Building confidence, saying yes, and finding your voice as a guitarist: A conversation with Joan Griffith

Joan Griffith
Joan Griffith, in her office at Macalester College (Photo: Colleen Cowie).

It’s hard to sum up Joan Griffith’s musical career. She is a guitarist who also plays bass, mandolin, and a plethora of other string instruments. She has played in the pit for musicals, in jazz combos, and Renaissance music groups. She teaches private lessons and directs ensembles at various colleges, hosts a radio show on Jazz88, and gigs regularly.

I know Joan Griffith as a guitar instructor and jazz band director at Macalester College, where I have had the opportunity to learn from her for the past three years. Recently, I sat down with Joan to chat about her path as a musician and her relationship with the guitar. You can use the player above to listen to our conversation.

Although neither of them were professional musicians, Joan’s parents shared a deep love for music. When Joan was five years old, her mom signed her up for piano lessons. When she wasn’t playing piano, Joan would pick up her dad’s Martin steel-string guitar and teach herself how to play. Later, she discovered nylon strings, and fell in love with the bossa nova sound.

“I think with guitar, at least popular music guitar, most everybody gets into it because they’ve heard something that they love, that they want to sound like. For me, it was bossa nova,” Joan said.

She studied classical guitar in college, and after graduation, Joan kept herself busy gigging in a number of different bands and ensembles. “I didn’t have a plan, but when people asked me to do something, I would always say yes,” she said.

In her first days at college, one of the guitar instructors went out of his way to find Joan and tell her that she would never make it as a professional guitarist. While his words stung in the moment, Joan says that this experience helped her build a thicker skin as a performer. As an instructor, Joan strives to create a supportive environment for her students to explore music in the way that speaks to them.

“I don’t think there’s any way you can tell what’s in a person’s heart,” she said. “You don’t know what people are capable of.”



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