Passion vs. Talent
Talents & Skills

Does tech drive creativity or does creativity drive the development of new tech?

In the 70s creative artists turned a device for playing records, the turntable, into an instrument which became the center piece of a new genre of music.

That creative use of old tech, tech that was originally developed to playback music from records, suddenly became new tech as an instrument. 

That new creative use of the turntable caused by creative artists, inspired technologist to create new tech like the Numark NS7III | 4-Channel Motorized DJ Controller & Mixer which moved the creative process forward again for artists.

Another tech and artist blend in that era started with the Roland 808 analogue rhythm and percussion box. In the early 80s the 808 was a poor attempt at providing home organs an accompanying drum and percussion sounds playing preset rhythms. As the home organ market collapsed so did the need for a crude sounding rhythm / percussion device.

Then in the mid 80s this obsolete device was resurrected by musicians and producers who discovered the unique sound of the 808 and added it as the foundation of most early hip hop. That classic sound is still a prominent sound fixture in much of today’s music.

Even as technologist developed sophisticated digital drum machines with professional drum sounds and allowed users to custom program rhythms, the sounds of the 808 were always included in these devices. 

Technologist and artists are a relationship much like peanut butter and chocolate. (I love Reese’s cups). One without the other is okay but together they can change the direction of music and many times life in general.

I remember having a conversation with a renown guitar collector and historian at a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention about a hundred years ago or maybe it just felt like a hundred years ago based on the insane advances in the musical instrument industry in just the last 20 years. 

I mistakenly asked a “trigger question”. (I describe a trigger questions as a question when asked, gets you an hour-long lecture on the subject rather than a simple one or two sentence answer) Well this unknown trigger questions was, “who invented the electric guitar”. I was expecting a name or at least a few names, instead I got a lecture about the evolution of technology during the early 1900s.  How the phonograph gave way to simple vacuum tube radios. We’ve all seen pictures of those inspired wood crafted radios that were the center piece of every family’s living room. Dad in his big chair with a pipe. Mom on the couch knitting and two children sitting on the floor all facing the wooden box.

This guy actually had pictures to go along with his impromptu lecture. WHAT!! WHY? Was he expecting me to ask that question?  Anyway, he continued, “This was around the time that big band music was all the rage”. “But unfortunately for the guitar player no one could hear him over the naturally loud horns and reed instruments”.

Apparently, in the twenties there was a guy named, Lloyd Loar, who worked for Gibson who was a tinker and tried to electrify this crazy “guitarish” thing called the U Harp guitar. To this bizarre “guitarish” thing he added a coil and magnet so when the string vibrated it would create an electronic “signal”. Needing to amplify this signal he realized that radios amplified electronic signals and figured out how to tap his U Harp into the radio’s amplifier circuit.

Great story. Is it the definitive statement on the start of the electric guitar? I might push back. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned first-hand during my life is, nothing just show’s up from one person’s mind. It’s always an evolution of pulling pieces together from different worlds. That Frankenstein of an idea usually sparks someone else’s imagination and it goes on and on.

Prior to that schooling I got from walking the floor at the NAMM convention, I had always thought George Beauchamp, a musician and inventor who during the 20s was tinkering with electrifying acoustic stringed instruments. He teamed up Adolph Rickenbacker and invented the first commercial lap steel guitar, “the frying pan”.  Maybe the key word there is “commercial”. Much like all inventions, making it first to market doesn’t mean you were the first to invent something.  Even first to get a patent doesn’t really mean you were the first to invent. Nor does first to market guarantee your invention is the best.

That lap steel also known as “the frying pan” got the attention of Gibson. Gibson Instruments had a reputation for producing finally crafted acoustic guitars and mandolins.

But the electrified lap steel was a game changer.  Gibson now knew where the future was headed. In 1935 Gibson drop a pick up on an acoustic guitar, EH 150, and the race was on. 

Along with getting your invention to market you need a “influencer” to showcase how to use it and get the market excited. (yea influencers have been around as long as there has been a need to show people why and how to use your invention in a cool way. So back up you young upstarts. Influences ain’t a new idea hahaha)

In 1939 the electric guitar’s major influencer was a young Charlie Christian playing an electrified guitar in the Benny Goodman big band. His innovative playing style on this new electrified guitar was revolutionary. The electric guitar in the hands of an open-minded artist playing a completely new style music, was able to move the guitar from the back row of the band to front and center.

Think about where modern music would be today if the combination of electrified guitar technology and the artist who made it legendary never crossed paths. Companies like Gibson and Fender with artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis, Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Van Hanlon, etc. would have never changed the course of musical history.

Without both tech and artist, the evolution of most of today’s music would never have happened.

Now they say for every win there are dozens of misses. There are tons of inventions that sounded like a good or even great ideas when someone first thought them up. But once in practice … not so great. Even applying substantial and extensive market research doesn’t mean it’s going to be a hit.

As I said I have seen first-hand several wins and many killer ideas come up short.

The one that comes to mind immediately happened to a keyboard synthesizer manufacture called ARP Instruments. ARP’s commercial success began around the time I got my first real job working in a music store’s repair shop. That gig exposed me to, at the time, the cutting-edge tech of keyboard synthesizers. ARP had a training program to become an authorized service tech for their keyboards. The owner of the music store asked me to go. The experience of going to this training program and being taught by a Phil Dodds was insane.

BTW Phil Dodds was the guy who played the keyboard in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when humans were communicating with the spaceship. The movie had just been released in 1977 around the same time he was training us.

Anyway…. Back then ARP had captured a huge section of the synthesizer keyboard market. But they realized there was a much bigger market made up of guitar players. So, they decided to build a synth for guitar players. In 1977 the Avatar was born, the first real synth for guitar players. After spending 4 million in R&D and only realizing 1 million in sales over two years, the Avatar was dropped. Not only was the Avatar a bust it also caused the financial collapse of the company and ARP went bankrupt in ’81.

Even though ARP had pioneered some inspiring technological breakthroughs with their guitar interface and this ginormous market was theirs for the taking, they couldn’t find an artist or artists who could create equally inspiring music with it.

So, I leave you with my opening question, “Does tech drive creativity or does creativity drive the development of new tech?”

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