Tuning Up: Screw “5 Things Every Guitarist Should Do” Lists

PG chief editor Shawn Hammond on why guitar-playing listicles are bad-news bears that push his filthy-mouth buttons.

I've lost count of how many times I've ranted about garden-variety “listicles" and clickbait headlines leading to worthless online bullshit, but the sad truth is that now it's becoming more and more prevalent from guitar-oriented sites, too.

"5 Licks Every Guitarist Should Know!"

"9 Scales Only Dipshits Can't Blaze On!"

"17 Pedals You're a D-Bag for Not Owning!"

I'm obviously making these up—but just barely.

Theses things push my filthy-mouth buttons. I hate these friggin' lists. It's hard for me to believe that—like their counterparts on everyday subjects—90 percent of them aren't crapped out in five seconds under the vengeful eye of some bean-counting overlord or editorial slave driver, or by the latest over-caffeinated social-media-sensation wannabe. But to me even the ones that aren't full of fluff, even the ones that accurately analyze some musical point or another, are bad-news bears.

I know what you're thinking: "Whoa, there, Shawn-boy—who pissed in your Verena Street Cow Tipper coffee this morning? They're just headlines vying for eyeballs amongst a potential viewership whose attention is increasingly fractured by today's snappy digital lifestyle. No one should take them literally." Maybe, Ms. Very Articulate Mind Reader. But a lot of players out there really buy into this hyperbolic crap (craperbole?).

So exactly why do I hate these lists so much? Well, I can tell you that it's not just because they're arrogant and condescending. It's also because they're mind-bogglingly blind to the folly they peddle. They teach us to be lemmings. Every one of these listicles leads to things someone else already did better than you or I ever will.

"[Da Vinci] disdained 'trumpets and reciters of the works of others,' and tried to live by his own dictum: 'Better a small certainty, than a big lie.'" —Leonard Shlain

Given that we're here to talk about guitar and music, an ostensibly creative endeavor, it's worth taking a lesson or three from what we know about perhaps the most creative person humanity has ever known: Leonardo da Vinci. A peerless scientific genius whose inventions were centuries ahead of their time, he possessed a restless curiosity and keen intellect that altered the course of human history. He was also one of the most gifted, insightful, and prolific painters and sculptors of all time—a master of anatomy, perspective, and how they reflect and affect emotion.

Yet, as Bulgarian New Yorker (and MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow) Maria Popova points out in her always-astute BrainPickings.org blog ("Leonardo's Brain: What a Posthumous Brain Scan Six Centuries Later Reveals About the Source of Da Vinci's Creativity"), he was also the opposite of everything a 15th-century listicle would've prescribed for success. Gay during a period when it was punishable by death, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a wealthy playboy who later cruelly took him from his birth mother and treated him as something far removed from a son. Further, as a bastard child, da Vinci was not allowed to attend church-run schools of the day. Yet he went ahead and became the original Renaissance man anyway.

As Popova points out in her commentary on the late surgeon/inventor Leonard Shlain's 2014 book, Leonardo's Brain: Understanding Da Vinci's Creative Genius, all of these "disadvantages" and disconnections from the orthodox route to success in the 1400s likely preserved the unique natural aptitudes that led to Leonardo's place in history. As Shlain put it:

Unimpeded by the accretion of misconceptions that had fogged the lens of the educated, Leonardo was able to ask key questions and seek fresh answers. Although he could not quote learned books, he promised, "I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters." He disdained "trumpets and reciters of the works of others," and tried to live by his own dictum: "Better a small certainty, than a big lie."

"The source of Leonardo's extraordinary creativity," Popova posits, "was his ability to access different ways of thinking, to see more clearly the interconnectedness of everything, and in doing so, to reach a different state of consciousness…."

Food for thought next time you see one of those confounded listicles talking down to you from its perch on high, eh? Instead of falling for the bait, flush that cyber craperbole and hit the woodshed to start chiseling out your own "small certainty" based on what sounds and feels right to your ears, not some blathering blowhard.

[Updated 7/29/21]

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