How Does Young Guitar Virtuoso Think?
Author: Piotr Sierzputowski, 16.09.2020
Johan Tillgren is a young and very talented guitar player from Sweden. He has played guitar for 14 years now and has achieved a very high level of mastery - just listen to his debut EP "Until The End Of Time" that came out 4 years ago (that was just 10 years after Johan started playing guitar at all!).
He has played in 2 bands - Terminus and Discovery Zero. Now he's busy working on his first solo LP album (I was honored to listen to a few excerpts of his work - this CD will be amazing, I tell you!). Besides that, Johan is a professional guitar instructor at his place in Sweden and he sometimes trains guitar players from all over the world at an international music seminar in USA (this is where we have met).
I'm very excited about this interview, because it shows how Johan thinks - it's always great to look inside the head of someone who achieved more in 10 years (music and guitar-wise) than "normal" people in 30 years :) Enjoy!
Playing in a band and working as a musician is definitely a joyful occupation, but there are also many challenges along the way … You need to learn how to play, create music, record it, motivate your band members to work with you (after you have found them of course)… What are some of your best character traits that helped you reach your current level in musicianship / music career?
The strongest thing for me has always been the vision of how I want my music to be. I take a lot of time to think and imagine what would be the coolest music ever, and then I try to create it. I follow the advice of Steve Vai: find the thing that excites you the most, and go after that. Challenges and obstacles will always happen and they can be frustrating, but if you’re pursuing something you are really excited about, the challenges become very small in comparison to the thing you are pursuing.
In your view, what are some of the biggest mistakes that young musicians make? What are the roadblocks that they put on their own ways to achieve what they want?
Trying to do what everybody else is doing, not listening to your own voice. There’s a lot of music being created today, but I think a lot of it sounds similar to each other. It’s rare to hear artists and bands that truly create something unique. It’s valuable to take inspiration from others, but when you sit down to create music, try to forget about what everybody else is doing, and just make your own kind of music in the best way you can, at whatever level you are at.
If you could go back in time and meet the younger version of yourself, what would you tell him (on the topic of music)?
I would tell him to release more music, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and do imperfect stuff. I have always been a perfectionist and so there’s a lot of music I have created that just sat on my hard drive for years because I didn’t think it was good enough. That’s not good for either me or others, because others didn’t get to enjoy it, and I didn’t get to have others listen to it and enjoy it.
When it comes to musical aspects of playing in a band, there are many things you need to do – expanding you general musical skills, rehearsals, preparing for concerts, practicing songs, creating songs, recording, playing gigs… What are your favorite musical things to work on?
I like to take anything on guitar or piano, such as a scale, a chord, a chord progression, a rhythm….and ask myself "what emotion does this express?” It’s something that takes time, practice and introspection but the more you do it the more you start to be able to see emotional patterns in the structures of how music is built. I also like to do the opposite, I start with an emotion and ask myself how I can express it through music. This never gets old and I will probably keep working on it for the rest of my life.
When you publish your own music or play concerts… or do anything artistic in public, you can experience quite a lot of negative unconstructive critique coming from other people. If we cared too much about this, none of us would be playing anymore. What is your view on this phenomenon and how do you deal with it?
This may sound a bit cold, but you’ve got to detach yourself from both the negative and the positive feedback you get. If you tie your happiness too much to when people like your stuff, you are putting too much weight on their opinion, and then when it swings around and people don’t like your music, you give weight to that too. Don’t get me wrong, other people liking your stuff is a great feeling that should be enjoyed, but you can’t be too attached to it.
You’ve got to take a step back and realize that the artwork you created is not ‘you’, even though it may feel like an extension of you. Because once it’s out there in the world, it’s out there. People will say all kinds of things about it, both good and bad, and that’s how it will always be.
I like to compare it to a bird sitting in a tree and singing. One person walks by and says “what a beautiful melody, please keep singing!”. And the bird just thinks “okay cool, I’m just singing my song.” Then another person walks by and says “what a horrible melody, please shut up!”. But the bird just thinks “okay cool, I’m just singing my song”. If you want to preserve your sanity as an artist, that’s kind of how you need to be. You’re just doing your thing, you’re just singing your unique song because that’s just what you do.
If you looked for a new member for your band, how well should that person play his instrument? What should be their musical knowledge level? What other traits beside music should that person possess?
For the type of music I play, technical skill is important, as well as the ability to listen. But the most important trait is a positive can-do attitude and the willingness to learn and grow, everything else can be trained.
People say that you need to be talented in order to play and create music. There’s certainly some amount of truth in that statement, but from my experience, talent is very often used as an excuse by people who just don’t believe in themselves. I wonder if in your musical journey everything came easily to you or were there some aspects that you struggled with and had to work hard in order to master them?
I struggled with songwriting for a while. Even though I could come up with good musical ideas, I struggled with connecting them into a whole song. I actually told my dad “I like to play guitar, but I’m actually going to hold off on the songwriting for a couple of years because I’m not so good at it.” And today songwriting is my primary thing. So that’s something I had to learn, and I still have a mountain of things I want to learn and master in order to get to a really high level and make a difference.
I also struggled with guitar technique because I had no real training, until I found my guitar teacher Tom Hess who showed me what great technique is supposed to look like and how to get there, that was a game changer. He also helped me immensely with songwriting.
There are many wise people in Poland (perhaps in Sweden, too). Everyone knows a lot about everything. When it comes to playing in a band, people often say that you need to play popular music in order to be successful (i.e. adjust your musical style to the public taste). What do you think about that?
That phrase “you need to play popular music in order to be successful” is misunderstood. Yes, you should write music that moves YOU first and foremost. Because if you yourself are not moved by your music, how can you move someone else? When you listen to a song, you can typically hear the level of inspiration the songwriter had when they wrote it. That inspiration is always step one. What you want to express. If you get that part right, even if you don’t know anything about songwriting, you will be on the right path.
But at the same time, there are certain principles and concepts in songwriting that makes a song better, period. The way you use melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics and arrangements greatly influence how good the song will be, no matter what style of music it is. A great song is a great song. Too many people rely on the sound color of the instruments to “carry the song”, when in reality it’s the craft of songwriting that makes or breaks the song.
What are your plans for the future? Are you planning to release something new?
I’m producing and recording a symphonic film score metal album right now. I believe it’s going to be very special and I have not heard it been done in this way before, even though there are some similarities to other artists here and there on the album. I want to inspire others to become the best version of themselves, and music is a great way to do that. I believe everyone has the ability to grow and become even more than they already are today, and if I can be a small part of that, it makes it all worth it. There’s a lot of work on the album since I’m doing all the instruments, arrangements, orchestrations and lyrics myself, everything except vocals. I’m also financing everything myself which also makes it more difficult, but it’s progressing well. I’m looking forward to sharing it soon enough!