There are a couple of reasons to explore what Paul Bollenback said. One reason is that I’m going to believe him when he said in a roundabout way that he isn’t a natural talent, such as one singer I know whose middle name is Modesty. He compared himself to Joey DeFrancesco, who has perfect pitch and a perfect musical memory, and said that it just makes him work harder. Joey has natural ability, Paul has to work. And if you read the entire interview, that’s what Paul does and has always done, he has worked to become the masterful player that he is today. And he is still working.
When the rest of us put the guitar down after an hour to go have dinner, he was out there for two hours. Metaphor aside, I’m willing to bet that he has put in more practice hours than most professional musicians. And I’m also willing to bet that he believes we hackers can all reach the top of the mountain just like him, with the right practice regime and the right amount of time—which is why he’s writing his instruction book. And I’m going to believe him in that belief.
There was one surprising moment in the interview, when he said that his father’s Benny Goodman records didn’t do much for him, but Miles’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane really hooked him. He was into rock at the time, and if you think about it, who is really and truly rocking out—Eric Clapton or John Coltrane? Coltrane of course, without the electricity, just the stuff that turned on his soul. Yet this is an aside.
Paul’s career also hints at steady and hard work. Where Carol Sloane was out in front of paying customers at 14 years old—the path usually taken by the naturally gifted—Paul was with his friends in the garage, playing rock, providing an airtight alibi that they couldn’t possibly be the ones who T.P.’d the neighbor’s trees. But that’s the pathway of a hard worker. He studied, learned the guitar neck, learned some chords, eventually went to school—but not the big schools, the one’s who accept you if you are ready to be signed and recorded right away, he went to a school where he had to work hard and continue to struggle for the mastery of his instrument. And that’s what he did, probably putting in more hours of practice than everyone else in the music department.
In this way, he is every musician.
Now comes the twist, as he spoke of when the subject came up of Barney Kessel. Because in the process of climbing to the top, all of that education has to be unlearned. One has to forget the labels, the names of the chords and the scales until they are just sounds that correspond to the sounds in your heart, that you can reach and form just as that deep inner voice sings it. And he is still involved in the process of unlearning, as he said. The knowledge erodes very slowly, like a rock being polished by ocean waves, that is musical growth. And yet, the process of unlearning is so similar to learning, that you pick up the instrument, and your hands do what they’ve always done for as long as they’ve been holding the guitar—but slowly, secretly, the soul takes over and pushes the knowledge aside, it seeps into your fingers, and the unlearning begins to take place. It just feels exactly like it felt when you were learning. This is the key step, the invisible step.
Somewhere inside of him, our everyman musician walked off of the top of the mountain, the mountain made of knowledge and theory, into the rarefied air of light clouds—and he stayed up there.
And that’s how to become a musician.