Skip to content

The Johnny Ramone design hack

Back in 1974, a new band was forming in New York City. But they had a problem. They didn’t know how to play their instruments.

To overcome this minor detail, they created a musical style that was pared down to the absolute minimum.

This new style would go on to change music forever — but one alteration in particular stands out to me.

Johnny Ramone removed upstrokes from his guitar playing.

In other words, he simplified guitar playing on his right hand down to one motion. Downward strokes, that’s it. No matter the chord or song he had to make the same motion with his strumming hand.

This meant all he had to worry about was getting his left hand placed correctly. His right hand was on auto-pilot.

I think this is brilliant because he boiled something complicated down to it’s most basic form which allowed him to focus.

But he also did something else.

By removing something most guitar players thought was required he created a new sound almost by side effect. After all, he was just trying to make it easy on himself — and yet by removing the upstroke, he created a sound that he’d be known for years later.

You can too.

There are examples across every industry of this technique. In fact, I believe most greats include some element of subtraction in their work. For example:

More examples are gauranteed to jump out at you when you look at the world this way.

But the weird part is unless you look for it, you won’t really notice anything is missing.

On the contrary, by taking something away that doesn’t matter, you’re getting a richer experience because you’re focusing on what really matters.

So how do you find the right thing? How do know what to remove? Try this.

  1. Look at the norm in your industry.
  2. Find things you fundamentally don’t agree with and even hate about what other people are doing.
  3. Push back on this in your work.
  4. Tell people about it.

If you’re building a company that might mean pushing back against working weekends like Jason Fried and DHH.

Or if you’re a making a western film it might mean pushing back on dialoguelike Sergio Leone.

Or it might just mean making it easy on yourself. That’s pretty good too.