How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor explains why picking up guitar was his ‘Eureka’ moment

The How I Met Your Mother and Hunters star on Travis picking, his love of battered old Martins, and how coming to guitar late in life has given him a new outlet for his creativity.

Josh Radnor

Image: Ella Hovsepian

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The moment it all started…

“I learnt a couple of chords in college like everyone else, but I didn’t stick with it and, I wasn’t really anything of a guitar player. Then Ben Lee and I started writing songs together about seven years ago [as indie-folk duo Radnor & Lee] – we did a whole album but he was the only one playing guitar. But I had such a great time, it felt like this eureka moment in terms of my story telling and writing and performance – like this coalescing of all these disparate skills. And then about four years ago, I was going through a hard moment and I picked up the this guitar that I’d had laying around the house almost entirely unused for years, a Gibson J-45, and I started playing chord shapes, and I wrote this song called Foolish Gold and I played it for Ben and he really loved it, and I started playing it at our shows.”

“And then I just threw myself into it – I got teachers in New York and LA so I could keep learning wherever I was working… and I realised you can do so much with a little, y’know? Get a couple of chords under your belt you can just write thousands of songs. So that first year I was writing many songs a week – they were just pouring out of me. It was a really, really exciting time – it kinda felt like, y’know when Spider-Man realises he can shoot webs out his hands! Like, wait a minute I have this other skill – it’s so exciting!”

I couldn’t live without my…

“I spent a month in Nashville in December 2019, and I went to Carter’s [Vintage Guitars] and I bought a 1955 Martin 000 that is just so fun to play. It’s kind of banged up in that way that you almost, want like a 23 And Me for guitars – like, who played this thing? Where has this thing been?!”

My signature model…

“I love Martins – I know that’s probably a very obvious thing to say but there’s just something about, and they’re a really good partner to work with. So there’s an OM, I can’t remember the number, that is kind of like a dreadnought shape but is a little thinner, so you’re arm doesn’t get jerked out so far. A friend of mine has one and I really love it, and I love the 000 I have… whenever I play a Martin, I always think, ‘I gotta have this one!’”

Josh Radnor - One More Then I'll Let You Go

The first thing I play when I pick up a guitar…

“My teacher in New York taught me Travis picking fairly early on, which is probably a little more complicated than a beginner pattern. But I grew up listening to a lot of folk music and I love learning simple songs – when I respond to a song, it’s never super complicated? I could live with C, F and G the rest of my life y’know? So, my teacher thought the Travis picking would come in really hand for me to have. So, when I pick up a guitar I kinda just do a C, F, G and Travis pick, because I also feel when you pick on an acoustic, you really get a sense of y’know, the fullness of the thing.”

The best advice I’ve ever been given…

“One of my teachers said, ‘Great guitarists are defined by their right hand not their left hand’. You’re your own percussionist essentially, and if you blow a couple of notes, no one cares, but if you blow the rhythm people start getting confused!”

My Spinal Tap moment…

“Right before the pandemic the last gig I played before, everyone went to their bunkers. I was playing at Hotel Café with my friend Kerenza Peacock, who’s this world class violinist – for some reason, she also plays with me, which is a real thrill because she really classes up my songs! But I always like to say a centering prayer before I go out there, because even though it was only like a hundred I’m still getting used to playing without Ben, so my nerves were heightened. So I just said, ‘Whatever happens out there is right’ – like, ‘mistakes are good! It’s live’ y’know? We’re gonna roll with whatever happens.”

“But my intention was to come out there and be a moody singer-songwriter who didn’t say anything and just started playing. And I strummed the first chord, and my guitar somehow had gotten whacked completely out of tune and this really awful sound came out of it… and that was the first moment of the show! I just started laughing and said ‘We were just back there saying whatever happens here is right, so I assume this is correct…’ So I had to retune my guitar and while I did I told them that thing Miles Davis used to say, ‘I don’t perform I just rehearse in front of the audience’. And then I said, ‘Welcome to our rehearsal!’ And then the rest of the show was great! But it was a strange way to start!”

Josh Radnor
Image: Katharine Margaritis

My guilty pleasure…

“I both don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and I’m a snob all at the same time! It’s kind of like books. If you’re reading books, great – read whatever you want! But there are some pop songs that get me – I like that Olivia Rodriguez song Drivers Licence! When I first heard it was like, ‘This is a really good song!’ It’s really well constructed and it’s effective. I try not to hate things because they’re popular. But sometimes I’ll hook into a melody and then I’ll listen to the lyrics, and if they are quite thin or and saccharine, I just can’t go deeper with it. But then some other music is a little more forgiving at first and rewards repeat listening.”

I wish I was there…

“I would have loved to have seen Jeff Buckley play at the Sin-E, and those small clubs in New York in the early 90s. And I went pretty deep with those early Joni Mitchell recordings that were just released. Imagine stumbling into a Greenwich Village coffee shop on a snowy night in ’64 or something, and hearing the purity of that voice.”

The first thing on my rider…

“I don’t know. I just need to stay hydrated really. And I definitely can’t perform on a full stomach so there’s not a lot of food requests. I feel like the days of outrageous riders might be behind us. I’m reading the the Mark Harris biography of Mike Nichols reading the section on, the shooting of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when they were like, by far the most famous couple in the world. And they didn’t have trailers for them on set, they literally built them each a house on a set, and stocked it with champagne everywhere you turned – that hasn’t been my experience, and I’m grateful for that!”

If I could just play one thing…

“I was in Spain years ago, and my friend who is a musician in Madrid took me to this flamenco show at two in the morning in this secret room. That’s the kinda stuff that really melts my face. I don’t know that I’m ever going to get anywhere near there, but I certainly understand now the kind of commitment and hours, and the will that goes into becoming that, and being able to play that kind of stuff.”

Josh Radnor’s debut solo EP, One More Then I’ll Let You Go is out 16 April on Flower Moon Records.

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