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'It worked for Hendrix' says blind Irish musician who accidentally learned to play guitar upside down

Joe was given a battered guitar by his grandad when he was 12 but found it difficult to play

Joe Kenny learned to play the guitar backwards after he was diagnosed with glaucoma

Roisin Gorman

Blind singer Joe Kenny learned the guitar upside down because no one told him not to.

But the 43-year-old says it's put him in good company with legends Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Healey.

Joe, who's just released his debut single Chasing the Dream, says his self-taught guitar talents have given him decades of gigging. Now he's taking the next step with his first EP.

"I play it upside down and I think that's because I'm blind.

"My grandad gave me a battered old guitar when I was 12 which was incredibly hard to play, and I picked up the chords by ear.

"No one told me I was wrong for a year and by then I thought 'I'm not learning it again now'. It just means I can't get guitar lessons or teach anyone else.

Joe Kenny's new release, Chasing a Dream, is available to stream and download now

"To me it felt more logical to play it that way, and it worked for Jeff Healey, who played on his lap, and Hendrix, who played a right-handed guitar with his left hand," he says.

Joe, whose day job is in PR, played at least four gigs a week until Covid closed all the music venues, but the downtime inspired his song writing.

He's written his EP, due for release in September, and hopes he can inspire other musicians to seize the moment.

"At the risk of sounding cliched I thought 'if not now then when?' I'd been furloughed for a bit from work and I was left with this void and all these songs I had never done anything with.

"It was time to get my finger out because life can pass you by."

The musician was born with glaucoma and lost his sight at the age of five. From then until he was 17, he boarded at a school for blind children in Jordanstown, returning home every weekend.

"I'm now as blind as it gets," he says.

"I think going blind as a child is probably easier than going blind as an adult. You don't miss what you don't remember having. I just look back on it as part of growing up.

"I'd hope none of my kids would ever have to go to a blind school though. It wasn't terrible but you missed your family."

Joe has also written a song called Label Me, in which he signs about living with a disability

Joe, from Dromintee in south Armagh, has included a deeply personal track, Label Me, on his new collection, which he hopes will help people appreciate what life is like with a disability.

He says simple things like filling out forms, reading letters, going to gigs and voting are impossible for a blind person without help.

"Instead of seeing someone with a disability I want the sighted world to see that's only a small part of what makes a person.

"Yes, I'm blind but I'm a normal person.

"I'm saying don't judge a book by its cover. Growing up, people make assumptions about what you can and can't do, and it seldom ends well.

"We should be treated more equally. The big wide world should make things more accessible and inclusive for anyone with a disability."

After studying to become a sound engineer, Joe had hoped to follow his music dream but decided to be sensible instead and ran a recording studio in Leeds for ten years.

Back in Northern Ireland he started gigging every weekend and feared he'd have to pack up his guitar because of the pandemic, until he started The Joe Show every week on YouTube.

"I live for playing live," he says.

"If it hadn't been for live streaming during Covid I would have gone mad, and it kept me sharp."

He hopes the omens are good for his debut single, which came to him in minutes.

"I'm not like Robbie Williams who can write a song a day. Writing for me is usually so hard and I agonise over it.

"Chasing the Dream came to me in ten minutes. I had to pick six songs for the EP and this one just appeared.

"It's the first time I've ever done anything like this, and I've learned so much. It's never been easier than now to be an independent musician and release material online.

"I've got good feedback from my friends and family, but hopefully they would say that."

Joe was helped by the D/Deaf and Disabled Artists Support Fund, backed by the University of Atypical.

And as well as his debut EP he has another small matter to attend to this year.

"My fiancée Louise and I have been trying to get married since the start of Covid. We've had to cancel it three times, but we've got our fingers crossed for November," he says.

Chasing the Dream is available to stream and download now.

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