The Guitar Is an Instrument of Democracy

Guitar isn’t “stuck in a canon”: it lets each musician express a unique voice. Succeeding at it means insisting on that voice with absolute confidence.
  • Transcript


Question: What advice would you give to someone learning guitar?

Josh Ritter: Well, I think one of the great things about rock 'n' roll and guitar and the idea of America is that we all have our own unique voices, and I think that that’s something that we have very distinctively since we’ve become a country, that each one of us, our own opinions, are just as important as the next guy's down the street. And that’s the same as guitar.  Guitar is not, like, an instrument that is stuck in a canon, or stuck in a particular form.  Blues is this continually evolving thing.  Blues and jazz and rock and country... and to me, I guess coming out of playing violin, where you had to play those things perfectly, you had to play the notes written on the page just as they were written, or you were play wrong.  It was such a freeing thing.  And I’ve always embraced the idea that my own guitar playing is very distinctively my own, and whether it’s good or not is beside the point.  It’s just my own playing and it evolves, and in some ways it gets better, but it’s always just mine.  And I always thought that was cool. 

So, I guess my advice in that way is to never—don’t hold yourself to whatever is on the page.  And I feel that way about whenever you are playing someone else’s songs; make it your own by playing it the way you would.

Question: What’s the secret to successful songwriting?

Josh Ritter: I think it’s not necessarily like the writing the song part, it’s the willingness to like just survive because it’s like, it’s really—to me I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t doing this.  And I feel that it’s perseverance and it’s also self-confidence, and it’s like very few things in my life I have confidence about like I have about songwriting.  And that doesn’t mean that the song is necessarily good, it means that I think it’s good, and I feel like I’ve come—and I’m willing to let the songs that aren’t very good go by the wayside because I know I’ll have a song that I do feel that kind of "Eureka!" feeling about. 

And so, from what I’ve seen in 10 years of playing music, it’s a complete mystery to me what somebody else is going to like.  You know, the song that I think is just a great song, or friends of mine who have like a great song, and never get out of their bedroom with it.  That has never made sense to me.  And also, you know, people who come out and are successful that I think, I don’t understand why.  There’s no way to know those things.  So, I think that everybody starts out playing music because they love it and if you’re lucky you get the chance to keep on doing it because you love it, but I think that that’s... I have no idea why.  It’s a mystery.

Recorded April 5, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen