Joanna Connor is a weekly contributor to bBluesNote with her column “Heart of the Blues.” Joanna is a Guitar Instructor with At Home Chicago Blues. To learn Blues with Joanna Connor and other Chicago Blues Masters, click here to get started.
I having been a working musician since the age of 17. I started out as a vocalist. That instrument is lived in – a testament to years of projecting over muscular rhythm sections, uninhibited guitars and overcompensating and often underserved, due to inadequate monitors and or unresponsive sound men. So,now it’s starting to sound like a blues voice, or at least a voice with many tales to tell. I still enjoy being a singer, but to be candid, I usually can’t wait to get to a guitar solo or groove with the band, inventing coordinated or complimentary rhythm guitar parts. Singing was a work in progress always.
I suppose I was a decent singer from the beginning, in that I could carry pitch and phrase and had a pleasant enough sound quality as I passed auditions to choruses starting at the age of 10. I would sit in the car with the radio on in those days because in the late 60s and 70s radio played pop – meaning popular songs–anything from Dr John to Steely Dan to Grand Funk to Bill Withers to Linda Ronstadt. It was an adventure and a great training ground. I would spend more time with records- particularly Aretha and Stevie and Taj and Bessie. And I’m not downplaying the work that goes into becoming a singer, especially a great one, although you are given an instrument, and from there you can maximize its potential. But you will always sound like you, hopefully a better and more soulful version as time goes on.
The guitar – sigh. It’s not as naturally easy. It’s enduring blisters and a bit of pain and getting your wrists and hands and fingers to accomplish out of the ordinary motions. But again, the guitar- sigh… The most expressive and versatile of instruments. From Segovia, to Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery, BB King, Ry Cooder, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, John McLaughlin. It’s a cornucopia of sonic wonderment. The guitar is your lover and your teacher and your adversary and your trial and your triumph. Playing the Blues on it, pulling from that deep aquifier that irrigates all other American music, that is a journey worthy of every effort, because once you can play the blues, you are given roots and wings to play most every other kind of music. You will have an advantage on musicians that don’t know it or don’t study it or don’t appreciate it, because you will have a depth of feeling and a feel for syncopation others will lack. The understanding of it will nurture all the notes you conjure.
I taught the Chicago Blues Bootcamp at Roosevelt University in Chicago during the week of the Chicago Blues fest in June, 2019 to a group of 30 or so aspiring and accomplished guitarists, each from all over the planet, each with their own desires and stories. It was my first time and I loved it. This year I was set to do the same. But we all know what befell us. Scott Weill took over and assembled a cast of diverse and talented teachers, camera people and others. Everything is online for now, chicagobluesnetwork.com including brilliant and inspiring performances aptly called Trading Fours, several podcasts (mine will launch soon!) a newsletter, office hours to meet with your instructors and also an actual calendar that is visually stunning. In essence – a complete and boundless resource to inspire and enhance your own musical journey. I am envious. I wish there was something like this available to me when I was starting out. And I tell this to all of the guitarists reading this who are act every level of guitar or bass playing ability: do not give up. Every single lick, chord, motion, song l learned, particularly in the beginning took great effort, patience and devotion of time on my part. And I will never regret one single moment!
— Joanna Connor