James Joyce’s guitar chord

Continuing my occasional foray into the guitar in literature, here is a famous picture of the author of “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake” presumably trying out a tune before a session (or maybe about to smash the guitar in frustration). In fact, Joyce was reputed to have had a fine tenor voice, and the singer John McCormack offered to teach him, encouraging him to take music as a career.

The original photo, taken by Ottocaro Weiss ,a friend who was “scandalized” by Joyce’s guitar playing, is housed in Cornell’s James Joyce collection, in an exhibit in a glass closet titled “Poetry and Music.”


Fingers to stray on Joyce’s guitar again after its restoration,” an article by Terence Killeen in the March 22, 2012 Irish Times, discusses the restoration of Joyce’s guitar and contains a fascinating video clip of the luthier at work on the guitar. Gary Southwell, the luthier, guesses, based on the finger wear on the fretboard, that Joyce probably was not a “fantastic” guitarist because the wear suggests mostly first position, standard chord forms: “He wasn’t all over the fingerboard.”
However his right hand also needs attention.

Here is an interesting article on the picture (warning: may contain graphic details of chord shapes).

And here are some photos of a session with Bernard O’Donoghue, Oxford poet, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Joyce.


Gerald, Bernard and John Pethica

The Session

John Pethica, Mick Henry, Bernard O’Donoghue, Gerald Garcia
Session in the Oxford Union

Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake

Mátyás Seiber “Three Fragments from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”

Restoration of the guitar


8 thoughts on “James Joyce’s guitar chord

  1. Hi Gerald,

    Very interesting post, thank you for sharing. I agree with you and Joe’s analysis of the picture in that he’s most likely just tinkering. Wish we could know for sure.

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  3. Thanks for the follow up, Gerald, a post within a post! Very interesting your blending of the chord analysis with the Irish folk music Joyce was probably tinkering around with, and that he might not have been playing a chord so much as fingerpicking a tune, with attention to the right hand.

    • Hi Joe!
      First of all, thanks for the original, thought provoking article at http://joelinker.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/james-joyces-guitar-chord-in-the-1915-ottocaro-weiss-photo/#comments
      I actually reckon he isn’t playing a chord at all. His right hand fingers are not poised to do so, and the hand disposition implies the hidden right thumb looks as is about to pluck the 6th string. The left hand is pretty definitely fingering F sharp on the 6th, and the left hand ring finger looks about to finger D on the 2nd string. So my guess is that he is playing a melody in the key of D major or G major (both common keys in Irish folk music), starting on the note F sharp, as in “Danny Boy”. His left hand second finger looks as if it is about to play the G on the 6th string, and if he strummed the subsequent chord with his thumb, it would be a G major, first inversion (avoiding the first string). So, a melody beginning F sharp to G, followed by a chord of G! Or.. it could simply be a chord of D major, second inversion (missing out the first string) with the left hand first finger on the F sharp of the sixth string, the second finger on the A of the 3rd string and the third finger on the D of the second string. This opens the possibility for a multitude of Irish pieces, and the unusual inversion of the chord still implies a melody in the bass beginning with an F sharp. If the melody began on the open A string and went down to the F sharp, this indeed could be the opening of “Finnegan’s Wake”, the tune made popular by the Dubliners, beginning-
      “Tim Finnegan lived in Watling street
      A gentleman Irish, mighty odd
      He had a brogue both rich and sweet
      And to rise in the world he carried a hod”
      But I think this is more than fanciful!
      Maybe it’s a little early in the morning for me to be thinking about these matters!

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