Music / Reflections

Stories around playing the guitar

Most of us have some kind of relationship to it. When I was 9 years old and we had the option to learn a musical instrument in school, I knew I wanted to play something but didn’t know what to choose. I didn’t have the courage to try to learn the fiddle and didn’t know what else I could do so I picked the recorder. This turned out to be an extremely boring instrument, and my teacher gave me very uninspiring pieces too, so I quit after two years.

Then in my late teens, I rediscovered music when I fell in love with country music.

My father died when I was 19, and I inherited his guitar, a nylon-stringed Landola in not-so-good shape. But it was playable, so I started to play it with the help of a book.

At the time I lived in Göteborg, the second biggest city in Sweden. I bought another guitar in a second-hand shop for about €90. A friend of mine lived in the same city, she had also started learning the guitar and we met now and then to play and sing together. These were such good times. She played her father’s guitar with songs from a Joan Baez songbook, and that’s where I got started with murder ballads and other sad songs.

Taylor guitar

In 1995 I discovered bluegrass music. I still had my appreciation for country music but I looked for more back-to-basics music; simple, acoustic front porch music – with less electric guitars, pianos and drums and with more acoustic guitar, upright bass and fiddle. I found a CD with The Cox family at the library and knew that I had found what I was looking for. This led me to bluegrass music, which made my passion for music grow and I started start playing more. I decided to move on from the guitar, bought a cheap mandolin and started teaching myself to play it.

From bluegrass, I went on to explore Irish traditional music and also Swedish fiddle music. I entered the world of trad music and with that, I started exploring other instruments.

Since then, I’ve been playing a few different instruments and different styles but all within either traditional music or bluegrass/old-time/country styles. I’ve also played some in my church. I’ve always enjoyed music but over the years I’ve often felt confused and had difficulties to focus, for many different reasons. I felt unsure about where my “identity” in music was, what I wanted to do with it or where I fit in. I lost my goals and my why – the reason why I played music at all.

In 2015 I realised I actually played more guitar than anything else so I decided to get a better guitar and to learn to play it properly. I bought my beautiful Taylor and had a good start with it but because of work and many other things, I got lost again, didn’t play for a long time and then struggled to get back to it.

Jills veranda, and the why

Jills veranda is a Swedish TV show, led by the brilliant Swedish female country singer Jill Johnson. In the show, she stays in a house in Nashville and receives other famous Swedish singers of many different genres to her porch (= veranda in Swedish). The guests will explore Nashville, learn more about country music, they will also have a bucket list for what they want to do in Nashville and they are expected to have prepared a country song they want to perform in public with Jill. Every programme is very different depending on the guest and his or her interests. This show is obviously a big thing for all Swedish country music fans but somehow I missed it.

Jills veranda started broadcasting in 2014 but I didn’t see it until maybe the spring of 2018. I instantly loved it but it was one of the episodes, in particular, that became very special to me. A particular song was played as background music, and when I heard it, it suddenly struck me that “this is my home in music, this is who I am”. Tears filled my eyes because it touched me so profoundly – I had come back to my roots and found something I had lost. I had found my why.

After that moment I decided to come back to country songs but struggled to do it. I had a plan but didn’t know where to start. However, at least I knew where to go back for inspiration.

Since moving to Ireland I’ve been all over the place with music. I’ve been playing the mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, concertina, been at sessions here and there, sung bluegrass songs, Irish songs, Scottish songs, learned new tunes. I’ve had good times with music but haven’t known what I should focus on.

After finishing my Italian course I finally had free time for real, and in late January I started taking guitar lessons from a friend of ours. My plan was to get ideas of how to make my backing more interesting, nothing fancy really. I had already decided when buying my Taylor guitar, that I would only play simple chords with a capo because everything that requires barre chords or other awkward hand positions would probably make me unable to play at all because it could trigger my carpal tunnel and other problems again.

However, when we met at our house, my friend/teacher had other ideas. She thought I should do better chord positions and she taught me better overall technique and some little single string picking here and there to spice up my songs. To begin with, I felt a bit overwhelmed and that she totally overestimated my competence with the guitar. But when I sat down to work on the new things I realised I could do them with some practice, that the new chord positions gave me new possibilities, and that my wrist wasn’t too bad after all. She inspired me to try things I never thought I could do – she is the kind of person who somehow silently persuades you to challenge yourself. I needed someone like that, and to finally get further with my guitar playing is extremely inspiring.

As I said, I thought she overestimated my level of playing. In reality, this is a lady who believes in me when I don’t believe in myself. Perhaps she sees potential that I’m unaware of and when she believes in me, she gives me a reason to believe in myself. Through these guitar lessons, I’ve been inspired to use the guitar as my main instrument again and doing that, I’m getting back to my roots in music.

Living in Ireland, I spend a lot of time in Irish trad sessions. I absolutely love the Irish music and going back to my roots doesn’t mean that I’ll only sing Merle Haggard and Carter family songs; obviously I’ll also sing Irish ballads and continue learning jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides and whatnot on the concertina. My musical roots will always remain in good country music but I’m also going to continue learning and playing Irish music.

Recently I was away for a week in county Clare at a concertina workshop with the concertina maestro Noel Hill. That in itself is worth an own blog post, but I’ll mention it briefly here. The Noel Hill week is extremely intense, you’ll work hard with your instrument and you’ll learn new things, perhaps things you thought were for more experienced players only. Even to beginners and near beginners he teaches some (seemingly, at least) more advanced techniques. But you go back to your cottage after each lesson, practise hard to prepare for the next lesson, and with focus and determination, you will be able to play those fancy ornaments.

During that week I decided to get more serious with my music, not that I plan to do it professionally but I want to make time for it and learn it properly. I love music and it really makes me happy but I haven’t really taken the time to work on it as I should have, at least not in recent years. I’ve been fiddling around with too many instruments, not knowing which of them I should focus on and as a result, I’m not good at any of them.

For the last 15 or so years, I’ve been known as that lady who plays the mandolin. I’m not bad at it and I have a fantastic mandolin. I enjoy playing it (when it stays in tune) but many times I feel I play it mainly because that’s the instrument I’m most competent with, not necessarily because I love the instrument. I want to focus on the instruments that give me the most joy, and these are the guitar and the concertina. I definitely won’t quit playing the mandolin and I may even play the 2-row accordion or organetto occasionally too but when I make time for real music practice at home, it will mainly be for guitar and concertina. I now plan to try to become decent at playing those two beasts!

The guitar is a wonderful and very convenient instrument if you sing; you can be your own orchestra if needed. As for tune playing, the concertina is a lovely little instrument that I’ve been in love with for many years. You don’t need to tune it, it’s nice and portable and you can play all kinds of things with it (although I’ll focus on Irish trad). I used to play a lot of bluegrass and old-time tunes on the mandolin, but I’m not so happy about that anymore. Someone else can play those – I’ll back them on the guitar.

More than anything else, I’m going to hold on to my guitar playing and not let myself get lost again.

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