virtuoso is just about as good as you could expect to get, gifted goes a notch above virtuoso that very few people can ever reach, highly professional is what most would consider as good as you ever need to be, professional is very good and competent, amateur is all round reasonable and novice has gained enough experience to play in a simple band. These are levels I have made up and are purely fictional so don’t use this as a way to grade yourself!
There’s a great deal of guitarists that have been playing for many years and never manage to go much beyond novice, or maybe just about reach amateur level. Some will remain happy at this level but many will get disheartened by younger and less experienced guitarists overtaking them in relatively short periods of time, putting it down to natural talent. It’s easy to get disheartened if you have put in many years of hard work and practice to then watch somebody overtake you in no time at all. Believing this is because you don’t have the natural talent seems the obvious reason. The fact is however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Unlike the wrestler or the contortionist that require certain physical builds such as height, weight, above average strength or double jointedness (is that a word!), the professional guitarist comes in all shapes, sizes and disabilities. There are professional musicians that are small, tall, fat, thin,weak, strong, big hands, small hands, thin fingers, fat fingers, some are blind and some have only one arm and/or missing fingers. I could go on but you get the point!
The thing here is most people have the physical abilities required to get to a professional and maybe even virtuoso level and this includes those that have played for years and never got much further than novice.
Natural talent shouldn’t really be discarded as a myth but certainly should be looked into more deeply than just shrugging it off as an excuse. I’m not going to argue that natural talent does not exist but I will argue that if it does then it is definitely not a requirement for reaching most of the levels described above, it is probably a requirement for reaching the gifted level and I have no opinion on virtuoso but I do believe that anyone with the right dedication could probably reach virtuoso.
To make this whole subject less arguable let’s consider the professional level, one that most novices and amateurs would be quite happy to reach. The fact they have already reached novice shows that they already possess most of the abilities required to reach a professional level and probably the only things missing are belief and desire. I would argue that the following list amounts to virtually every requirement needed to reach a professional level.
- Arms (not necessarily both)
- Fingers (not necessarily all of them)
- Good reflexes
- Desire / dedication
- Knowing the difference between constructive practice and repetition
- Time to gain experience
As arrogant as that list might sound sound, it really is the basic requirements and most people possess them all. Obviously the person with disabilities will have a harder time and maybe require more belief than the rest but they do not let that stop them because of desire.
So what is it that makes a great guitar player?. Three obvious things are..
1. Actual music skills and knowledge gained by theory and experience (The music theory vs non theory debate is irrelevant here). You don’t need to have super intelligence, pretty much everybody has this ability, if anything is lacking here it would be not having enough real interest and maybe a lack of understanding the real difference between experience and just plain repetition.
2. A good ear. This is one of those things that’s not quite fully understood and a lot of people will believe they don’t have this ability. Understanding the requirements of a good ear needs to have it’s own subject but for now just accept this doesn’t mean perfect pitch (although that would be nice) and everybody has the ability to train their ear, in fact if you have been playing guitar for a while then it’s quite likely you have already trained your ear to an extent without even realising it. If you have ever heard yourself or other musicians accidentally play a wrong note then you already have basic listening skills, otherwise you wouldn’t have known it was a wrong note!
3. Technique. This is the big one because it’s the one that most believe you can only reach high levels with by natural talent. The two main things that the novice might struggle with are finger flexibility and speed. It’s unfortunate that speed is always used as a reference to judge a musicians ability but that’s the way it is so speed is what I might as well talk about here, although in this case, it probably does make quite a good example as finger flexibility is very much related.
Two points to consider.. it’s very important to believe that speed as well as the flexibility to finger various chord shapes rely on muscle memory and can only be gained accurately by repetition and slow practice. Practice does not make perfect unless it’s perfect practice and perfection can only be gained at slow speeds, this is a fact.
The second point goes a bit deeper and is about posture and relaxation. Most guitarists that spend a long time playing guitar and still have trouble playing anything fast or still can’t manage to finger certain chord shapes without difficulty are not lacking natural talent but are restricting themselves in one way or another by being too stiff or simply holding the guitar wrong. It’s very important at this stage to discard all cliché responses like “yeah well Hendrix had his thumb over the neck”, “Angelo anchors his pinkie”, “Doc Watson picks from the elbow”, “his wrist is always bent” etc etc.. It is all completely and utterly irrelevant. This is the most important thing that you need to start beleiving in.. “EVERYBODY IS DIFFERENT”.
If you cannot do something then you have either peaked your level or in some way or another you are practicing incorrectly and allowing your body position, shape, tension, posture, hand placement or whatever to cause you restrictions. Unless you are already among the professional levels then it is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY that you have peaked your physical abilities.
One thing worth noticing with the novice who believes he possesses no natural talent is to observe how he holds and plays the guitar? It’s very unlikely to be anything resembling any of the recommended methods which often look “uncool” and are avoided or just simply not taken notice of. Again forget the arguments, there are many guitarists that contradict all the recommendations but you are not other guitarists, you are you, and if you are having trouble with something then you need to figure out what it is and find ways to correct it.
Speed and flexibility relies on many different things within the body to all work efficiently together in perfect synchronisation controlled by the brain and every one of them needs to be as relaxed as possible in order to not create restrictions that work against you. Everybody’s biological make up will have differences, different shapes and sized muscles, finger lengths. joint locations, thought processes etc.
The person that is considered to have a natural talent in most cases has nothing more than pure luck that the requirements to play the guitar efficiently have fallen perfectly in line with the way he controls, relaxes and positions his body naturally. Everybody else has to work out what is holding them back to put them in the same place as the person who has “natural talent”. The recommended methods of holding and position yourself around the guitar is an all round method that should put most people into a less restrictive position so even if you don’t end up playing this way eventually it is certainly a place you should start from at the very least, this will put you a step closer to efficient playing.