Fuzz Pedals, Mastery, and Hype Cycles

guitar store

I’ve been auditioning (e.g. playing at guitar stores for free) fuzz pedals to add some distortion to my guitar sound repertoire.  I’d been playing lots of big name pedals, some boutique pedals, and watching to YouTube reviews looking for that perfect tone.  I settled on a pedal from a small Canadian boutique because they built exactly what I was looking for.  Excellent tone, quality build, and very responsive to the knobs.  But until I heard that pedal and took a chance, I was in and out of various stores for months, getting frustrated that I couldn’t find ‘that sound.’

I realized this week that I was acting out exactly what I’ve been talking about in other contexts.  While the tone was part of the reason I was continually auditioning pedals, most of the reason was many of the pedals were too complicated.  I had to be an expert with the pedal in order to get anything close to attempting to audition.  I thought one of the pedals was actually broken because I could only get an oddly high pitched squeal out of it.  On a later visit, one of the other folks in the shop had expertise in that pedal and showed me how to use it, but it only reinforced the fact that the pedal was getting in the way of what I wanted to do: get a nice warm, fat, distorted tone to my guitar sound.

The pedal I bought has three knobs: one controls the amount of fuzz, one controls the volume output, and the other does some interesting things by mucking about with the DC input signal.  It does no more than it needs to and sounds great tonally, letting me make crunchy noises, not become an expert dial turner.

I’ve been talking with lots of different folks on a theme that I picked up from Kathy Sierra and others: expertise in tools is a result of using them in practice, not for the sake of being an expert.  I’ve also read some research on adult learning since I teach some classes and want to make sure I’m effective in delivery.  One of the things that crops up repeatedly is the difference in learning success when a specific goal is in place (learn Italian because there’s a trip coming up) rather than a general goal (learn Italian because I’m looking to broaden my horizons).

I am an expert in various technologies and you can probably apply the “improved” 10,000 hours rule to my expertise.  But the quality of expertise and practice doesn’t come from an external motivation to learn a new technology for the sake of being an “expert”; it comes from a need to master the tool to accomplish something specific, like keeping a multi-tenant web application online with a maximum of 53 minutes of downtime a year.  Deliberate practice still benefits from being application focused because the application becomes its own feedback loop.

We generally look at the term practice in the sense of exercises designed to teach or improve proficiency (e.g. practice scales on the guitar to develop both familiarity with notes on the fret board and finger dexterity).  We should be looking at the other side of practice, the application of the method instead of the theory (e.g. the practice of medicine).  This is where real expertise is built in the 10,000 hours.  10,000 hours of scales makes you really good at scales.  10,000 hours of making music (or making horrid non-musical noises) on the guitar will make you an expert guitar player.  The end goal is not to be good at guitar, but good at music using the chosen instrument.  We are in the practice of system engineering and the tools of the trade are wide and varied.

I think the hype cycle then stems from tracking a particular tool in an area of practice:

  • The hype comes from the tool (or software) maker touting their new tool.  How cool it is, how sexy it is, how many things it can do, with some hints at how you can be cool and sexy by doing things using it.  But there’s not a lot of “doing things” in the noise.  The focus isn’t on getting out of the way and giving you a new path to master as you continue your current practice of expertise.  The focus is on tool itself.
  • The disillusionment comes from experts attempting to practice and being stymied by the tool and its accompanying documentation (e.g., Kathy’s camera example).
  • The upward slope comes when the experts have learned the tool well enough that the tool gets out of the way of their practice of mastery and can start to share some of those lessons with others.

I think the idea that we aim to be good at something bigger than the tool is clear when we look at creative endeavors: photography not “camera-ing”, music not “piano-ing”, cabinetry not “hammer-ing”.  The distinction somehow gets lost when we start looking at technology and applications.  But the idea still holds, I’m good at enterprise systems not “high availability-ing” and “UNIX/Linux-ing”.

What technologies are you trying to master for the sake of mastering the tools?  How would you like them to get out of your way?

Matt Micene Solutions Architect, DLT

Matt Micene is a Solutions Architect and lead engineer for DLT Solutions. He has over 10 years of experience in information technology, ranging from Solaris and Linux architecture and system design to data center design to long, coffee filled nights of system maintenance for various web-based service companies. In his current role, Matt advises customers in the pre-implementation stage, with the adoption and understanding of technologies, such as cloud computing and virtualization. He assists public sector customers with selecting the best building blocks to create environments supporting their missions. A strong advocate for open source, Matt is also a Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) and was named RHCE of the Year in 2010.