Is being the best good enough? Thoughts on innovation in relation to ‘Australia’s Top Guitar Players’.

April 14, 2014

A thought on ‘Australia’s Top Guitarists’

The other morning I noticed a post in my twitter feed that provided a link to an article rating Australia’s top guitarists off the back of a News Corp poll (these things are always dangerous). After reading the article, I naturally couldn’t help to think about the 25 guitarists listed … and found my thoughts to be mixed on several of the players selected. There certainly seemed to be a few great and brilliant players mentioned, yet at the same time, there seemed to be a handful that I was left wanting on.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert when it comes assessing the merits of guitar players. Sure I still play a little, but I know several musicians who are streets ahead of me with both their technical knowledge and skill set (as well as the technology that many guitarists employ to create their own signature sounds). 

Yet perhaps the most substantial thought I had, was linked to how we look at innovation, longevity and legacies – something that is quite relevant when it comes to creating powerful brands.

Is it good enough to just be the best – or do you need to be the only one?

Now I’m not going to name names from the list published and interrogate their position – that feels slightly pretentious and unfair. Instead, what I’m going  to do is draw your attention to a couple of fairly remarkable yet domestically invisible Australian musicians who are know for the novel ways they employ guitars in their art – these two artists are Ben Frost and Oren Ambarchi.

One thing that becomes apparent when looking at the list, is that the artists selected skew towards blues and rock players (with the odd classical virtuoso thrown in the mix). The cool thing about Frost and Ambarchi is that they operate on a totally different planes to most guitar players. Frost has been described as a composer of Minimalist, Instrumental and Experimental music and Ambarchi – whilst receiving associations with instrumental and experimental music – is often spoken about in relation to sound art. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that somebody like Frost would even refer to himself as a ‘guitarist’ and Ambarchi’s instrumental roots are tied to percussion as he used to be a fairly active free jazz drummer.

Ben Frost Performing Live

Ben Frost’s Theory of Machines

It is the above point that is of first and foremost importance when it comes to considering their place in a list of best guitar players in Australia. To quote the great artist (and guitarist) Mr Jerry Garcia:

“You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do”.

When it comes to innovating in other facets of life – such as with products, services and brands – a blue sky approach is often seen as being dangerous and potentially detrimental to a business in comparison to smaller, incremental innovations that don’t stray to far from home. But if there’s something that innovation departments can learn from artists like Frost and Ambarchi, it’s that fearless innovation is what gives brands their legacies - and as such, the power to shape culture and the world around them in remarkable ways.

Sure, there are benefits in incremental innovation, but the issue is the ease with which any entity can be overtaken by another (in a similar position with more resources and reach). With this thought in mind, it’s interesting to note that how often when brands are staring down the barrel, R&D departments are often one of the first to have their budgets cut.

Oren Ambarchi Performing Live

Oren Ambarchi’s Knots

But what if you don’t initially have mass appeal?

Finally, in case you’ve taken the time to stream the tracks I’ve linked to this article, and are having a good old chuckle thinking that these artists may have a questionable influence over blues and rock music (and as such a large number of guitar players), perhaps take a deep breath and consider what these guitarists influence may be in electronic music. At the present moment, both Frost and Ambarchi are the only two Australian artists set to represent the country on the global stage at Sonar 2104 (Barcelona’s 21st International Festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art) – a festival recognized as one of the most progressive on the planet. As the only Australian artists on the bill, they are in good company (the festival is hosting visionary artists such as Massive Attack, Caribou, Bonobo, James Holden and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy just to name a few). So, whilst genuine innovators may not always end up on the top of lists – history tells us that many of them end up doing pretty damn well.