Superheroes of Rock


It’s the oldest cliche: the orphan superhero; the Harry Potter/Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent dwelling in quiet exile amid the unsuspecting citizenry, secret possessor of magical talents.

It also turns out to be sort of true — well, at least with rock guitarists. While it’s possible to conjure up all kinds of bellyaching about the rankings of Rolling Stone‘s top 100 rock guitarists of all time (Les Paul 46th? Shouldn’t Mark Knopfler be a nudge higher than 27th?), it’s not possible to overlook a more revealing and important pattern: the top three lost parents at young ages.

Jimi Hendrix’s mother died when he was 16, shortly after he’d taken up guitar. Greg Allman’s father died when he was only three; B.B. King’s mother died when he was nine. (The pattern has some twists: No. 4 Eric Clapton was a teen when, in a “Chinatown”-worthy moment, he discovered that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. Talk about playing the blues.)

As is usual with the truth, there’s a paradox at work here, which we can see if we can imagine a simple picture: a kid alone in his room for hundreds, thousands of hours, lost in a cool fury of mastering this riff, this song, this sound; carving out a new identity, proving that unspeakable tragedy can be transformed — literally, neurally, magically–into unspeakable beauty.

It’s not just guitarists, btw. Check out this list of orphan greats, which starts with Julius Ceasar.

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5 Responses to “Superheroes of Rock”

  1. steve says:

    I read your book and found it a great read. I did have a question though about adults and the growth of myelin.

    Given an grown man in his 20s and a young child at 5. If both were to practice 8 hours a day with an instrument say a violin, who do you think would make the greatest gain?

  2. djcoyle says:

    Great question — and the answer is (drumroll please)… the five-year-old. For the same reason that kids learn languages faster: our brains wire themselves up faster when we’re younger. Turbocharged, you might say.
    That said, it’s not a done deal. Adults have an important advantage of controlling their focus (not typically the strong point of five-year-olds). Adults can be smart and strategic about their practice. So while the five-year-old might leap ahead like a rabbit, the wiser tortoise can win the race.

  3. steve says:

    Yea I remember reading that in your book. In your research, have you ever come across an adult who started in his adulthood and was able to reach a level of mastery on his craft?

  4. djcoyle says:

    In sports the most recent would be Y.A. Yang, the golfer who started at 19 and who won this year’s PGA Championship, beating an early-starter named Tiger Woods. See this article for more examples in art/music/writing: And this: But all in all, it’s clear — it helps to start early.

  5. Ala'a says:

    I may add that children have less (or maybe zero) distractions, interruptions, responsibility and being fed, loved (emotional component) and taken care of by others (defaulted to parents). most of which are dreams of adults (especially who support a family).

    This does not mean we can not do it, No. There are people who reached 40 years and above and with burning desire and perseverance reach a lot that most young people today can not do. How to turn ON burning desire and persistence? and How to balance family needs and your deep practice needs? answer to both questions will draw the path to your final position.

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