I’ve always had a complicated relationship to the guitar. I found interest in country music during my late teens, and when my father died, I brought home his guitar. It was a simple and badly treated nylon stringed Landola. But it enabled me to start learning to play. There was no internet back then – I used a book, and my first songs were Blowing in the wind and Me and Bobby McGee.
I had moved to Göteborg where a friend of mine also lived. She had also started learning some guitar, and we played a lot together. She used her father’s guitar and a Joan Baez songbook. This was when I fell in love with dramatic murder ballads.
During this time period I discovered bluegrass music. I bought a mandolin, and started teaching myself to play it. This wasn’t as easy as I had thought, and I still wonder why I didn’t just play bluegrass on the guitar?!
The rather embarrassing but funny truth is that my friend improved faster on the guitar than I did, and I didn’t want to “compete” with anyone but I still wanted to play an instrument used in bluegrass music.
I struggled quite a bit since I had no mandolin or bluegrass contacts and nobody to help me, but only books and CDs. After a good few years I could play ok, but my playing kicked off for real in 2004 when I met my husband. I never really got to play typical bluegrass mandolin style though, but rather some oldtime country style.
Fast forward to 2015. I had explored different instruments and styles, but what I enjoyed most was bluegrass, country and Irish trad. I still played the guitar now and then, but my main instrument was the mandolin, and I was learning some Irish concertina. I played and sang in church sometimes, and especially with a little group of lovely elderly singers (let’s say that I lowered the average age in the group by 20 years or so
). I found myself play more guitar than anything else, and so I decided to buy a decent guitar and learn to play properly. I bought a nice all-mahogany Taylor and went on YouTube for inspiration. I was interested in playing Maybelle Carter style, and when searching for resources about that, I found Norman Blake.
Norman Blake and his playing style became an incredible inspiration for me. The modified Carter style with melody mixed with chords, and his elegant flatpicking really appealed to me. I admired (and still admire) his technique – he makes it look so easy and relaxed, and sounds elegant but still simple and down-to-earth. I started learning – but I wanted too much too fast and I eventually got stuck.
We moved to Ireland in February 2019, to a region we know, where we lived in 2008, and where we had friends and acquaintances. When we decided to move back to Ireland, there was only one option for us; West Cork. We’ve played in session with friends since day 1. I’ve played mandolin and some concertina, but also guitar, because I’m often asked to sing something.
In January 2020 I was tired of my poor guitar playing and I asked a friend of ours if she would give me guitar lessons to help me do something nicer to my songs, and she accepted. I had a few lessons from late January until mid February, and it was so inspiring! It was a new fresh start with the guitar that I really needed. Also, coming back to the guitar meant coming back to my musical roots. Country songs and the guitar were what triggered my interest in music, and during all these years I’ve missed it without understanding it. So coming back to the guitar felt like a perfect fit and that I had sort of come home.
In the end of February I took a break from the lessons to prepare for Noel Hill’s concertina workshop. After that, covid-19 happened. I had just come home from the workshop when the virus started spreading in Ireland, in Sweden where I’m from, and in the rest of Europe. One of my family members was suddenly in hospital for another serious condition and everything was chaos.
The only way for me to save my mental health at that time was to play music. Initially I only played the concertina. I had lots of work to do after the workshop and the guitar was left ignored. I associated it mainly with singing in sessions, and that felt like lightyears away. Instead I learned most tunes from the concertina workshop and practiced fingering, grace notes and bellows management.
During the lockdown, in late spring, my husband – who has been playing fiddle, guitar and some accordion – wanted to start playing the mandolin. Suddenly he started practing, and he learned some new bluegrass tunes. It was only natural that I picked up the guitar again to back him. After a while, I started adding in some bass runs and other simple melody lines with the chords. My Taylor didn’t do a great job though – it’s mainly fit for softer playing, such as ballad playing, arpeggio style, finger picking, and similar.
I tried my husband’s Martin guitar, and fell in love. Everything sounded so good! When my husband became serious about the mandolin, this guitar inspired me to start learning flatpicking again.
When I write this it’s the 1st of September. I don’t play the D-18 anymore. A shoulder exhaustion made me realise that I probably need a smaller guitar, and some week ago I bought a Martin 000-18 in Dublin. I have also signed up at the brilliant site Artistworks for bluegrass guitar lessons with Bryan Sutton while my husband is doing mandolin at the same site. We’re totally determined to become good at playing these instruments.
Music keeps me sane during the difficult times we’re living through, because it distracts me from the sad and awful reality out there, but this guitar “project” – as well as the concertina – will also give me joy for years to come.
I said it was complicated…. congratulations if you read through this entire story! Now you may understand some of what lies behind my music passion. This is mainly a whisky blog… but there will also be music.
For more music content, see Strings & Bellows.