Name: Nancy Conescu
Town: Portland, OR, originally from NYC
At what age did you start playing guitar and why?
I started playing guitar when I was 9. My parents sent me to summer camp, and another girl in my bunk had an electric guitar with her. Initially, I was too shy to ask her if I could play it, although I was dying to get my hands on it. As my desire overcame my shyness, I finally asked her if she'd let me borrow it. She lent me the guitar and showed me my first three chords: D, G, and A. I spent the rest of the day playing those three chords over and over until I cut through my fingertips on the steel strings. When I'd mastered those (and my fingers had toughened up a bit), my counselor showed me the fingering for E, Em, Am and Dm. I was on my way.
When I got home from camp that summer, I begged my parents for a guitar. Instead, they offered to pay me for doing extra chores around the house so I could save up and buy my own guitar. I happily agreed. By the time Christmas rolled around I'd saved up about 10 dollars (keep in mind that it was 1964, and I wasn't getting more than 10 or 20 cents for the extra chores). I guess my dad took pity on me, because I received a small "Lyle" guitar for Christmas. My parents banked my savings, and that became the seed money for the first banjo I bought when I was 12.I played that Lyle for years. It was made of plywood and strung with nylon strings. The action was too high and the fret alignment was all off. But I didn't know the difference until much later, when my parents bought me a Giannini classical guitar. I suspect it was their secret hope that I'd take the hint and set aside my love of traditional American music in favor of classical training. However, I just continued playing traditional and folk music on the Giannini.I loved that guitar, but my time with the Giannini was brief. Someone stole it while I was waiting for the school bus one morning. I'd put it down and turned my back on it for a moment to chat with a friend, and when I turned back it was gone. I was so heartbroken, I cried for days.By that time, I was 13, and beginning to earn more money babysitting. I started saving again and bought a Guild steel string when I was 16. But in the interim I struggled with the Lyle. I had the Lyle for many years. Other guitars came and went, but I held onto the Lyle for sentimental reasons. Ultimately, I gave it to the young daughter of a friend of mine - but not before I had the frets fixed and the strings lowered!
I can't remember a time in my life in which music didn't play a key role, so it's hard to talk about early influences without thinking of all the musical experiences that continue to influence me. But I'll attempt to discuss some of the major influences on my musical development without digressing too much...
My parents had a small collection of folk music, which included recordings by Burl Ives, Richard Dyer Bennet, Jean Ritchie, and Pete Seeger. From these records, I developed an abiding love of traditional singing. I wore out the grooves on Pete Seeger's album, "The Bells of Rhymney." I particularly loved the sound of his guitar on the title song. If I remember correctly, he played a twelve string with the low E strings tuned to D. Every time the low D boomed, my heart skipped a beat.Then I discovered Doc Watson. I couldn't get enough of his singing and playing. I saw him perform with his son, Merle, at Lincoln Center when I was 13 or 14. It was an inspirational evening. I spent a lot of time after that concert trying to figure out how one could play an instrument so brilliantly without being able to see it. I started practicing with my eyes closed. It turned out to be a very useful exercise, which I continue to use to this day.My parents also had recordings of Andre Segovia, Laurindo Almeida and Sabicas. Although I was never particularly interested in learning to play classical or Flamenco guitar, I loved the sound of it and listened to these albums all the time.I also have a cousin, named Paul Brown, who played a major role in shaping my musical development. Paul was a couple of years older than me, and as a child I idolized him. When I was 9 or 10, Paul bought an old Vega long neck banjo with the residuals he earned singing in the children's chorus on Tom Glazer's recording of "On Top Of Spaghetti." He began to learn old time banjo, and I used to try to accompany him on the guitar. The two of us often sang and played together at family gatherings. Paul went on to play with Mike Seeger, among others. Today, he works for NPR, both as an announcer and a producer, and remains a great and well known old time musician.
Although most of my earliest influences were folk based, I listened to and was subliminally influenced by many different kinds of music. One can't grow up in and around New York City without hearing all kinds of stuff. When I lived in Brooklyn Heights, I discovered Middle Eastern music. When I lived in Queens, I discovered Reggae. The whole city was awash in Latin based jazz. I heard Ravi Shankar play at Carnegie Hall. The legendary Reverend Gary Davis lived uptown. I had an older friend who had toured with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I haunted places like Gerde's Folk City, the Village Gate, Max's Kansas City and the Bitter End, where I saw the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Ritchie Havens, John Renbourn, and Taj Mahal, to name just a few. For my 16th birthday, in an era when most girls were still throwing themselves "Sweet Sixteen" parties, my best friend took me to Lincoln Center to hear Segovia play. We had third row orchestra seats, and I couldn't take my eyes off his hands the whole night. Segovia was 83 at the time. I remember his performance being flawless, if a bit low key, until he came back for six curtain calls(!) and delivered some of the most blisteringly fast music I've ever heard anyone play on guitar. I saw both Etta James and the Klezmorim (although not on the same ticket) ;-) at the Village Gate. I used to listen to WEVD, which presented music and news from many of New York's ethnic communities. I was particularly enamored of the Greek hour, which came on every Sunday morning. I loved the sound of the bouzouki, and would listen to all the songs they played, even though I hadn't a clue as to what anyone was saying.
I could go on and on, but I guess what I'm saying is that my earliest and greatest musical influence was New York City itself, and I was immersed in World music before it actually became a musical category.
I formed a jug band when I was 15. By that time I had discovered Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. The band included such luminaries as Bill Keith, Geoff Muldaur and Maria Muldaur. My own band's membership was significantly less illustrious, but we had a great time and gave our first and only public performance in my high school's auditorium during a talent show in 1970.
Acoustic Guitars you own:
I own two acoustic guitars. One is a 1999 Collings OM model. The other is a Doolin Jumbo ergonomic model guitar. Mike built this for me in 1998. I met Mike through a common friend, the great guitar maker Jeff Elliott. I had contacted Jeff about making me an acoustic double cutaway after I had bought a 1967 Barney Kessel model Gibson hollow-bodied electric guitar. As a DADGAD player, I discovered that the double cutaway gave me a great deal of room in which to move around the fingerboard. However, my fellow Irish musicians couldn't stand the sound of it, and for the most part they found the cherry red and gold sunburst finish way too flashy. However, I'd fallen in love with the double cutaway, and decided to find someone who could make me an acoustic version. Jeff had a ten year waiting list at the time, and therefore put me in touch with Mike, who had started making double cutaway acoustics. Mike was very enthusiastic about the oddball customizations I requested to accommodate my bum right shoulder (I have a separated clavicle and the entire shoulder girdle is a bit wonky as a result). Six months after I placed the order, I received my guitar. I've been playing it ever since.
My Collings is a beautiful guitar. Sadly, it mostly sits in its case, because I really prefer playing Mike's double cutaway.
I have two: my Gibson Barney Kessel, and my Doolin Ergonomic. The Doolin goes everywhere with me. The neck unbolts, which allows me to pack it up and check it through with my other luggage when I tour. With the neck and body separated, the chances of the guitar's neck breaking during transport are negligible.
I can't say enough about this guitar. It's unbelievably comfortable to play. It has an arm bevel and a leg cutaway which shifts its angle on my leg so that it tucks under my right arm. It's slightly wedge shaped, which makes the ribs only 3 1/2" wide in the upper bout.
Your Style, and how you developed it:
My style is considered a bit odd (or "unique," depending on who's doing the talking :-) ) for Irish music. Although like most accompanists, I flatpick, I tend to integrate endless single note runs into my chording patterns. Many people have commented that I play guitar like a bass. My banjo playing has had a significant impact on my style as well. I often use the upper strings (the high A and D) as drones. I also tend to syncopate the rhythm a lot. The way I play shifts slightly depending on whether I'm accompanying other players playing tunes, or myself while singing.
I developed my style by listening to fiddle and accordion players. Many years ago, the renowned Irish fiddler Kevin Burke informed me that great fiddle playing was predicated upon a strong rhythmic sense. This came to me as a great revelation, because I had assumed that Irish music was all about the melody. Thereafter, I began paying as much attention to how people were playing as I did to what they were playing. The impact on my own playing was immediate and dramatic. I started listening more to the lead players and less to other Irish guitarists, in an effort to gain a sense of what the rhythmic nuances of the music were. People who grow up playing within their own tradition generally don't need to be so analytical. They just seem to have a feel or knack for the music. As one who adopted the tradition later in life (I was in my mid twenties when I discovered Irish traditional music), I had to spend a lot more time watching, listening and analyzing. Luckily, there were many great players in and around Boston and New York in the '80s, and I began spending a lot of time at pub sessions. I was too shy to bring my guitar to the sessions and play. Rather, I'd try to pick out a couple of things during the course of a session to practice, and would rush home afterwards to try them out.
The next major change in the development of my style came in 1997, when I was doing a six week residence at McGurk's in St. Louis. I was playing five nights a week with a fiddler and an accordion player from Ireland, neither of whom I knew very well. After the first week on the job, the fiddler took me aside and informed me that it was not enough to have a general idea of where the tunes were going. He said that even though I wasn't playing the melodies, I needed to learn them note for note, and suggested that I take up another instrument in addition to the guitar. He was particularly unhappy with the way I accompanied jigs, which are played in 6/8. Ouch.
When I got home five weeks later, I decided that as I was already a singer, the quickest way to learn tunes was by lilting them. As I began learning melodies in earnest I also began to revamp my style, especially the way I played jigs. This stylistic overhaul took well over a year, but my friend's advice stood me in good stead. Interestingly, I had come full circle. Having spent years carefully following the rhythms of Irish music, I was now back to learning the melodies.
That's not to say that I don't listen to other guitarists. My mantra is: steal from everyone, imitate none.
Aside from this I have played in a variety of groups from duo to big band over the years. In my development I got chords together pretty quickly and took a much longer time to develop my own style as a soloist. For me listening to horn players and learning how to apply articulation and dynamics to the guitar in combination with understanding how to shape aline was a gradual process.
I'm not formally trained, and I'm not highly disciplined. I spend a lot of time messing around, especially when I'm trying to arrange a song. OK - maybe "messing around" is too loose a term. I experiment a lot. Irish music, like jazz, is improvisational. That means that I rarely accompany a tune the same way twice. I play by feel, although I've begun teaching myself the rudiments of theory. Unlike jazz, traditional Irish music is diatonic, so I don't have to worry about shifting key centers. However, I'm always using chord substitutions, so a more formal understanding of what I currently do by hunting and pecking would be extremely useful.
Songs are different. In order to sing freely, I need to be able to play without thinking about what my hands are doing, which in turn means that my arrangements are generally cast in stone. I undercut my conscious process by deliberately practicing in front of the TV. I'll play phrases over and over while distracting myself by watching the tube. This serves two purposes. It reinforces my muscle memory by forcing me to pay attention to something other than my hands, and it forces me to play accurately without watching my hands. I practice scales this way as well. I spend a lot of time picking tunes off of CDs, and I spend a lot of time accompanying tunes on CDs as well. I also work out new material at sessions. Since a lot of Irish music takes place in pubs, where people are often welcome to just come in and play, I get a chance to try out new songs or possible chord combinations in a more informal, yet public setting.
This is a tough one. I have so many musical heroes. As far as Celtic style guitarists are concerned, my two favorites are Tony McManus and Steve Cooney. I also really admire the playing of John Doyle, Randal Bays, and Mark Simos. I also spend a lot of time listening to Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson. I've been listening to a lot of jazz lately. I love Joe Pass, Charlie Christiansen, Tuck Andress, Lenny Breau, and Ted Green, (who plays a mind blowing version of Danny Boy).
Is there anything else you want people to know about you, your playing style or your views on today's music in general?
Unlike many guitarists, I consider myself to be primarily a rhythm player. I love to accompany other musicians, and I love to play behind songs. This preference has a major impact on my style of playing, which is fairly rhythmic and syncopated. I think a lot more about how things pulse than about how they move melodically. So even when I actually play a tune, it's always worked around the rhythm, rather than the other way around. For that reason, I listen to a lot of African music, which I love.
Visit Nancy's website at www.nancyconescu.com to learn more about Nancy and her music.