The Myth of the Self-Taught Player

Carl Jung’s Archetypes And One New One

A strict definition of archetypes defines them as a basis, model, mold or template from which copies are made. One of my favorite thinkers, Carl Jung, employed this term for one of his most important and interesting theories. In a Jungian sense, archetypes are differing but repeating patterns of thought and behavior found time and time again across countries, peoples and continents. Like a persona or personality. There can be no complete listing of archetypes but a few of the ones (earth mother, magician and wise old man) that, Carl Jung wrote about are illustrated below.

Three Of Carl Jung's Archetypes

Three Of Carl Jung’s Archetypes

As a picture is worth 1000 words you really don’t need me or anyone else to explain them, they carry their own meaning along and you already know the type of person that each one of the photos depicts. Using your imagination you could probably start talking about each one of the people in the photos, this is the concept of the archetype.

The Self-Taught Magical Boy
In my journey I learned an archetype: the ultra-hip, smooth talking guitar slinger complete with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands, musicians, guitars, guitar pieces, parts and gadgets -an archetype that I called the “self-taught magical boy”.

f I adopted this archetype when I was a teenager and immediately took great pride in the fact that I didn’t know anything about music and I couldn’t read music -wearing my ignorance like a badge of honor. I played by ear and by feeling and I could “figure it out by ear” in any and all instances. I did my best to project a kind of highly intuitive, highly gifted type of person that had the magical lightning fingers and was playing things off the top of my head that were truly remarkable and amazing. Alas, I would occasionally wisely and wistfully comment with a faraway look in my eyes something like this: “but I really wish I did know how to read music” or  “I should have gone to music school”. This was part of my assumed personality, the archetype of the self-taught magical boy, being smart enough to know the value of music education but as the amazing magical boy I really couldn’t or wouldn’t subject myself to the rigors of training because it would destroy all the wonderful astounding things that I discovered on my own and was given at birth.
Of course it was all a big lie and some sort of pathetic ego defense mechanism that I was telling to myself and anyone else who would listen to me play my crappy Jimi Hendrix licks over and over and pretend to be a musician because I could figure out top 40 songs or get the occasional gig at the local watering hole.

Finding The Right Teacher
Luckily for me I found the teacher who pointed out to me how misguided my musical journey truly was, and how everything was a big lie and I really didn’t know anything at all and furthermore there was nothing preventing me from getting the proper training only laziness and my overblown ego, delusional thinking and magic seeking.
This is not a pattern of behavior I invented, it is one I adopted, it is one that was that was taught to me by all the rest of the guys who play their Eric Clapton & Jimi Hendrix covers, figure out songs by year and then we walked around like they were some kind of musical gift the rest of humanity when in fact we were just a bunch of posers and wannabes -self-taught magical boys, boys that never had a real music job.
Luckily for me I had a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster of a friend and teacher who was named Thomas Pizzi. He spelled it all out for me in no uncertain terms by calling me on my bull ship and putting me in situations where I would fall flat on my face again and again.

As a result, I began find and hire better and better teachers and eventually one of them, the legendary Tony Mottola helped me to enroll in Berklee College of music where I was under the mentorship of William G Leavitt himself for six years, so yes I shook off my sad and self-defeating archetype and slowly became a musician.
The truth of the matter is no one is self-taught, guitar playing and improvisation is an enormous multi generational community of which we are the keepers of the flame. ( I’m constantly confronted with the archetype of the self-taught amazing magical boy in my teaching practice and although I won’t pull my hair out when someone starts to repeats the tired cliches associated with the archetype I resist the temptation to let out a healthy “WAKE UP DUDE”!!!


Being The Right Teacher
When I begin to work with and quiz the self-taught players, amazingly they will know roughly the same thing, the minor pentatonic scale, the blues scale, a dozen or so iconic solos, Wipeout, Johnny Be Good, the one from Stairway to Heaven and complicated ones like Crazy Train and Bohemian Rhapsody and are usually quite adept at playing and naming chords and can demonstrate a basic knowledge of blues and rock theory -all indications of basic music training.
Yes, it seems that all of the people I meet that are so eager to adapt the archetype of the self-taught magical boy know just about the same thing.

My question is how could they all have taught exactly the same things themselves? The point is they didn’t, you must have been engaged in some form of musical education, either formal or informal, if you can tell me what a C# minor chord is or G major chord is or how to play a C major scale you have studied music but at some point you gave up because it was too hard, was too much work, was too expensive or just wasn’t fun to sit there and expend the genuine effort it takes to be a musician.
When I encounter the archetype of the self-taught magical boy in my teaching business I don’t try to tear them down and make them see the folly of their ways in their first lesson like my friend Thomas did to me -if I did that I wouldn’t have any students!

Defeating The Archetype

The idea is to teach that person with all his faults and foibles, being a gentle and positive influence on them. When I encounter the archetype, I employ process of reverse engineering, and what is commonly called scaffolding. This is where I think of something the person knows and I explain the music theory to them in no uncertain terms, in a way that they can understand constantly referring to basic blues and rock theory and expanding on it a little bit as the lessons progress. Building on what they know, for older students, they have all played Bob Dylans “Like A Rolling Stone”, my lesson plan appears below.

Building Skills By Relearning Common Knowledge Song

Building Skills By Relearning Common Knowledge Song

I never give in to using slapdash hand-drawn material are crappy tabs and I find on the Internet. In my case I’ve written hundreds of lesson plans, published seven books and have a huge online curriculum available ( but if I find a gap in my material I will make a professional high quality document in tab and traditional notation with salient points illustrated and explained along the way. I always tell my students that I’m constantly prosecuting in the case of musical literacy, while I am also happy to teach you all the tricks I know and basically how to play but my job is to turn you into a real musician.

Many of my former students like Dustin Kensrue of THRICE or Eric and Sameer of YOUNG THE GIANT have found success by embraceing formal musical training, each in their own way.

I have a student who is the embodiment of the archetype of the self-taught magical boy; I have been honored to have been his teacher for many years. Recently, I showed up to his blues gig very early during sound check, he didn’t see me but I heard him going on and on about the importance of addressing the IV chord in a blues number and proper phrasing, and when to use this or that mode or chord substitution for greater effect.  It was like he was a changed person, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it, but there he was giving a music theory lesson to all the guys in the band. It was the perfect outcome and a very enjoyable evening of music.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Self-Taught Player

  1. ok this probably true i a great many cases. but what about real prodigies like Allan Holdsworth. Every indication I get is that he was mostly sdlf taught. Created his own symbols to represent musical concepts, etc.

    • yes Jay, fair enough…in a way Einstein was self taught because no one believed many of his ideas, but he operated with traditional educational frameworks and educators. I met Alan holdsworth a few times at my jazz gig where he would often drink beer, i have studied his books (the uncommon chord) and he was very literate and well schooled in a traditional sense, the only thing i could’t understand was wht the hell he was at my gig. thanks for commenting

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