The Technique Trap: Why You Might Need a WORSE Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Thursday 18 August 2022

Jetglo Rickenbacker 330 next to Fireglo Rickenbacker 330 in front of Vox AC30 amplifier and acoustic piano

In the land of Rick it's not black and sunburst - it's Jetglo and Fireglo. Everything about these beautifully-crafted, cellulose-finished Rickenbacker 330s is individual, but they do not tick the average player's ease-of-use box...


There's never really been a scientific explanation as to why hot lead guitarists are less likely to be great songwriters than the strummers. But they definitely are. In fact, it often seems that the less technique musicians have, the more interest the pop industry has shown in them.

An archetypal example is Herbie Flowers - the UK's most popular session bassist of the 1970s. In his own words, Flowers got started in pop music by "luck", turning up for a 1967 bass session for a bunch of unknowns called The Scaffold, and finding one Paul McCartney - actually the brother of group member Mike McGear - in the producer's seat.

"Your brain tends to write much better songs than your fingers."

The resulting single - Thank U Very Much - gave The Scaffold instant success, charting at No. 4. And from there, Flowers led a charmed life, as A-lister after A-lister chased his Midas touch. Bowie, Bolan, Blue Mink, Elton John, John Williams, David Essex... You name them. And aside from his vast catalogue of credited appearances, he played on many records uncredited. He's even on Bay City Rollers tracks. It was as if anyone who discovered him, instantly wanted him. Perhaps his most glorious contribution, the four-stringed hook that hallmarked and chartbaited Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side, was a masterclass in the effectiveness of brain over braun. It was the key ingredient. For many listeners, it was the song.

But speaking to International Musician magazine in 1978 for what was his first ever interview, Flowers outright dismissed his ability...

"I'm not very serious about bass playing or the music business or any aspect of it [...] I'm not really good at playing the bass."

Sharp observers of culture will notice that the art of self-promo has moved on a tad since the 'seventies.

Flowers' former statement was certainly true. He wasn't very serious. Exhibit A: he'd just released a record called Don't Take My Bass Away. But the latter statement? No way! Herbie Flowers had an innate knack of perfectly underpinning chartbound pop records. When he said he wasn't very good, he really meant that he wasn't a technical virtuoso.

And he proved his point around a decade later, when he daringly strolled into the limelight to play completely unaccompanied on Bruce Forsyth's gameshow You Bet, of all programmes. In a prime time TV hellscape that was difficult to watch, Flowers fell well short of what, in the context of the challenge, were wildly elevated expectations. By then, people expected a pro bass soloist to sound like Mark King, and Flowers definitely could not play like Mark King. Even Forsyth appeared bemused with the lack of spectacle from a guy with such a mammoth reputation and long, eminent client list.

But maybe Flowers had been such a roaring success in the 1970s precisely because his technique was limited. If he'd had the chops of Stanley Clarke... Well, he'd probably have bagged a nice clutch of artist awards, but would he have had hit-factories on the blower every week, begging him to bang another goal into the back of the net? Whilst Flowers could never have been Stanley Clarke, equally, Clarke could never have been Herbie Flowers.

Headstock of 1960 vintage style Fender Jazz Bass in plack-lined case

According to Herbie Flowers, all you needed to become the UK's leading session bassist in the 1970s was one of these, the ability to crack jokes, and the willpower to resist changing the strings more than three times in two decades.


This raises the far-reaching question of whether technique is actually detrimental to big-picture creativity. Is technique a trap? Do spectacular players so frequently fail to write memorable songs because their technical ability proves too great a temptation, and thus serves as a constant distraction? And if that is the case, can technically accomplished guitarists combat this problem by using instruments that simply don't allow them to noodle? If so, what might those instruments be?

"There are various ways to forcibly restrict your playing options without embarking on a spending spree."

Rickenbacker guitars have for long been associated with a fairly strong regime of anti-noodling discipline. In 1982's Complete Guitar Guide, the Rick 330 got the lowest review score in the book, faring even worse than a Satellite 90T! Just look at those gorgeous things at the top of the post, and imagine them losing to a cheapie Satellite in a review shoot-out! But the reason given was simple and logical. The Rickenbacker's useability and versatility straightforwardly failed to meet contemporary players' expectations.

The Rickenbackers' super-slim necks are highly unusual, with closely-spaced strings making elaborate rock lead breaks difficult. But that's exactly why people like Tom Petty used them to write songs. Without the constant temptation to noodle, the work is done by your brain. And your brain tends to write much better songs than your fingers.

The history of Rickenbacker's six- and twelve-string electrics has, unsurprisingly, been light on virtuosos. But it's packed to the rafters with songwriting titans, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Who, The Byrds, Patti Smith, Steppenwolf, The Heartbreakers and The Jam. And the Rick remained - to use Johnny Marr's choice of word - an "inspiring" songwriter's tool moving into the latter 20th century, with groups such as The Smiths, The Bangles, The Smithereens and Heatmiser.


This is not necessarily evidence that technique is a trap, or that musicians whose chops have in some way been tamed will outperform the Hendrixes and Malmsteens in the songwriting stakes.

But the paradigm also works across genres, and across playing trends. For example, in genres such as jazz, prog rock and heavy metal, where guitarists have been expected to display dazzling technique, you might find one really catchy, clingy, chartable song on an original album. But in genres such as soul, mod and folk, where the guitarists have considered themselves a blend-in component of the big picture, an original album will more typically carry numerous hummables.

Likewise, songwriting has shown a historical, era to era inverse between songwriting and technique. Indeed, there was an instant decline in songwriting quality when the Blues Boom of the late 1960s sparked a rapid quest for flashier guitar technique. Blues is one of my favourite types of music, but I'm not gonna pretend the songs that came out of the Blues Boom were any match for those that the R&B, soul, surf and mod-influenced bands were writing before it.

As the solos wailed, finding reliable hitmakers became a desperate quest. That's one of the reasons the UK recording industry drove bands towards hit-factories, with back-office songwriters. There was a sense by the 1970s that young rock bands could not be relied upon to pen classic chartstormers. There were so many one-hit wonders. Slade were a dependable hit machine, but their guitarist Dave Hill was certainly no Hendrix, Page or Clapton. Musically, Slade were far more an ancestor of punk than of heavy metal.

And it was punk - technically an incredibly basic genre - that to a large extent put the lid on those back-office songwriters. Punk's aftermath produced the most vibrant period of UK songwriting since the mid 1960s. The evidence is still only circumstantial, but given the volume of it, it's very difficult to argue that limited technique does not correlate with better big-picture creativity.


I honestly believe that limiting the potential to noodle on a guitar stimulates thought - and whether or not that results in a brilliant song, more brain power can only be a good thing.

And you don't need to dash out and buy a Rickenbacker. There are various ways to forcibly restrict your playing options without embarking on a spending spree. Trying different tunings must rank among the best. That's about the nearest an experienced guitarist can get to the often golden creativity-mine of not knowing what they're doing. And if you do try writing with an alt tuning, you don't have to retain the tuning after the song is written. The aim is only to force yourself to do things you wouldn't normally do. That sparks a continuing voyage of "what do I do next?", which keeps your brain moving and prevents your fingers from taking over. Once your new creation has risen, you can change the tuning back to re-establish a comfort zone.

Another really good ploy - although it's probably not ideal if you don't have a spare guitar - is to fit considerably heavier strings with a wound third. Because this quickly stops you from trying to bend strings, your brain is re-engaged every time you're ready to lapse into a lead break. You think rather than noodle. You'll want the lighter strings again when you come out of songwriting mode, which is why it's best to fit the heavy strings to a spare.

A technically more restrictive guitar is also an option, and they can often be found going cheap. I wouldn't, however, recommend picking up a virtually unplayable guitar, because even though you need limitation, playing the instrument still needs to be comfortable and pleasurable. If the strings are hacking into your fingers and the neck is slowly but surely giving you tendonitis, your mood is unlikely to be conducive to enhanced creativity.

Above all, it's worth simply being conscious of how much noodling you're doing, and making the effort to control it.

There will always be the exceptions that prove the rule. The Brian Mays of this world, who have brought immense technique to the party, whilst also possessing a phenomenal ability both to write and to integrate into truly classic songs. But in music, habit is a poison, and the brain must always remain in control. Technique is indeed a trap, which only an equal measure of discipline can escape.