Olav Torvund as guitar player

Just a few words to present the guitar playing side of myself, to those who might be interested. My main instrument is steel string acoustic guitar, and I am playing a mix of folk, blues, rock, country and jazz. I hold traditional blues and the two English guitar players Bert Jansch and John Renbourn as my main influences, but many more styles has in some way influenced my playing. I do both fingerpicking and flatpicking, and cannot really tell what is my main style. In some periods I mostly flatpick, at other times I do only fingerpicking. I do also play electric guitar occasionally. It is fun to play electric guitar with some of the playing power one develop on an acoustic guitar. If you develop your bending technique on an acoustic guitar with 012/016/024 on the top three strings, and do whole step bends with that setup, bending on an electric guitar is easy, even when set up with rather heavy strings for an electric guitar.

By profession I am a law-professor at University of Oslo, and guitar playing is just a hobby. I used to teach blues-guitar when I was a student, and I think I spent more time playing guitar than studying in these years. (My next door neighbor at a student house were I was living for some time was surprised when I told that I was a law student. He took it for granted that I was studying music, since I was playing guitar all the time.) I also published a book on blues-guitar at that time, based on material I had collected and developed for my teaching. It was republished in a revised edition in 1989 (but it is in Norwegian, and not very useful for an English speaking audience).

I am born in 1955, so you can calculate my age if it should be of interest. My birthday is 15th of June, which is the same day as the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. I was born and grew up a little bit outside the small town Porsgrunn, about 150 km southwest of Oslo in Norway.

I started to play guitar sometime in the second half of the sixties, I do not remember exactly when it was. My mother had bought a cheap, but not too bad Japanese guitar. It was a classical style guitar with steel-strings, named Zen On. I think I still have it, but it is not playable anymore. A magazine for boy scout members were starting a guitar course at that time - learning the young boy scouts to play guitar at the camp fire. "Blowing in the wind" was the first song I learned to play, in the key of C. (I am not sure that my singing always was in the same key as my playing at that time.)

In my home town, there was at that time one small music store of the "all in one kind". They had everything from pianos, brass, guitars, drums, violins, sheet music, records and stereo equipment in that store. There was one man in the store who knew quite a bit about classical music, pianos and violins (the family who had started the store had a long and good reputation as fiddle builders, particularly known for their traditional Norwegian Hardanger-fiddles, a fiddle with 8 string (four played and four symphatetic resonating strings)). Then there were two girls who knew much more about make up than music. So there was not very much help for one who wanted to learn to play the guitar.

Of course a learned from my guitar playing friends: Some new chords, a little bit of finger-picking, a riff or two, etc. In the back of my head, there was some blues sounds. But is was hard to figure out how to play them. Two instances are worth mentioning. The first was the Swedish movie about the originally swede Joe Hill, who became a legendary trade union leader in US. He was sentenced to death and executed in what was really a political murder undertaken by the US court. (Some of you might remember the song "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night", sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock.) The music to that move was some very bluesy slide guitar playing, which turned out to be Stefan Grossman playing Hambone Willie Newburn's "Roll and Tumble". That was the kind of bluesy guitar I wanted to play. Then in my little home town music store, I found one guitar book that seemed to be interesting: Stefan Grossman's "Country blues guitar". My assumption was that this would give me explanation on how to play the kind of music he had played in the Joe Hill movie. Eventually it turned out that I was wrong, and my attempts was not very successful at that time. I knew nothing about Mississippi John Hurt, and I had never heard his music. My main blues reference was John Mayall, and I had Stefan Grossman's slide playing in my head (I still have). Trying to use transcriptions of unknown Mississippi John Hurt songs to figure out how to play some acoustic version of John Mayall blues and "Roll & Tumble" slide, was bound to fail. And it did.

A few song-books compiled and written by some popular Norwegian folk singers, proved more successful. They had some finger picking patterns for accompaniment, which I learned. Then one of these folk singers, Lillebjørn Nilsen wrote a very popular guitar method, at least for folk-style guitar. It was first published in the early seventies, and is still the most popular guitar method here in Norway.

At a concert Stefan Grossman held close to my hometown sometime in the the beginning or mid 70's, I brought my "Country Blues Guitar" book, and asked him to sign it, and so he did. He asked if I had learned a lot from it, and a little embarrassed I had to admit that I had not. One reason, which was true, was that the records was not available where I lived, and I had no idea how the music was supposed to sound. Probably a bit disappointed by the answer, Stefan pointed at an address in the back of the book, where I could get tapes with all the music.

I think it was about the same time I got hold of a catalog from Oak Publication, and one from Music Sales in London (Oak Publication is now part of Music Sales). And I got some addresses for mail order. Now I knew how to get some of all the books I knew existed out there, and I started to buy many of them. I bought the rest of Stefan Grossman's blues series on Oak, hoping that Delta blues would be the right place to search. And I bought Woody Mann's "Six black blues guitarists", Jerry Silverman's "Folk Blues Guitar", and a couple of other books. Jerry Silverman's book came with examples recorded on one of those soft, thin plastic records. But that was my only sound reference. The rest was music in print. And trying to get Charley Patton's guitar playing from Stefan Grossman's writing without the records, was another unsuccessful story. Eventually I ordered the tapes Stefan Grossman had compiled for his books. I think it was the first time I heard old recordings of blues from the 20's and 30's, and it was a shock. It did not sound very much like the sound I had in my head. The books and tapes, along with other books, tapes and videos, are available from Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop. It is still one of the best sources for traditional blues guitar playing. I think Stefan Grossman has meant more to the development of contemporary guitar playing than many will admit. Many guitar players will list traditional blues players among their main influences, and very few will list Stefan Grossman. But they will not tell that they learned traditional blues from Stefan's books, or from someone who learned from Stefan.

Eventually I also started to order records by mail order from Yazoo Records and Arhoolie Records, and from Arhoolie's sister company "Down Home Records", which still is an excellent source for this kind of music. Many of the records I bought was European re-issues of old blues records, and it felt stupid to mail order these records from US. But I had no idea of where to get them in Europe, and had found a very good US supplier.

The damage was already done in my approach to learning guitar. I had tried to get music out of the books for quite a long time, without too much success. I played the records and cassettes with the purpose of finding out how the printed music was supposed to sound. It took me a long time to realize that one should do the opposite: Learn the sound of the music, and then use the printed music as an aid to figure out how it is played. I learned a lot of the songs, but I did not develop my ears very well, and I did not get a solid platform on which I could develop my own playing style. I also think that working with mere transcriptions of songs is not the right way to learn the basic guitar playing.

Another of guitar educators, Happy Traum, came along to help, sometime in late 70's. (I discovered his tape-series at that time.) He was probably the one who pioneered lessons on tape. I bought his How to play Blues series from his company Homespun Tapes, and Arlene Roth's series on Bottleneck/Slide Guitar. That was before Arlene Roth started his own Hot Lick Tapes. Both series are still available from Homespun Tapes. Happy's Blues-series was what I had been searching for a long time. It tells you how to build a solid blues-guitar platform, and how to work new licks and new techniques into that platform. And learning from cassettes means learning by ear, with a little help from supplementary printed material. It was Happy's teaching that gave me what I needed to get my bits and pieces of guitar knowledge and playing skills together. It gave me a platform for development, not only new songs to play. And with that platform I could learn from songs, and not only learn the songs. It was 25 years ago and my playing has (hopefully) developed further since that time (with ups and downs - time does not permit as much guitar playing as I would like, and it is not very inspiring when practicing only will slow down the degeneration of your playing, and not improve it). But it was really a turning point in my development as a guitar player.

It was when I had mastered what Happy Traum taught me through his tapes and worked what I already knew into a more solid context, that I started to teach. At that time I had acquired the knowledge and skills that I wished someone could have taught me years ago. I wanted to share that knowledge with others who were struggling with their guitar just as I had done. In a way, these Internet lessons fills the same purpose: I have put together information that I wish had been available too me in earlier years.

Over the years I have worked with many different guitar styles: Rock, jazz, country, classical, folk and everything in between. But the blues/folk style acoustic guitar has always been the backbone of my playing, and I always end up trying to work what I learn into that basic style - with or without success. When people ask me in which guitar style I play, I always find it hard to answer.