Elvis Costello Is the Only Guitar Teacher You'll Ever Need

The legendary musician helps listeners get in touch with their "inner idiot" and discover the uncomplicated joy of strumming a six-string in the new Audible Original How to Play the Guitar and Y

Elvis Costello. Photo: Mary McCartney

​"This isn't, strictly speaking, an instructional manual," Elvis Costello confesses near the beginning of How to Play Guitar and Y, "but a work of comedic philosophy." That's as apt a description as any for this new Audible Original production (premiering Thursday), a charmingly idiosyncratic blend of Costello's musical and storytelling brilliance. Like his extensive back catalogue, the 96-minute soulful seminar resists easy classification. It's partially a music history lesson, though our research has uncovered suspiciously little about Ivan the Terrible's musically-inclined brother, Dennis. It's not quite a memoir, though it's packed with wisdom accrued from Costello's legendary career. It's almost a guitar masterclass, albeit one that eschews classical notation in favor of three-chord vamps promised to "give voice to your heart's desire."

That covers the titular "How." But the "Y"? That's where things really get interesting. Costello, 67, expounds on the complex spiritual reasons why human beings have been moved to make music for millennia, and the silly reasons we often talk ourselves out of it — namely, the dreaded F-chord, which has left the fingers of novice guitarists throbbing since time immemorial. Instead, he helpfully steers listeners away from the early pitfalls that discourage many learners from pressing forward. Rather than drill modes and scales, he encourages new players by insisting that they are closer to greatness than they may think. While common sense would indicate otherwise, when Elvis Costello says it, you feel duty-bound to believe it. He even extols the virtues of screwing up on occasion. "We are most likely to come up with something of our own while failing miserably to get within a demented chord of our idol or ideal."

It's tempting to say he's taking a bold stance against the professionalization of the arts, but it's less complicated than that. He simply wants to share the fun. "We could always play when we were children in a state of grace, before heartbreak, before cynicism, before attitude, before ownership, before commodity," he says in the touching conclusion. "Never forget to play."

You most likely won't wind up sounding like Elvis Costello by listening to How to Play the Guitar and Y. But if you're lucky, you'll sound like yourself. Don't think too much. Just do it.

Audible’s “Words + Music” series, “How to Play the Guitar and Y,”

I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed How to Play the Guitar and Y. I found it extremely inspiring! I'm a passionate amateur musician, but like a lot of people I struggle to use the instrument to express emotion rather than just imitate. Your piece reminded me that "play" is the operative word.

It really is. I mean, I make no pretense to being a very accomplished musician. I can hear a lot of things, but I could never get a job playing other people's music. I play my own way! I've said this a number of times: It's important to keep the inner idiot alive. At least with regard to the rock and roll guitar. I'm trying to catch that in this story.

I've told the story of my career (as I chose to tell it) in a very long book I published a few years ago called Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. It wasn't really about my career so much as it was about memory. A lot of it was to do with the relationship with my father and his father. There was less about my mother, who actually raised me. It took the example of two generations of accidental musicians: my grandfather — who was an orphan and picked up the trumpet as a way out of the orphanage — and also my father, who followed his example. So I had already told all that kind of story.

I thought that the few anecdotes that I could put in this piece would illustrate how not to let yourself be fearful to the extent that you cheat yourself out of the fun of playing, even if you're stumbling. You know, they call them "happy accidents." They don't call them "unhappy accidents"! Those happy accidents sometimes lead you to the next thing.

In my case, it was the realization that I didn't have to link the learning of playing the guitar in order to sing a song with learning to read music in the way you do when you learn the piano. When you play the piano you tend to look [at the sheet music]. And yet, as I say in the second chapter of the piece, the piano is a really inviting smile. All the white keys are all very logically arranged in an order. At first, you don't venture off that and you don't have to think about sharps and flats. So as you're reading, your fingers aren't having to move away from this progression of notes that's all in a logical order. But, of course, the minute you go on to explore more expressive music, you have to understand other keys and the relationship between all these notes. On the guitar the same idea immediately puts you at a disadvantage, because if you start in C, then F is your second chord. And F is nearly impossible [to play]!

So taking that painful lesson that I learned, I thought, "Well, what are the other ways you can literally play — in the sense of joyful play — and what stories can I tell to illuminate that?" Not in any serious instructional way, because I don't honestly think anyone learned to play the guitar from listening to this. But they may learn how not to not learn, if you catch my drift.

One of my favorite aspects of How to Play the Guitar and Y is that it touches on everything from the mechanics of playing to music history to the spirit of performance, and it unifies them all in such a compelling way. Was there a specific line or sentiment that provided the inspiration for this?

This initial idea was kind of a party trick of mine. I would tell people, "If you just don't start in C, that's a start!" But you couldn't just make a piece out of that one notion. So then I had to explain why C was likely the starting place. And from there on, if you start again and you begin in another more fluid key for the novice, like G or like D, you're likely to get a little further a little quicker. Then I think it's keeping that curiosity alive, and everybody's level of curiosity is different. You must know people that can pick up a guitar, play a simple tune and that's all they ever wanted to do. They're satisfied doing that. There are many great musicians that don't veer much beyond three or four chords. They write great songs and they've never really bothered about being in other keys because they can put a capo on and change it into a key that suits their voice. I know plenty of people that do that. Just like there were lots of great musicians, particularly expressive jazz musicians, who learnt by ear. That doesn't make them lesser musicians. There are a number of great jazz musicians who don't read music.

Not everybody's knowledge of musical notation and sight-reading ability is at the same level as a member of the New York Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra. That's a different training. My training is one of listening — first to my father, who did read music. His father, on the other hand, couldn't play without music. He was a military-trained guy. I'm the third generation of musicians [in my family] and I'm the least trained. I can hear quite complex music, and I can write it down, but I can't sight-read it. The thing I never trained myself to do is look at the notes and have them come out of the instrument that I play, either guitar or piano.

I do understand how the music is rendered on the page and how that relates to the register that the instruments are in, but that's different. You have to really work at getting that eye-hand relationship and it's not for everybody. So when it comes to playing the guitar, you're not playing scales and modes so much as you're playing shapes. Agreeable chord, agreeable chord agreeable chord, back to that one minor chord — that adds a little darkness! Now you've got a bit of mystery and now you've got many, many more songs at your disposal. That's all I wanted to point out.

It wasn't really a complicated idea, I just wanted to tell it in an entertaining ramble that people would follow. And by the end of it, if they never ever pick up an instrument, maybe they at least understand how to get to the curious part. Let yourself go, as Irving Berlin said.

It's wonderful — and probably helpful — that you grew up in a household that really valued music. I worry that there's this unfortunate tendency to divorce music and art from everyday life. It's become something for special occasions. We take musicians and essentially "other" them by putting them literally above us on the stage. Most children at a certain age are told, either through words or actions, that music isn't for them. At least if they don't reach a certain level that allows them to monetize their skill. The act of playing purely for the fun of it is devalued. How do you combat that mentality?

I don't know if that's everybody's experience. There is a process of elevating some people from the musical world and, by the same token, there are people that I personally know who are songwriters and performers who, at other times, would have been multi-million selling recording artists. But right now they're not recognized as having the potential for that, so they might be playing relatively modest venues. I came in during the last period where one could break through to a lot of people other than via social media, because it didn't exist. It took a bit longer to get people to be aware of you, because you had to literally go to their town, or you had to try and get on the radio, which wasn't always easy. But you had a bit more of a chance of being heard for what you really were rather than just being "famous," almost as a form of notoriety rather than an actual fame.

Elvis Costello performing with English pop group Elvis Costello And The Attractions
Elvis Costello and The Attractions performing in Liverpool, 1979. Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns

I don't really think it's fame that's ever governed what I do. I play and people either like it or they don't like it. I'm only playing for the people listening. If you worry about the people who aren't listening, you'll never leave the house! But I do think that people gather together to play music [for the sake of it] more than you think. There's all sorts of reasons why you do that. As I point out in this piece, there's only five or six reasons why we sing and play at all, and they're shared across every culture in the world. We might believe different things, and we might place different weight and significance on the act of singing and playing in praise or in lament, or just to dance or just to seduce or to express a more complex literate idea. But that's shared across most cultures and humanity, as far as I can see.

Has this last 18 months [in lockdown] changed your relationship to the guitar in any way? Did having a bit of time in one place help you reconnect with playing just for the sheer pleasure of it?

Well, I've made a lot of recordings in that time, but until the weekend before last I hadn't played guitar onstage since March of 2020. I completed the record Hey Clockface, which I'd begun in Helsinki and Paris and ended up completing over a [Zoom] connection like this with a friend in New York and Sebastian Krys in Los Angeles. Sebastian and I have been in almost daily contact working on something. If I wasn't playing the guitar, I was listening to the guitar. I was listening to his mixes of the live material from the Armed Forces box set that came out last year. I was listening to the recordings of the EP that Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori made [La Face de Pendule à Coucou]. They wrote the translations, [and] we recorded Iggy Pop and Isabelle Adjani and the group TSHEGUE singing in French.

And we completed Spanish Model. Now we have a whole record that we made 43 years ago, which is being sung in Spanish by a wonderful cast of Latin singers. I mean, playing the guitar has been part of it. Or rather, considering the guitar and hearing guitar parts put into a different relationship with those new renditions of these songs. Even though it was my playing from all this time ago, it was interesting what happens to the rhythm when they sing in another language. You hear the guitar differently, you hear the bass differently. It's the same playing but it sounds different. It sounds strong in different ways.

I don't want to give all the game away, but obviously we haven't stopped. Because what else were we gonna do? Feel sorry for ourselves? I mean, there's only so many songs that one can sing about isolation that are as good as John Lennon's "Isolation." There aren't too many songs about that topic that are better than that song! So why even try?

This piece [How to Play the Guitar and Y] was recorded in a cupboard under the stairs, not a recording studio. I was sitting there with a little glowing light and my script and my ukulele and my guitar and making funny noises as the soundtrack. I became what I always wanted to be, which was a sound effects man on comedy radio. Only this time it was to my own voice with this story. When you think about it, when you're separated from one another as we are now, how is that different from when you're all in different booths in the recording studio? The idea of being separated by thousands of miles is just an attitude.

If you were to focus on the sorrowful, troubling things about the emergency that we're living through, you're going to be weighed down by them. Not in a sense of rejecting common sense and prudence, but in the sense of emotionally feeling yourself confined in a box. Why would you not kick your way out of that box with the musical will and the spirit you've got? And if it's this little story, or if it's the next song by me that you hear, then I will have done my job. That's what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to communicate. I was given that job over 40 years ago and I still love doing it. Eventually we'll be back on the stage doing it.

I was very intrigued by the line in the piece when you say, "Music speaks secrets beyond words." What is it about music that makes it such an effective medium for transmitting emotion?

I think of it in this way. I share my life with a jazz pianist and singer [Diana Krall]. Now, my wife's map of Europe goes much further east than mine, because jazz had an ability — just as it probably still does, in some senses — to convey ideas that are not even permissible in words. I think that jazz had the ability to be a dissonant force during the Iron Curtain era to speak to people in Czechoslovakia, and even further east, in a kind of undercurrent of thought and emotion that wasn't encouraged in those cultures.

But then you could also say the same about the segregated society that we live in. I feel that people wrote pieces of music in all sorts of forms that were coded in meaning. They didn't need lyrics to say what they were about. You can pretty much guess what Max Roach's "Freedom Now We Must Insist" is about, but there's lots of other music but that's more subversive in the fact that it didn't even announce its intentions. It was just contained in the music to be about change, to be about justice, or to be about joy of living — not even about the political process. I think it's true the way it's traveled across the world and that's why I say the shared things in all humanity that we sing about are more significant than things that divide us in terms of ideology. Those things are passing fancies and, in time, will fade, as Ira Gershwin said. (Is that right? Is that a correct quote? Sounds good, anyway!) [Laughs before launching into an impromptu version of "Love Is Here to Stay."]

This is a great example of something I loved about your piece: You drew all these connections between artists and genres that were not immediately apparent. To my knowledge, you are the first person to draw a line from [the pre-War, ukulele-playing British music hall star] George Formby to the Sex Pistols.

George Formby was somebody that I didn't really like when I was a kid but I've grown to appreciate because of the fact that he was saying all these impossibly naughty things on the radio and horrifying people. [Laughs] Much in the same way the Sex Pistols' sense of rebellion was rather flimsy in terms of actual revolutionary thought, it was still thrilling to hear it. People acting on that cue was fairly limited [at the time], but the sound of a record like "Pretty Vacant" is so persuasive that you could believe the world might change. And maybe it did it change in the moment that you felt it could. That's true of any song like that.

I always find it fascinating that so many artists who came of age in the '50s and '60s cite these novelty-style pop songs like "You're a Pink Toothbrush, I'm a Blue Toothbrush" and "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window" as an influence alongside rock pioneers like Eddie Cochran or Chuck Berry. It's so interesting to think of a time when rock 'n' roll existed side-by-side with all sorts of other kinds of music and light entertainment. Do you think there's something lost when people aren't forced to take popular music in totality and sift through all of the middle-of-the-road stuff? Now, in this world of unlimited choice, it's almost like a certain context is removed.

Advertising people are responsible for many, many sins, and one of them was to force upon radio the notion of hard formatting to make playlists less interesting. We use the word "diversity" now. I caught the very tail end of freeform FM radio when you literally could hear wildly different music side by side, and within three years that had gone away. The reason why that had gone away was because somebody in an advertising agency wanted to reliably inform their clients that if they invested in TV and radio advertising they were only going to have one type of person listening to that station: the kind of person that buys roof installation or car mufflers. If you play them Miles Davis, that might not happen. If you play them The Grateful Dead, that might not happen. But if you play them this music, it probably will. They worked out the science of it, just like people that have worked out how to play sports by counting numbers. So all the poetry and all the grace goes out of it because they're no longer thinking of the imaginative possibility. They're thinking of percentages. It's like you're planning everything from the boardroom or from the accounting office instead of from the impulse to express something.

At the time that I first wrote "Radio, Radio" in 1975, I wrote it in imitation of Bruce Springsteen and it had a lyric that was positive. It was all about radio being great, because I listened to Bruce's songs and I thought, "That sounds like a land I'd like to live in! There's a girl in a red dress and a fast car and a Tilt-A-Whirl. Man, I want to go there!" Of course, when I went there it wasn't anything like that. It just looked like a little seaside town. Asbury Park looks just like New Brighton! But in my dream of it, it was magical.

And then I got into making records and I turned the song around. Music was now becoming very conformist. It was becoming mundane and predictable and we wanted to have the choice and let everything be different.

By the time we get to 43 years later and you have Fito Paez writing a new version of "Radio, Radio" on Spanish Model, he can't fight that battle again because that world has gone. We have instantaneous access to everything in the world, but we still have to tune out the static — the static that makes us not understand what's of value. And so that's what Fito wrote about. When you listen to his version you hear a story that's not dissimilar to what I'm saying in this piece, which is just simply: Let yourself go, let yourself dream, like yourself make a mistake. That might be a way to learn the next thing you need. If you never play the guitar you at least have fun listening to somebody else stumble around trying to do it.

Speaking of Spanish Model, how has that process been for you? In a sense you're now an outsider to your own songs. Has it allowed you to hear them from a fresh perspective?

My goodness, yes! I mean, Fito's [song] is the most extreme because he completely rewrote the lyrics and I loved him for doing that. But if you think [for example] "La Chica De Hoy" is the way in which "This Year's Girl" is rendered — that is, "the girl today," literally. That's the same idea as "This Year's Girl." That's like saying, "This is the girl that we are looking at." The Colombian singer Cami is a rising star in the pop music world. So you suppose she is very aware of the gaze to her. She is the center of attention, she is the object looking back at the man's gaze. She's making that estimation, or that calculation, of what that gaze looks like. Is it sincere? Is it heartfelt? My point of view when I was 23 was that there was a lot of stuff that was really insincere. Glamour wasn't to be trusted, but neither was a man. I wasn't making a comment against women, I was saying that this whole thing is not reliable.

And to hear Cami sing it so beautifully, with passion and determination, I just thought it was so great. It turned the song around on itself. And that happened several times on the record. La Marisoul sings "Little Triggers" with a tremendous depth of feeling. I was thinking more of the trigger was that to pleasure. Hers is that feeling that if you can't trip that switch you're going to drop down into the depths of sorrow. She found a different story in it. And that is really what has been the pleasure [of this project]. It's a little more profound a difference than simply interpreting the songs in a new recording. You're relating to the sound of The Attractions forceful performance and then it's adapted into another language, which forces a different way of thinking about the story. It means that people are adapting the thoughts of my song into a lyric. It's not a literal translation but an adapted translation, which means you've got to think about what the images mean in that lyric and find something that works in Spanish that fits the music. It's a totally different calculation.

I imagine you had to work quite closely with these artists to convey the nuances of the words. For years your lyrics have drawn a tremendous amount of attention, and even scrutiny. Does getting too specific about the meaning of a song remove its power? Is [the annotation website] Genius your enemy?

Well, I am aware where the bodies are buried within my own songs. I know when there's a sleight of hand, or some deception, or a truth. And those stories change in time. I recently heard a rendition of "I Want You" done as a duet, which was astounding. I never thought of it being sung as a duet; it seemed like such a solitary point of view. So there are all these possibilities within songs.

I started out to be a songwriter, not a performer. So I'm open to the idea of people interpreting songs — even members of the audience. If they hear something different and they take a different story, provided they're not telling me what I was doing or how I should have written it, I'm fine with it because I know what I was doing. And I do know what I'm doing when I make records. If you don't like them, that's fine. You've got the choice to buy another record.

Elvis Costello Live At The Palladium
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

The circumstances that provide me the opportunity to do it is, to some degree, good fortune. I mean, I also have the ability and the curiosity to imagine these songs, with this one being different to the previous one. But I also have to have great cohorts. I have a wonderful ally in Sebastian Krys. We've worked on so much music over the last four or five years. There's a bunch of other one-off things that we did together, some of which are not available yet, and music for the future, which I don't want to speak about just yet.

Because we couldn't be out playing, the most important thing is to keep the feeling of connection. If I could only reach the four or five of us that play together, or do a song completely on my own and give it to somebody else, that's what I should be doing. I mean, what else am I going to do? Sit around feeling sorry for myself? What good is that going to do? If you do a job and you're physically unable to go to work and therefore you can't earn your living and your business goes under or you lose your job, that's a terrible thing. I can't feel sorry for myself because my job is one I can achieve. That doesn't make me better than anyone. It just means that I'm lucky that I get to keep on doing my job. And if I can come out at the end of it with something that's worth hearing for a moment, then that's what I do.

Well, I should add that I feel immensely lucky to be on the receiving end of what you do. I know I speak for many when I say that your music has touched me for many years. It gave voice to feelings I was unable to articulate as a young person — and probably still struggle with!

You and me both! [laughs] I was just saying this the other day. Somebody asked me what I felt about The Beatles. I was 8 when I heard "Love Me Do." I was 16 when I went to see Let It Be with my father. We both came out of the theater extremely depressed. I'd just watched my favorite group break up on film! (So I'm so delighted that [Peter Jackson's] Get Back [documentary] is coming out to kind of rejudge the balance of that story!) But the point is, if we are fortunate to have good music that carries you through that transition from childhood into the first glimmering of what it means to be an adult, that's lucky! If you've got a record that is the soundtrack or is the solace or is the encouraging element or the sense of something right or something wrong — whatever it is. You don't need me to say the names of the songs. They're different for you than they are for me because we're different ages. But we're lucky! I love all the stuff that I love more deeply than I've ever done. That's the one thing I think is really true. I've listened in a different head, because I haven't been moving so fast. Records that I've adored and felt I've known all my life, like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong] or something like that.

Did you know Louis Armstrong used to record tapes in his den in Corona [Queens]? He would record other people's music, and sometimes his own music, and make little compilations. They were almost like a mixtape for himself, which he sometimes narrated. He also used to correspond using these recordings and send them to people. A friend of mine's father knew Louis Armstrong and used to send him things like Christmas messages on tape and Louis would reply in kind.

I read this article recently by one of the people that's involved in the Armstrong archive and they were talking about listening to the tape that he made on the day he passed. And [the archivist] said, "Well, I was looking at the tape and it seemed like the end, but then I realized there was a bit more tape, so I listened on." Sure enough, a minute or two later, there were a couple of other songs. So, without knowing this for absolutely certain, this man said, "I think there's a pretty good chance that the last record that Louis Armstrong listened to of his own music was 'April in Paris' with Ella."

I'll never be able to hear that piece of music quite the same way now that I know that. That song meant something to him in that moment, and then he just went to bed and he passed. I mean, after everything that he gave the world, he thought enough of that performance to be listening to it on that day. He could have been listening to, I don't know The Bee Gees or something. Which would have been good, too! But he wasn't, he was listening to his own record. And you know, I think that's kind of beautiful.

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