Talent vs. Hard Work

Bass player

Photo by Juan Ignacio-Garay

Q: I have a question on talent. Here is some background first: three years ago, I took up learning electric guitar (aged 45) without any prior learning of music, instruments, etc. – truly from scratch. I took classes in a music school and practiced daily a half and hour to 2 hours every day. I did as much in the “deliberate practice” spirit as I could. I also read everything in sight and tried all sorts of approaches I found on the net. And yet, even at the start I never felt like I was making good progress. I still feel like I don’t “get” it. I have developed little instinct for guitar, I have a hard time developing musical intuitions or simple improvising. I can at times play complex things but I feel like a trained monkey doing it. I had a few attempts at jamming, which didn’t go too well either, with people yelling at me over things I thought I had practiced well. Then by chance, on one occasion, I was asked to play bass because the bassist had quit. So I dutifully bought a bass and practiced for a week using Youtube resources as a crash course. The jam went well, and so did another one. People actually turned up my amp volume even though I really didn’t know what I was doing. So I started taking bass lessons too, and here suddenly I made good progress. I focused on the basics a lot. I seemed to understand what the bass is supposed to do much more than guitar. One time my bass teacher spurted out that I was much better than the others in my grade cohort. Meanwhile when I had asked my guitar teacher about my progress he had always blushed and mumbled. I passed one of the lower school exam grades on bass within a few months. Nothing too hard but I did pass with distinction.

So getting to my question… these days a lot of people think that deliberate practice trumps everything, and that talent is secondary to sustained effort. But here is my experience with two very similar instruments – guitar: years of long practice with slow progress, little feeling of understanding and questionable results. Bass: just a few months of much less practicing, faster apparent progress, a feeling of intuition, including spontaneous rhythmic improvisation. And more fun. It seems to me that I “get” bass in a way that I don’t “get” guitar. No matter how much I was motivated for guitar or practiced hard, no matter how casual I was about bass at first (I’m serious now). Is bass just so much easier at first than guitar? Or is it possible that one can have a talent for bass but not for guitar?

Also, what to do now? Keep trying on both? Or listen to the Universe and focus on bass?

A: You’d probably enjoy a book I remember reading a long time ago, Talent is Overrated. The gist is that the book is the idea that there is no such thing as talent, only hard and focused work.

I tend to agree, for the most part. In my experience I’ve found that those that work hard (and with intention and focus) tend to be the ones who develop faster and go further than their counterparts. This has also been true in my own life. I develop more when I work more.

But I think that there is definitely an “X” factor and I think that is likely the culmination of many different things (many of which, I’m likely not even aware of). Physiology plays a role too. I think certain body types might have an easier time with some instruments than others (even down to finger length, double-jointedness, flexibility, center of balance, and so on). Not to say that anybody couldn’t play any instrument, but I know drummers who take a real physical beating when they play because they have joint issues, for example. I also know bassists with arms and fingers that are so long that it’s hard for them to find a comfortable position to play in. None of these things will stop somebody from improving but they may make it harder to go beyond a certain place in their development.

Each of us also has different ways of perceiving, cataloging and internalizing things physically and emotionally. Certain instruments may be better suited for someone more or less compulsive, for example. Certain instruments favor those who approach physical things delicately or aggressively.

These are just small examples, and in no way a list of all of the “X factors”. Your brain might just be more of a bassist’s brain than a guitarist’s in any combination of ways. Shy? There’s less spotlight and focus on the bass. Like to just keep it simple and do a solid job? Bass works for that. Some people want to be the cake, some people want to be the icing, and some people want to be the whole thing. And that’s cool. I’m a big believer that a musician also grows more quickly once they’ve acknowledged and recognized their identity or voice on the instrument. Knowing what kind of player you want to be – and not what you feel you should be for the role – is huge.

I think that those who really master one instrument as opposed to another may have found that perfect balance of all of those things. This also causes them to feel a kinship and love for playing that instrument and therefore dedicate more focused time to it.

I know that certain styles only appeal to me on certain instruments too. For me, I love playing heavy metal drums but hate playing metal bass. I love playing jazz and funk on the bass, but my body can’t feel it in the same way when I’m behind a kit.

There are so many factors involved, so the only real choice to is to follow your heart and trust that any hard work will pay off, especially when you are fully engaged and enjoying the process. If you don’t enjoy running exercises on the guitar but somehow lock into the process on the bass, then you will likely get more enjoyment and develop faster on that instrument, even if you put in the same time. Because you will be more engaged and on a deeper level with one over the other, which touches on your final question: do both if they both bring you joy. If you find that you don’t really care about the guitar anymore, then it is no big deal. The universe won’t punish you. Play bass. Do whatever makes you happy because that is what will keep you engaged in the process and allows that stuff to sync in just a little more deeply.

Have fun!

I know many of you will have thoughts on this. This is very much my opinion. What do you all think? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Choice of instrument is about what you are. I’ve been a fairly good drummer, and a singer, but bass brought me someplace like home. It’s where my heart is.

  2. There is no substitute for talent. Yes hard work and dedication are also required, but the truly talentless will always be hacks no matter how much hard work is applied.

    • Tod

      Hey Linn! I don’t necessarily agree with your statement. If you get a great teacher and not only work hard, but more importantly work smart, then progress will be made. It may take some longer to fully absorb the information, but that has nothing to do with talent. Also, if one really cares and is truly passionate about whatever it is they are learning, they’ll pick it up fairly quickly. This is simply based on my experiences in teaching and observation. Hope all is well my friend! Stay low! :-)

      • Matej

        i think talent is passion or ability to spend time behind instrument or practicing. I have friend that used to play but never practiced and music but he say that he could not practice scales etc I practice on jazz alot and he came and said bebop is terrible music. But it is hard to make it sound nice because it can sound like elevator music or just sound like lots of notes sketting no mellody (to him). later I have changed the rhythm to more straight sound playing over same changes little more straight and he to me said I really like this … how are you doing it I really like this can you teach me? It is that you have to work really hard and I believe these that have passion to sit down behind instrument and work on it or think about it ( really thinking and hearing what you think…) plus transcribing and of course messing around)

  3. The thing that immediately stuck me was that he had 3 years of working on guitar building transferable skills that allowed him to learn the bass more quickly. I would venture a guess that his perceived “faster apparent progress” could be attributed to not having to start learning a completely new, unrelated instrument from scratch.

    • Olivier B.

      I had a slightly similar experience. I was an accordion player for 8 years or so when I start learning the bass. After a month of intense practicing I was able to play with a band, and I think now after 5 years of practicing I’m good enough to play most of the stuff I’m asked to. When you learn an instrument good enough you don’t have to learn all the theorie or your years for example. It’s more like sport and muscular training in my opinion.

    • Cliff Rochester

      I agree Colin. I played rhythm guitar in a country band when I started playing over 50 years ago and developed a quite reasonable chord knowledge. I was asked to play bass with some older guys who played simple cocktail hour music in a traditional piano, bass, drums and guitar line up. I kept the volume low for few weeks but my chord knowledge and obviously the first 4 strings on the guitar being tuned the same as bass enabled me to envisage notes to choose from which I am sure shortened the learning curve. I still play bass actively over a wide genre of music and wouldn’t change for the world. I’m 72 now.

  4. Leslie

    Well I play bass (hobbiest) and my husband plays guitar (professional). So he ends up helping my learn stuff from time to time. Sometimes that is difficult because he thinks things out so differently then I do. The Bass and The Guitar have very different roles in a band so maybe it is dependent on how we analyze things that make us better on one instrument and not on another.

  5. I’ve always felt that although both talent and hard work are important, the talent portion is what makes people great. If you were to get two identical people on an instrument, and they practiced the same amount of time with the same effort, that person with the x factor will become much better in that same period. The world is full of fine musicians who have practiced very hard, but those great people, virtuosos, are born of talent. That said, people can of course squander their talent by not applying themselves, and someone with less talent but more studiousness can outstrip them.

  6. Paulo Santoa

    Great stuff and abs spot on! I play the acoustic bass (jazz) and the violin (classical), but don’t like doing the other way around. I also don’t get as much enjoyment on the electric bass as I get with the acoustic. I think we play following our gut feelings above all!

  7. Kirk Bolas

    I started playing guitar about 35 years ago. 25 years ago I bought a second hand bass and taught myself how to play. I already knew where the notes were at, arpeggio patterns, scales, basic chord forms, etc. transferred over from guitar. I learned right and left hand technique from listening to my favorite songs and figuring out how to make the same sounds by experimentation. This was all pre You Tube days. The one thing that I can’t stress enough that I had learned from my guitar days was to get out there and start playing with other people. I jammed with folks that needed a bassist in the band, played at church and so forth. I’ve found that regardless of the instrument (I learned to play banjo and mandolin), once one has the basics down, get out there and play with other folks. That’s what I can clearly attribute to my growth as an instrumentalist and musician…playing with others.

  8. Richard

    You should read Victor Wooten’s book, The Music Lesson. I think one needs some combination of both talent and hard work. I think we can all identify people with fabulous talent who don’t work hard, are unfocused, and thus never really get anywhere (and I’m not talking just about music). On the other hand, I think we can all identify people with middling “talent” who nonetheless work their asses off and who do great things (again, not talking just about music).

    I’ve had occasion to hire people over the years–my preference is always for the person who demonstrates hard work, discipline, and focus over someone who’s merely “talented.”

    As for why the questioner floundered with guitar and excelled with bass…well, as in Harry Potter, “the wand chooses you.”

    PS–I’m a 50-something who picked up the bass 10 years ago with no prior music training or talent, other than the ability to carry a tune and keep a beat. I now play in a regularly gigging band.

  9. Sandy Winnerman

    Damian, You are wise beyond your years. I, on the other hand, am years beyond my wisdom. Your columns always enlighten me.

  10. Peter

    to start out, the title “talent vs hard work” seems funny to me, cause it suggests that you’d have to choose between one of them. i guess it goes without saying that all musicians that achieved to build a solid career are / were equipped with some talent AND had their fair share of hard work… be it at home next to the metronome or learning their stuff on the bandstand, which is just as tough.
    back when i studied at the conservatory, a teacher told us his view at the topic – he said 10% is talent and 90% is work. in the case of a genius like miles davis, it’s maybe 14% talent and 86% work. i understand why it is a good thing to teach this to young aspiring musicians at university, because it motivates you to learn and lets everyone believe in themselves. but i think it’s not the truth. the truth to me is a little bit more uncomfortable (as it is often). everyone’s brains work different. like some people have a more natural approach to maths or languages, there’s people with a natural approach to music. how else could it be explained that jaco came up with ‘portrait of tracy’ at age 19? and someone who lacks talent won’t just become the next jaco if he practices more than anybody else. even worse, getting stuck with extreme effort of practicing 15 hrs per day might just make your playing technical and lifeless.
    jaco was a bad example cause his technical level was just so far out… take b.b.king. now that was a talented musician. any guitar player today could play his stuff, technically. the meaning behind those few notes he played came from his giant talent. how would you want to work on that? i’m also trying to make a point here that music is very often best when it’s just felt and not thought about – intuition. i do believe you can really become a better player when you proactively think about the way you make music. open up your ears and listen to your bandmates, dare to take risks, become as fearless as possible (but always respect the music) and take statements that are really you. those things might alter your playing more than many hours of practicing.
    i don’t want to sound negative here – yes, if you put thought into your practice routine and work on your playing, you can come very far with a little less talent. but everybody’s got a different potential, in other words, another starting point and another (possible) end point.
    anyway, i need to get back to practice ;) have a good one!

  11. Thanks Damian for the thoughtful reply, and the great comments below.

    The idea of transferable skills came up and I am sure that helped some. One of these skills ironically is that on instrument #2 is that you don’t repeat the practicing mistakes made on instrument #1, such as: skipping steps, trying to play too fast or too complex too soon, practicing abstract components (scales, arpeggios) w/o a clue where to apply them etc. Maybe on instrument # 2 you now know how long you must focus on the basics. I spent the first 6 weeks on bass mostly on right hand training (and your, Damian’s, rhythm subdivision exercises). And ongoing.

    I might add one more thing. Without trying to flatter anyone here but the people I meet in the online bass community tend to be on the kind and helpful side. In guitar communities I find a lot more of the boastful and aggressive types. I feel bad for reinforcing the stereotype but I came to this conclusion post hoc. I had no idea it would pan out like that.

    • I like the comment: “the wand chooses you”

      I believe that it is your character which leads you to an instrument. Look at all the bassists-, drummer-, guitar player and singer’s jokes – it’s always some certain character which let you play a particular instrument. And I think because of it you know your role inside the band and “get” the instrument. And how good you are on your instrument are (in my opinion) secundarly your technical skills. To play the right tone at the right time, support the song to a higher level and put your whole soul inside – that’s a great musician!

      To come back to your point that the people in the online bass communities are more kind:
      Bass players are not the ones in the spotlight (most of the cases not recognized by the audience what this guy is really doing in the band), we let the others shine! we build the foundation of the band! And because of this we are also more kind and helpful in the online communities;)

  12. Jose Luiz

    This reminds me all my “fight” to play the electric guitar( solidbody, hollowbody,etc)
    and the way i feeel my self comfortable playing nylon strings guitar and the electric bass.
    Sometimes i think the instrument chooses you, not the other way around.
    As you mentioned about the players with long arms and fingers: sometimes i think our body
    can be easily adapt to some types of ergonomics than others.
    Anyway, i believe in a balance between talent and hard work and i also think if you really love to play, you will find the way in any instrument . Today, i can play some Pat Metheny licks better in the bass than i could play in my entire life on the guitar. I’m 51 years-old man.
    In time: thank you Damian to share your knowledge and talent.

  13. Thank you. Very awesome question and answer. I can totally relate. Piano and Keys for 7 years, got no where. Been on the Bass about 7 months. Dedicated like never before. My creativity has truly blossomed and my sound is developing in a way that makes me feel very good.

  14. Gerardo Zúñiga

    People in general but musicians most of all, always talk about virtuous artists tending to confuse what exactly the term “virtuosism” means. For me there are two kinds of virtuosism: natural virtuosism and acquired virtuosism. This is kind of a double-sharped topic because some people’s virtuosism is being really really disciplined, therefore they become great professionals because of their capacity to work really hard. In my case, I consider myself a “talent” person; that guy who never really cared much about school but always had good grades without much effort. That have changed since I took my bass playing and musicianship seriously, “forcing” myself to study and practice from 2 to 4h per day. I’m currently 20 y/o, have been playing for around 2 years and seriously studying since june last year. I have to say I’m getting GREAT results combining my natural capacities with other academic resources that I’ve been working on my own to improve my lack of discipline.(study schedules, time organization, applying theory in context…). So my advice is, use your strengths to improve your weaknesses!

  15. MW

    Fair enough assessment. I guess you can also bring in the subjective argument about which qualities in ones music (either written or performed) will count towards a judgement of talent, accomplishment, and virtuosity. I know many many players that are technical whizzes having put in an amazing amount of practice, but who cannot write a moving song (once again a subjective judgement) to save their lives. What they can do is compose pieces that showcase their skills, but from my point of view, I have no interest in listening to that. Someone with even less tolerance may not even care about all of that technical ability and completely dismiss them altogether. To tell you the truth I have come across a FAR greater number of musicians that are fantastic technical practitioners than those who can somehow grip you with a few notes. That is where I think the “X factor” is, and that is something that I don’t really think you can “practice.” When you have both, that can lead to something great.