Blues star Erja Lyytinen was voted the world’s second best living guitarist by the readers of Total Guitar magazine in May. Lyytinen is a slide-guitar virtuoso who has earned a master’s degree in guitar studies. Has her education benefited her in playing the blues, a genre not historically focused on formal training? And does technique help in songwriting?
“Europe’s best-educated blues guitarist” – that’s Erja Lyytinen’s tongue-in-cheek title for herself.
Education has taken this 44-year-old guitarist and singer-songwriter far. Within just the past couple of years, she has collaborated with former Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten and slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, and appeared at the Toronto Jazz Festival with Dan Aykroyd of the Blues Brothers. Meanwhile she’s published an autobiography and been ranked as the world’s #2 contemporary guitarist by Total Guitar magazine.
From a blues history standpoint, Lyytinen may be over-educated. She is certainly aware of this and agrees that she certainly could have gotten by with less schooling.
“At worst, education can homogenise everyone, and produce an odourless, tasteless result. Young people learn what their teachers teach them, but this can be quite a narrow perspective.”
Lyytinen says that she avoided this kind of equalising education, because when she was young, she studied with a variety of teachers at different schools in various countries. Each place where she studied left her with specific tools to develop her own musical knowledge and skills.
“I think that everything that I studied – like, say, some analysis of Wagner’s music – left something deep inside that I can draw on in what I do now,” she says. “Education is a form of capital.”
From Kuopio to LA
Erja Lyytinen was in secondary school when she first heard Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash. It had a dramatic impact: she switched from violin, her childhood instrument, to guitar, which seemed much cooler and more rebellious.
At first Lyytinen practiced guitar with instructions from her musician father. She practiced for a couple of hours a day: rock classics, Simon & Garfunkel, even Yngwie Malmsteen. Playing was so fascinating that she didn’t even call it practicing, just playing the guitar.
Blues really suits the guitar, and it has a kind of emotional content that really hit me.
In 1992 she started on a long path of musical education: from Kuopio High School of Music to the Kuopio Conservatory, on to Malmö Academy of Music in Sweden, then to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen and then the Los Angeles Musicians Institute of Technology. In 2010 Lyytinen earned a master’s degree in music.
All this time, Lyytinen was writing her own music, inspired particularly by 1970s British rock and its archetype: the blues.
“Blues really suits the guitar, and it has a kind of emotional content that really hit me. I probably started listening to the blues when I was 18 or 19. Around the same time, when I was at the Kuopio Conservatory, I became interested in playing slide guitar, which has become my trademark.”
Skills to pay the bills
As the Total Guitar magazine vote shows, Lyytinen has polished her playing skills to a virtuosic level. But how much does that actually matter in music after all? Is technical skill any use, if for instance, you don’t know how to come up with good songs?
“That’s a good question. Nowadays YouTube is full of amazing players, and each one seems to be faster than the last. They’re fun to watch, but then you wonder, would I go to see their gigs? After three minutes at least I start to wonder what this really leaves with me, or what’s next.”
In the best case, a good song can be combined with interpretation and technical know-how. Technique helps you to bring out the interpretation.
Lyytinen says that her attitude toward showy technical brilliance has changed in recent years.
“When I was younger it sometimes even made me laugh, because I thought that every song should have substance, feeling and interpretation – in other words the core of the blues. But now that I’m older I’ve gotten more interested in these challenging technical things. In the best case, a good song can be combined with interpretation and technical know-how. Technique helps you to bring out the interpretation.”
More effects, more freedom
Lyytinen has already had a professional career for more than two decades. The years have included many albums, tours, awards and honours. An important moment in the formation of her artistic identity was in 2005, when Lyytinen got to know Thomas Ruf, founder of the German label Ruf Records.
“Thomas had a lot of influence on my music-making and my look. He couldn’t stand anything clinical or academic. Going through Thomas’s mill brought be completely different perspectives on music, and that led to international tours starting in 2006. And I’m still on that path,” she says.
My own repertoire has continuously deepened, and my guitar pedal board has expanded. That’s brought me more courage and spiritual freedom to do whatever I want.
In recent years, Lyytinen’s music has gradually started to include more accents from the hard rock and progressive fusion bands that she listened to when she was younger.
“Thanks again to education, where you draw on all kinds of sounds and things. My own repertoire has continuously expanded and deepened, and my guitar pedal board has expanded with more effects. That’s also brought me more courage and spiritual freedom to do whatever I want. Now I run my own record label, so I’m only responsible to myself.”
Lyytinen says that she no longer tries to limit herself to the traditional blues box. Nor does she need to: the blues is nowadays much more multicoloured than when she picked up the guitar in the early 1990s – in an era when Total Guitar’s list of the best players would never have included a female guitarist.