They tricked us.
All of the following rock guitar gods sold tens of millions of albums.
Guitar players, like myself, believed for years that these artists had access to futuristic tools and production tactics that were out of reach for the ordinary musician.
The opposite was true.
- Eddie Van Halen’s iconic striped guitar, used to write, record, and perform some of the most legendary songs in rock history, was pieced together from factory-second parts.
- Slash recorded the ground-breaking debut album from Guns ‘n Roses using a replica Gibson Les Paul guitar. The album sold countless real Gibsons, arguably giving the company a second life.
- Def Leppard's Phil Collen and Steve Clark recorded Hysteria, the album that defined the sound of late-80s pop rock anthems, through a small plastic amp-in-a-box with a belt clip — not racks of equipment or giant amps. The few sounds available through the box created useful constraints: a setting for the ballads, a setting for rockers. That's pretty much it. They had way more time to focus on songwriting.
Why are the solutions to creative problems so often presented as a list of expensive tools, rather than a process?
Because it’s easy. It makes money. And it's simple enough to connect with any audience.
This month, YouTuber Josh Scott showed that an ugly, used guitar pedal from 20 years ago, selling for around $60 online, could sound like a $7000 guitar pedal. This caused such a stir, the price of the ugly pedal shot up 2-3X overnight. Josh's point was that you should make the most of the cheap gear you already own. His point was missed by the market.
Process wins every time.
In these examples, the constraints presented by the artists’ less-than-impressive tools are exactly what created better processes and execution.
Those constraints also produced truly unique sounds, which copycat musicians would empty their bank accounts chasing for the next several decades.
All they really had to do was make the most of what they had to create a better process.