Natural Talent and Learning Guitar

Sometimes, when thinking about learning guitar or improving your playing, it’s easy to think of all the things we can’t do:

  • I can’t play like XYZ player
  • I’ll never play fast
  • I can’t write songs

And often, the cause of these thoughts is a belief in “natural talent”. Or more specifically, it’s the belief that:

I can’t do that, because I don’t have any natural talent

Today, we are going to take the idea of natural talent, and blast it into a million pieces.

You see, natural talent is a myth. It’s not real. But, by believing in talent, this idea has very real consequences on how far you will go with your guitar playing.

Let’s look at where the idea comes from, other guitar players experiences with “natural talent”, and the consequences of believing in talent.

Let’s start off by making a distinction:

The Difference Between Being Talented and Natural Talent

There are two ways of looking at talent - as a reflection of skill, or as a divine / genetic gift.

Talent as a Reflection of Skill

You might say that a “talented” person is someone who has achieved a very high level of skill. This could be a guitar player, a songwriter, an artist, an architect, a sales person; this could apply to any human skill.

Talent as a Divine / Genetic Lottery

The second way of looking at talent, is what we are going to discuss today, the idea of “natural talent”.

This is the idea that talent comes from someplace that is external to you, that you have no influence over. This could be divine, or genetic - two variables over which you have no control.

We’ll talk about talent, where some of the myths behind the idea come from, and I’ll also share some of my experiences about it.

What is “Natural Talent”?

Natural talent is the idea that someone has an innate ability with a skill. Natural talent is the idea that someone popped out of the womb with the ability to play guitar great from day 1. (Hopefully you are already starting to see the idea doesn’t really make any sense…)

Natural Talent Myths #1) Apples and Oranges Comparison

The first myth about talent we’ll look at is a logical fallacy - the apples and oranges comparison.

We can goto a show, and watch someone like Steve Vai on stage play incredible music without missing a note. Everything he does looks flawless, it looks so easy; everything he does seems to flow… naturally.

But when we try to do it, when we learn, it’s different. We struggle. It doesn’t come naturally to us. Sometimes, we draw the conclusion that the person we are comparing ourselves to is naturally talented… and we are not.

The reasoning goes likes this: It looks natural for Steve Vai to play, but it is not natural for me to learn, therefore Steve Vai must be naturally talented and I am not.

However, this is a logical fallacy. When we make this type of comparison, we are comparing two things that cannot be compared - our learning of guitar, to another persons performance.

We are comparing the rate at which we learn, to the results of the time they spent learning.

These are two different things.

Just like you wouldn’t compare the price of a coca cola to the price of a gold watch, and say “This gold watch is expensive compared to a can of cola, therefore it is a bad deal”, we can’t compare how we learn to how someone else performs.

So what should we compare our playing against?

Compare your playing today, to your playing yesterday, and strive to improve it just a tiny bit. Just a little. Tiny improvements every day, over the course of several years… and you will not believe the levels of playing you can reach.

Natural Talent Myths #2) Our Experience is Unique

“Oh but it’s different for me”.

Yeah? How do you know?

We are all individuals. We have our own thoughts, values and ambitions. But we are also all human. We have a lot in common. We all need to eat a similar amount, drink a similar amount, need to maintain a certain core body temperature.

So the question is - is learning something that is a similar experience for most people? Do some people learn faster than others?

Or to get to the point, the question we often ask ourselves is:

“Why do I learn so slowly compared to everyone else?”

I’m going to say that, for most of the population, we learn at a pretty similar rate. However, there are some factors that differ between people, which affect the rate of progress:

  • How well we focus on a task
  • The questions we ask ourselves while we are learning
  • The amount of time we put into a task
  • The mindset that we have in approaching a task
  • Our environment when learning

Do you think Steve Vai picks 4 notes then neurotically worries that he did it wrong, and spends 3 hours googling the “right way to do it”? Or do you think he just gets on with it? While I can’t say for sure, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Did Yngwie Malmsteen play guitar for 10 minutes a day, or did he practice relentlessly, skipping school and falling asleep with his guitar?

These areas are all areas that we can actively improve, to learn guitar faster and reach higher levels of playing.

When it comes down to it, we all learn at pretty much the same rate. By improving the above areas, we accelerate our rate of progress.

“I get what you’re saying, but what if I actually do learn slowly?”

There is one response, and two solutions to this problem.

The first is - you have to look at this like a mathematical equation. If you learn slowly, then you can still achieve high levels of playing, by putting in more practice time.

Therefore, plan out ways to increase your practice time on guitar, and you can still achieve the high levels of playing!

So what if you learn slowly? It doesn’t matter.

The second way, is to find a great teacher to help you. You might have to sift through a few different teachers to find one that works well for you. Having someone give you advice, feedback, answer your questions and help make sure that you correctly understand and practice various topics and have a plan for doing so; is a great way to accelerate your progress on guitar.

But the truth of the matter is, you don’t learn slowly. Every second you spend considering that thought is one you could have spent practising and improving. Worrying that you are a slow learner will slow down your learning! It’s a bit ironic.

Next time you catch yourself worrying about whether or not you are a slow learner, pinch yourself and just get back to business practising guitar.

Talent Myth #3) Expert Amnesia

Sometimes, talented people themselves spread the myth of talent. Have you ever watched instructional DVDs of great guitar players? I know I have… sometimes these DVDs really suck!

Let me clarify.

These DVDs have awesome licks and great ideas to work on, but they rarely explain how to play those awesome ideas. When some guitar players are asked how to play XYZ lick, they say “just do it”. When they are asked how they learned, they say they just did it.

And boom - the myth of natural talent has new life.

However, this is not quite true. This is an effect referred to as “Expert Amneasia”. This is when someone has reached an incredibly high level of ability, and cannot remember what it is like to be at a lower level. This is why sometimes, high level guitar players struggle to effectively teach beginner guitar players, because it is incredibly difficult for them to understand things form the beginners perspective.

You may have experienced this yourself when taking lessons. A teacher may give you something and tell you to play it, you struggle and then they get frustrated with you! I have one student, who had a previous teacher tell her that she probably wouldn’t be able to play guitar. She now writes her own music, can freely improvise across a variety of scales and is studying counterpoint. Not bad huh?

The effect of Expert Amnesia occurs partially due to the nature of how our minds work and how we learn. This is also not to say that, all high level guitar players are bad teachers! Not at all.

Expert Amnesia, Epistemology and Tying Your Shoe Laces

Let’s talk briefly about how we learn. We learn by taking simple ideas and integrating them together into concepts. Then we learn more advanced ideas and skills, by integrating concepts together.

For example, we learn to identify the colour brown, to identify the texture of wood and how to distinguish shapes together. When we see a certain arrangement of this sensory data, and we create the mental concept of a chair.

We learn what a chair is, what a table is, what a bench is; and we integrate these low level concepts, to form a slightly higher level concept of furniture.

Learning guitar works the same way, but we have the added complexity of a physical action in addition to building mental concepts. There is a mechanical and a conceptual side to learning guitar, and they have to be worked on simultaneously.

As a guitar example, in order to pick through a [3 note per string scale]({{ < ref “/blog/2021-03-09-3-note-per-string-scale-patterns” >}} ), we have to train two separate skills:

  • Picking on a single string
  • Controlling how the pick travels between strings

And then combine them, in order to effectively pick through a scale.

Now, imagine it took you several months to master the two basic motions of picking on a single string, and controlling the movement of the pick between strings.

Then you relentlessly shred scales for 20 years. It’s easy to imagine that you might have forgotten what those 6 months you spent on basic technique were like.

Expert Amneasia.

Another possibility is that the guitar player in question did not consciously distinguish between each element of picking through a scale. They just did it a million times until something clicked, and they found they were able to shred their scales.

The advice someone in this situation would give, based on their experience, is that you “just” need to do it a million times. And while there is certainly a strong element of repetition needed to develop a skill, consciously identifying the components of that skill and working on them individually, then integrating them together, will help you learn a lot, lot faster!

You Have Expert Amnesia Too

Take something you do every day, such as tying your shoe laces, or brushing your teeth.

Now write out a list of instructions on how to do that action.

Finally… follow your instructions exactly. Would someone who had never performed that task before be able to follow your instructions and accomplish the task?

If you wrote something like “Just do it”… then the answer is no! And you have expert amnesia. If you take 10-15 minutes, sat and thought, you could probably work out an effective list of instructions, that may take some testing, but would bring you a lot closer to conceptually understanding all the steps involved.

We’ll come back to brushing your teeth and tying your shoe laces later.

What Are My Experiences With “Talent”?

I’d never call myself talented, but others have called me talented and said very complimentary things about my playing, etc etc.

So what are my personal experiences? Was I naturally talented?

I wish!! hah.

I had no musical inclinations as a child. My family didn’t really listen to music, so until my teens I had a listening repertoire comparable to a donkey.

I struggled with many elements of playing guitar, literally for years. Learning sweep picking took me about 6 years, trying various different methods and approaches. I finally found one teacher that broke the process down for me, and I then went on to improve on his method, creating a highly effective way to not only teach sweep picking, but to also improve other areas of my technique.

That was just sweep picking. Every single other area of my playing had similar problems and weaknesses. But I kept working, kept pouring time and money into it, and, bit by bit, I improved, and I continue to improve; now helping others overcome the same problems I had… and making sure they never encounter those problems in the first place!

What Do Other Guitar Players Think About Talent?

When researching the idea of talent with your favourite guitar players, do not pay attention to what they say about talent - pay attention to what they say about what they actually did.

You may hear stories and advice from guitar players enforcing the idea of talent. I recently read one guitar player talking about how vibrato was something “you just have” or you don’t.

I have no idea if he was lying or just doesn’t know how to teach vibrato; but that is a load of rubbish. I know this for a fact after writing a vibrato training program that is highly effective and has helped many of my own students improve their own vibrato playing!

That, and the fact that I was terrible at vibrato for years! But I broke it down, worked on it, and my vibrato improved. Neat.

Now, that’s what people say… but what do they do? I bet that guitar player that implied vibrato was some divine given talent, practised it a lot.

But let’s look at stories about what guitar players actually did.

For example, you may have heard the stories about:

  • The Beatles playing clubs in Germany several times a day for years
  • Steve Vai’s 10 hour practice routine
  • Yngwie Malmsteen falling asleep with his guitar in his hands
  • Hide from Japan X taking his guitar to school to practice

And here is a jem from Michael Angelo Batio’s Instagram account:

Michael Angelo Batio talking about alternate picking and learning guitar on instagram
Michael Angelo Batio on Instagram telling us how approached alternate picking. Talent... or hard work?

Follow MAB here

Was Michael Angelo Batio naturally talented? No, he worked like an absolute dog, striving to improve… and reached the insane level of playing that he plays at today.

If you do what he did, will you reach those levels of playing too? You can bet your ass you will.

Is There Any Research on Talent That We Can Look At?

There have been a few excellent books written about talent that we can learn from. Two of my favourites are:

  • Bounce
  • The Talent Code

Both books come to the same conclusion, with different examples and a slightly different approach:

Talent is not something you are born with, it comes from relentless studying and application. Genetics (aside from some sports such as powerlifting and basketball, where the length of your bones does play a factor) do not matter.

That’s pretty much all there is to it.

And before I catch anyone whinging that their hands are too big, their hands are too small: Sit down and get back to practice!

What Are The Consequences of Believing In Talent?

Like we mentioned at the start, ideas have consequences. And believing in natural talent has very real consequences.

People that believe in talent, are less inclined to practice and study, than people that do not believe in talent.

If you believe in talent, you will put the minimum amount of effort in. You might make some gains, but eventually your progress will taper off and stop.

If you believe that skills come from hard work, you will re-arrange your life so that you can put the hours in doing that work, to obtain the skills you want. In some respects to skills, life is very much like a video game - you have to grind to level up!

This is one reason why you have to be very careful complimenting children (or your students if you teach). You want to compliment the effort and the work they put in, you do not want to compliment the result they produce.

For example, if a student plays a cool lick to you, you do not say “Wow, you’re so talented!”, you say “Wow, I can see you worked really hard on that, it sounds awesome!”.

You want to set up their reward mechanism for high quality and sustained effort.

Now You No Longer Believe in Talent… What Comes Next?

Next time you find yourself saying “I can’t do this”, or “I can’t play that”, pinch yourself, and ask the following questions instead:

  • What do I need to practice in order to play like that?
  • What do I need to study in order to know that?
  • What skills do I need to train to be able to do that?

If you can ask yourself those questions, and act accordingly, you will find there is no limit to what you can accomplish with your guitar playing.

You see, the process of becoming great at guitar, is a process of mastering small isolated elements of playing, technique and theory; and then integrating them together into higher level skills and concepts.

Just like tying your shoe laces.

Do you remember how difficult it was to learn how to tie your shoe laces? And how easy it is for you now?

Why is it so easy?

Because you do it every day, several times a day… and you have done that for years.

Mastering any human skill, is exactly the same.

Improving your guitar playing, is exactly the same.

Do you need natural talent to become a great guitar player? No! You need to work on your guitar playing everyday. That’s how you become a great guitar player.