The man behind the music

Beyond Lisbon_Carlos Paredes

When you see videos about Portugal, whether they’re official tourist videos or not, there’s a good chance they’ll have music and there’s also a good chance that music features an amazing guitar.  The guitar sounds something like an acoustic guitar but… not quite. That’s because it’s probably a Portuguese guitar.

Yes, you read that right – a Portuguese guitar, with 12 strings. Its origins are not well known and there’s some debate about it, but right now I’d like to tell you a bit about the man that’s probably playing that guitar: Carlos Paredes. He didn’t invent it and he wasn’t the only one playing it, but he became very well known because of his relationship with his music.

Carlos Paredes (1925-2004) was the son, nephew and grandson of players of Portuguese guitar and he started playing at the age of four. But he didn’t just play the Portuguese guitar, he also composed and he took this guitar beyond its traditional role in fado (mainly Coimbra fado).

He was very much a reserved type of person and some things about him fascinate me: his character, the passion with which he played and the love he felt for his music.

Amazing as it may sound, he didn’t actually make a living from his music. Carlos Paredes, the man of a thousand fingers, as he was also known, worked most of his life in a Lisbon hospital, in the X-rays archives. He said he truly loved his music and it wasn’t right to make money from something you feel true love for. That, you see, is because he saw music as a living entity, not a “thing”.

During the time of the dictatorship one of his co-workers denounced him for being a member of the Portuguese Communist Party. Two episodes are known from this time which, to me, clearly show his character.

While in prison the other inmates thought Carlos Paredes was going insane because they would see him walking around in his cell, pretending to be playing his guitar. The truth is he was composing music in his head. After leaving prison and when going back to work at the hospital, he passed by one of the co-workers that had denounced him. What did he do? He greeted him. 

For the last 11 years of his life he suffered from a disease in the central nervous system, which meant he was not able to play and which, I am sure, also meant great pain.

About death he said something like this: “When I die, my guitar also dies. My father used to say that, when he died, he would like his guitar to be broken and buried with him. I would like to do the same. If I have to die.”

He edited several albums but perhaps Movimento Perpétuo is the one I’d suggest listening to if you don’t know his work. If you don’t desperately want to play a guitar by the time you finish listening, I’m not sure we can be friends.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to Carlos Paredes. Enjoyed listening to him with my coffee this morning, but afraid I may have to leave the guitar playing to the rest of my family.

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