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Li-Sa-X, Marty Friedman and the Power of Prodigy

(Image credit: Troy Grady)

Li-Sa-X is an 11-year-old Japanese guitar phenomenon whose YouTube covers of virtuoso rock guitar classics, includung Racer X's "Scarified," have racked up seven-figure viewcounts.

Just as often as her performances inspire deserved wonder, they also spark equally impassioned comment-section warnings of the evils of aggressive parenting.

It's no wonder Li-Sa's legitimately great playing often stirs up an unintentional storm of internet controversy.

But you can probably put down the pitchforks. Because when it comes to child prodigies, it turns out it takes a lot more than stage parents to create one.

Marty Friedman

The awesome Marty Friedman graciously offered his guitaristic and Japanese linguistic superpowers as host of our interview with Li-Sa.

  • Like other elite players we've interviewed, Marty developed his approach to picking technique both early and subconsciously. Even casual viewers of Marty's playing will immediately recognize the distinctive "flexed wrist" orientation of his picking hand:

This is actually Marty's implementation of downward pickslanting, a technique we've written about at length before:

In the interview, we learned that by age 15 or 16, Marty's mechanical system for picking technique was firmly in place, and he was already employing it to devastating effectiveness in writing and performing his own tunes. So was Marty a prodigy? Or for that matter, is Li-Sa a prodigy?

What Is a Prodigy?

The term "prodigy" is often thrown around loosely as a way of describing how awesome someone is. But in research circles, the actual definition is surprisingly clear-cut. Dr. Ellen Winner, chair of the department of psychology at Boston College, who has extensively studied child prodigies, explains: "Prodigy is typically defined as someone who does something at an adult level under the age of 10."

So that's it. A prodigy is simply a kid performing at the level of adults—in other words, doing things adults already do, just younger. The notion of originality or creativity, for the most part, doesn't really enter into it. In fact, while many prodigies are capable of adult-level creativity in their areas of speciality, none have made major creative or scientific breakthroughs as children, even if they went on to do so later in life.

The Rage to Master

But according to Dr. Winner, natural ability is only one ingredient in the secret sauce of genius. The other is drive, or what Dr. Winner terms "the rage to master." (That's a band name waiting to happen. And I call first dibs!)

"You work on something that you can master," she says. "Something that comes easily to you, and where you can advance."

But what drives prodigies to rage for greatness? "That's the million-dollar question," Dr. Winner continues. "I think it's innate. People who have a very high ability in some area, also have an intense drive to master that area. I think they go together."

It is this correlation between a high level of ability in a particular activity, and an innate, intense motivation to master that activity, which is the hallmark of a prodigy.

Tiger Kids

Given their intense independent motivation, the ironic truth is that is most often gifted kids themselves who "tiger kid" their own parents into letting them do more of the thing they're great at. This means that despite the stereotypes, the perceived link between advanced artistic ability in kids and the oppressive influence of their parents is largely a myth. "You cannot take a typical child and force that child to work eight hours a day on their guitar," Dr. Winner explains. "They're going to rebel—they're not going to do it."

Moreover, an averagely talented child who piles on the practice hours won't automatically reap prodigious rewards. Dr. Winner's book Gifted Children (opens in new tab) features one particularly illustrative case study of a child who was driven to draw trains. Across thousands of such drawings, from ages 2 to 11, the realism of the renderings appears to plateau, with later grade-school drawings exhibiting greater detail, but only a rudimentary grasp of three-dimensional perspective and foreshortening:

Mere Mortals

So what does this mean for the rest of us who aren't Li-Sa or Marty? Is all our hard work doomed to mediocrity without the innate spark of genius? Will our natural talents going to waste without Whiplash levels of obsessive dedication?

Well... maybe! But the world can always use a few more bass players, right?

Watch the complete Lisa-X, Marty Friedman and Ellen Winner interviews in Masters in Mechanics! If you enjoy investigating what makes amazing guitar playing possible, you'll find dozens of hours of interviews with elite players, along with in-depth tutorials and seminars as part of your Masters in Mechanics subscription.

Troy Grady is the creator of Cracking the Code, a documentary series with a unique analytical approach to understanding guitar technique. Melding archival footage, in-depth interviews, painstakingly crafted animation and custom soundtrack, it’s a pop-science investigation of an age-old mystery: Why are some players seemingly super-powered?

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