Why We Love Innovators


Jimi Hendrix played his guitar backwards and upside down. Look at headstock and cutaways–that’s not a left-handed guitar, that’s a right-handed guitar worn “wrong”. But then the strings are put on backwards, so the highest string is still on the bottom: see ~1:48. Oh, and it’s tuned a half-step low.

Eddie Van Halen is playing a customized guitar–notice the humbucking pickup at the bridge. And he’s playing through a modified head on the amplifier, to get that particular kind of distortion. And he’s playing ‘wrong’, with both hands on the fretboard and not even using the pick.

In 1817 Beethoven (no live video clip, sorry) was shipped a state-of-the-art Broadwood piano, bigger, louder and more responsive than anything else at the time. And he played it ‘wrong’, big crunchy chords in both hands, dense crowded handfuls of notes down low in the bass. The works from this period are hard to play, some of the most difficult pieces in the standard repertory.

In 1966 George Harrison recorded a guitar solo that would be used **backwards** on the recorded tracks, for “I’m Only Sleeping” for the Beatles’ album ‘Revolver’. In order to make this come out right with the normal tracks, Harrison had to imagine the notes in reverse time-order. This is ferociously hard; his engineer later described long grueling late-night sessions as the Beatle worked it out note by note.

This singer is doing an arrangement which has her doing a call-and-answer with her own voice. Listen deeply to the cadence that starts at 1:33. Composer Yasutaka Nakata writes it ‘wrong’: there is a “pre-echo” of the main vocal part that arrives ‘too early’, then the main part arrives. But Nakata has so arranged his melody that the pre-echo serves as a harmonization against the main vocal line. This is what in J.S. Bach would be called a ‘canon’, overlapping a theme with itself–the most difficult form of counterpoint.

Now go back and deep-listen again. Lean in, right through the whole cadence. If you have good speakers and good ears, you’ll hear the post-echo, the same line again, *following* the main vocal, mixed very low. And it still works harmonically. Triple-layer canon. That’s crazy hard composition. And getting the melody early to the chord resolution of the cadence is of course ‘wrong’–it’s not supposed to work like that.

Here’s the thing. If it wasn’t hard; if everyone was already doing it; if it was ‘correct’—-then it wouldn’t be an innovation, would it?

When it gets really difficult. When Tech Support says “It doesn’t work like that” (I’ve heard this half a dozen times in the last two weeks–software synthesizer routings, you don’t want to know); when the software accepts your commands and then just sits there spinning its wheels for hours with no result; when the notes you want to write don’t exist on the piano (OR in any of the pitch tables on your synthesizer)—THAT’S when you know you’re on the right track.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.


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