“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
In one way or another, all of us have felt utterly demoralized whenever we attempt to create our own work. We feel like we simply don’t have what it takes to even create something decent, let alone a masterpiece as our favorite artists have done. It is as though there is an esoteric barrier between us and them.
Let me emphasize that all of us feel this way — even the great artists that we look up to. But what if I told you that feeling like an amateur can work to our advantage?
For Tom Morello, the guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, playing guitar had always been his calling. He picked up the guitar when he was 13 years old, but it didn’t take long for him to give up after trying to be like his favorite guitarists, such as Ace Frehley and Randy Rhoads. Overwhelmed by all the complexities in learning music, his guitar sat in his closet for 4 years.
When he was 17, he had a revelation that shaped him into the musician we know today. He had started listening to punk rock bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and it dawned on him that they were just amateurs — they had little to no musical experience, and their level of technical ability wasn’t far from his — yet, they created some of the best songs he had ever heard of using just three or four simple chords.
Literally within 24 hours of listening to his first Sex Pistols cassette, he started his own band. They jammed in his mom’s basement, with Morello playing on a cheap Music Man guitar amplifier that he put on a chair.
Later, he got to see The Clash play live at The Aragon Ballroom. While he was used to seeing bands as huge as The Clash play with walls of Marshall amplifiers behind them, it was different this time. The Clash frontman, Joe Strummer played on the same cheap Music Man amplifier, put on a chair — just as Morello did in his own band.
There was no barrier between him and his favorite artists. It was no longer the thought of “I can do this someday“. He realized that “I’m doing it. He’s doing it. We’re all doing it.”
Perhaps it’s time we embrace the amateur mindset, or change what we think of the term when he hear it.
“We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs,” writes Austin Kleon in his book “Show Your Work!”. “But in fact, today it is the amateur — the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means ‘lover’), regardless of the potential for fame, money or career — who often has the advantage over the professional.
He adds, “Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries.”
It’s this amateur mindset that spurs new good art, that opens your mind to new discoveries that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to make if you were too busy bitching about what you don’t have, or so-and-so being better than you are. Toying with your art like an amateur allows you to make the most out of not knowing what you’re doing.
Ultimately, that’s where the most inspired forms of creativity come from — which is using as much as you can from what you have. It’s not about your resources. It’s about your resourcefulness.
It’s no coincidence that many great discoveries were made in less-than-ideal circumstances.
When Tom Morello began seriously practicing guitar, most of his peers had trendy guitars with only one knob on them, which was for volume. He was stuck with an “uncool” guitar with too many knobs — one volume knob for each pickup (the part on the guitar’s body which converts the strings’ vibrations into electric signals — toggling between different pickups gives your guitar different tones).
But he discovered something remarkable. If he turned the volume for one of his pickups all the way down, and then toggled between the pickups, it would produce a kill-switch or on-off sound effect. At the same time, if he added white noise by rubbing his hand on his guitar strings, it would then produce a scratching sound effect, similar to that in hip-hop records.
His resourcefulness also led him to seek inspiration in unusual or mundane places. Other than hip-hop records, Morello would listen to the world around him — it could be the sound of a lawnmower outside, or a TV program about World War II. He couldn’t mimic those sounds exactly on his guitar, but by doing so, he already discovered soundscapes that were unheard of on the guitar.
His catalogue of sounds that he amassed would make its way into his band’s music. As you could read in the booklets of Rage Against The Machine’s albums, “All sounds made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals.”
He remarked on playing guitar, “There’s no reason to assume that (a guitar) has predetermined limits based on the records in your collection. And it’s just basically a piece of wood with some wires and a few electronics that makes sound and you try to make sound in different ways and then make music out of that sound.”
Don’t get me wrong, though. Being an amateur isn’t an excuse for you to not expand your skills further. Instead, you should have an even greater propensity for learning your craft. For Tom Morello, it’s a must for him to practice at least 8 hours a day.
And also, just in case I haven’t made this clear enough, being an amateur doesn’t mean being a copycat of your favorite artists. It’s about having that courage to find your own voice as you use it, regardless of the level you may be at.
Instead of trying to replicate your favorite artists’ work, create your own work which you can say has those artists’ influences in it.
Tom Morello was asked what his curriculum would be, if he could teach someone to play guitar in only three months. In response, he related to a teaching experience he had in his earlier days. He would tell his students, “You’re a songwriter today”. Regardless of their skill level, Morello would teach them to write a song in their very first lesson. The point of it is to “smash that barrier between these mythical gods who make music and then there’s you who one day might hope to touch their shoes.”
He would teach them just two chords. “You decide what order they go in and how long you play each one,” he would tell them. “Boom, you’ve written a song. You and The Beatles now are both songwriters.”
He would see his students be amazed with themselves, like “Holy crap, I can write something.” He would then ask them to come up with more songs as homework, and within their first three weeks of playing guitar, they would have already written six songs.
As I close this article, let me tell you that being an amateur isn’t a bad thing. There’s no such thing as “arriving someplace” or “making it someday”. You’re already there, and you’re doing it now.
I’m always reminded of another musician, Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. I’d like to think that his most iconic guitar isn’t any one of his signature models, but instead a very cheap Fernandes copy of the Fender Stratocaster, which he got as a birthday present from his mom when he was 10 — one that he dearly named “Blue”.
He has used this well-worn, sticker-covered guitar in every single show that Green Day has played, even in their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, which is symbolic of a band making a significant dent in the music world.
Perhaps, by playing that guitar, he’s showing us that there is no secret sauce, no esoteric barrier between us and artists that have “made it”.
We’re all in the same game, and hey, we just have play it.