What can a guitar god teach you about networking?

 1 February 2018

When it comes to success many say that it’s not what you know, but who you know that’s important. But is that the case? The story of how Steve Vai became one of the world’s greatest guitar heroes shows that most of the time it’s a combination of the two.

Don't rely on your talent alone. Create connections to further your success.
Don't rely on your talent alone. Create connections to further your success.

Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention, were one of the most successful rock and roll bands in history. Until his death in 1993, Zappa wrote, performed, and produced over 60 albums. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone magazine included Zappa on its list of the ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’.

With no formal musical training, his style comprised of an eclectic mix of rock, pop, jazz fusion and orchestral. This unique sound proved irresistible to a legion of hardcore fans.

But Zappa’s improvisational methods meant that he rarely worked to a musical score. Followers could listen to his music, but aspiring guitarists could only dream of mimicking his technique.

Create lasting connections

An 18-year old fan from Long Island, New York had other ideas. Knowing that he wanted to make it in the ultra-competitive world of rock guitar, Steve Vai had been studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Was Steve Vai supremely talented or just lucky?

With a talent for composition and a youthful but highly-trained musical ear, Vai hit upon a solution. Taking Zappa’s notoriously complicated track ‘The Black Page’, he penned a full note-for-note musical transcription and sent it to Zappa for his approval.

The approach worked. Zappa was impressed and put Vai on a regular salary to transcribe his work. Just two years later, Vai had become a full-time member of Zappa's band, touring and recording with his hero.

Today, Steve Vai is listed as one of the world’s top 10 guitarists, having won three Grammys and sold more than 15 million albums. Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee, he has recorded with Ozzy Osbourne, Mary J Blige and Spinal Tap. His music has featured on both ‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto’.

This story is important for all freelancers. Was Steve Vai supremely talented or just lucky?

What can you offer?

Business School Professor, Adam Grant, wrote recently that, “Networking can help you accomplish great things. But this obscures the opposite truth: Accomplishing great things can help you develop a network”.

This thinking has turned the networking world on its head. It says that important people aren’t drawn to who we are, but what we offer. In other words, we should aim to do great work and let our achievements do the talking.

Accomplishing great things can help you develop a network.

It’s not a case of giving up on networking altogether. We need to be able to shout about our achievements in order to attract the right audience.

But we need to make sure that networking is only one element of an overall strategy for advancement. And doing exceptional work is an equally important part of that strategy.

Share your skills

Steve Vai didn’t rely on talent alone. He spotted an opportunity of value to an important figure and used his skills to create a connection which resulted in personal success. Connections are crucial in the creative industry but only if you have the ability to make those connections meaningful and worthwhile to all involved.

Think about how the skills you have could benefit others in your industry, and reach out to them offering to those skills.


Darryl helps professionals to develop their networking and career management skills. Follow the Strategic Business Networking® YouTube channel to take the free LinkedIn “8-Day challenge®” and join the SBN LinkedIn Group.

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