James Joyce’s Guitar Chord in the 1915 Ottocaro Weiss Photo

What guitar chord is James Joyce playing in this photo?

The original photo, taken by Ottocaro Weiss, in 1915, is housed in Cornell’s James Joyce collection, in an exhibit in a glass closet titled “Poetry and Music.” I first saw the photo of Joyce playing the guitar years ago in the Ellmann biography, and I cut it out and pinned it over my desk somewhere, but I’ve since lost that copy.

Fingers to stray on Joyce’s guitar again after its restoration,” an article by Terence Killeen in the March 22, 2012 Irish Times, discusses the restoration of Joyce’s guitar and contains a fascinating video clip of the luthier at work on the guitar. Gary Southwell, the luthier, guesses, based on the finger wear on the fretboard, that Joyce probably was not a “fantastic” guitarist because the wear suggests mostly first position, standard chord forms: “He wasn’t all over the fingerboard.”

Can we tell from the photograph what guitar chord Joyce is fingering? Assuming his index finger holds the root note, then he’s playing a 1-b5 on the bass strings. If the root is an F, then he’s playing an F-B. But his ring finger appears to be positioned directly over the second fret, so it’s hard to tell if he’s fingering a D or a Db. But anyway a closer look suggests that his index finger is not on the 6th low E string, but on the 5th string, playing a Bb note, the middle finger then (still a flat 5) playing an E note, and the ring finger playing a Db note. But I can’t tell what frets he’s fingering, and at first glance, I assumed he was fingering an Em7 chord (guitar spelling: E, B, E, G, D, E = 1, 5, 1, b3, b7, 1).

In any case, Killeen, in the video, seems to say that Joyce is not actually playing the guitar in the photo. I’m not sure why he thinks not. Joyce looks relaxed in the photo, leaning a bit back and away, probably the better to see his left hand fingering, given his poor eyesight. The thumb of his right hand is hidden behind his palm, but it could certainly be plucking the 6th, 5th, or 4th string. Maybe he was not playing the guitar during the photo because he had to hold still for the photographer. But he’s clearly fingering a chord. Or is he? Again, his index and ring fingers appear to be hovering directly over the frets, not slightly behind them.

I recently acquired a hardback copy of “Giacomo Joyce” (Viking Press, reset and reissued May, 1968), introduction and notes by Richard Ellmann, and was surprised and delighted to find the Weiss photo of Joyce and his guitar used as a frontispiece, spread across two pages.

Perhaps the chord Joyce is fingering in the Weiss photo is from Finnegans Wake, a pun-chord, a humorous play on notes.

Follow up 8 Sep 13: Check out guitarist Gerald Garcia’s Joyce guitar analysis (read through post and scroll through comments section).