Even though I’ve been lead singer and guitarist in the band Di Derre for 30 years, I am a terrible guitar player. Even the guys in the band will agree with that. When I was growing up my younger brother was in a band, as were most of my friends, and I’d write the lyrics for them. But it wasn’t until I was in the army, aged 20, that I picked up the guitar. The guy who lived next door to me had a 12-string Yamaha, which is definitely not the kind of guitar you should learn to play on. I had to start composing my own songs to try and figure out easier chord changes. We were in a very northern part of Norway where there’s no sun during winter. There wasn’t much that you could do, so I would just sit in my room in total darkness and write songs – sad songs, of course.

After that, I bought my own guitar. It was a Watson, which is a copy of the Gibson Jumbo – the guitar that Elvis used. It ended up with a friend of mine. He sometimes calls me and says, “Do you want your guitar back?” I can hear in his voice that he’s hoping I will say no. I do.

Jo Nesbø and his band Di Derre performing at Sentrum Scene in Oslo, December 2019
Jo Nesbø and his band Di Derre performing at Sentrum Scene in Oslo, December 2019 © Per Ole Hagen/Redferns

That Watson guitar was what made me join a band. At first I only played the guitar, and then I started singing. When I was finished studying, I went back to Oslo and started playing with my brother. We formed a band with friends from Molde, our hometown. It was just something we did for fun, but people caught on and we were offered a record deal. That was the start of my career as a songwriter. The novel writing came later.

My philosophy in life is this: don’t own things you don’t use. I’ve had a lot of guitars pass through my hands. My first electric guitar was a Squier. Then I bought a Fender Telecaster. I also had another Fender which I gave away to my daughter’s boyfriend – he just had to promise that he would learn to play. Hopefully he has. But my first important guitar was a Takamine EF341. It’s sort of a workhorse guitar. I think Bruce Springsteen has one; he plays a lot of Takamine guitars. I gave that one to my drummer.

In 1998, I went to Sydney, Australia, where I wrote my first novel. I got a bit lonesome, so I went to a music store. I had to choose between a Takamine Santa Fe and a Martin. When I was strumming the Takamine, I saw a guy stop on his way out. I could tell that he really liked the sound of it, so I said, “OK, I’ll take the Takamine!” That was a case of mimetic desire – if somebody likes something, you will like it too. The Takamine has been with me ever since, and most of the songs I wrote after that were composed on it. It has a very small rosewood body, so it’s perfect for travelling around with. When you’re writing songs, you want to have your guitar at a low volume. The Santa Fe is good for that.

The opposite is a Taylor 810ce. If the Takamine Santa Fe is a reliable, modest friend, then the Taylor 810ce is a prima donna. It’s really loud and when you strum it, it fills the whole spectrum of frequencies. It sounds like an organ. And like many prima donnas, it can be unpredictable. The mic system on mine has let me down at a couple of very important points during concerts. I just keep it at home and look at it from time to time. If I want to have a full, rich sound, I’ll strum it. I now use a Larrivée onstage and I’m really happy with it. 

With a guitar, you can quickly learn to play something that sounds like music. That was important for me, that I could come up with stories and make simple songs. I’m not the kind of musician who wants to learn songs by other artists. I don’t have the patience for that. I’m more about telling my own stories through music. And for that, the guitar is perfect. For instance, we have a song called “90-Meters Bakken”, or “The 90-Metre Hill”. It’s based on a true story from my hometown about ski jumping, which is of course very big in Norway. A boy was jumping in late December when the floodlights cut out. We could hear him flying through the air in total darkness. The song describes those seven seconds – how it must have felt for him. I chose chords that are high up on the neck and a recognisable riff. Whenever I go on stage and start that song, people start yelling as soon as they hear the first chord. It’s very gratifying.

When you write a novel, you plan ahead. You spend a week wondering if there’s a story there, then you write a synopsis. It can take at least a year, maybe two years. With the guitar, you know that you can sit there and write the greatest song of your life in 10 minutes. In fact, all the band’s biggest hits were written in 20 minutes or less. You know there’s a song out there – you just need to find it, to catch it. There are some very glorious moments when you’re writing a song. It’s bliss. 

The Kingdom by Jo Nesbø is published in paperback by Vintage

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