Fingerpickin’ Good: Easton Guitarist Serenades the Lehigh Valley

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

For a musician, there’s nothing better than hearing loud clapping after you hit the last note of your song. Unless, of course, it’s thunder clapping and the nearing thunderstorm forces you to cut your set short.

This is what Lehigh Valley musician Colin O’Leary experienced while performing at Musikfest for the largest crowd of his career this past summer. The performance may not have gone as he had hoped, but O’Leary was just grateful to do what he loves; play music.

O’Leary has been playing the acoustic guitar for more than a decade. What began as a fun hobby to do with friends has quickly developed into a strong passion. From posting videos on social media to playing gigs at local bars, O’Leary loves to share his music with the Lehigh Valley.

“If I can connect with a couple of people at a gig or show, that means a lot to me,” O’Leary said. “The best compliment I ever get from people is, ‘when I hear your voice and when I listen to your music, I’m so relaxed.’ That’s what I want to do for people. I just want them to relax and have a good time and forget about their difficulties for a couple minutes because that’s what music does for me.”

The 28-year-old Easton resident has loved playing music ever since he was a young teen playing the bass guitar in his friends’ garages. Strumming away to old Led Zeppelin songs was fun, but O’Leary was looking for more. It wasn’t until his mom purchased him an acoustic guitar that he really found his niche.

“A lot of my friends in high school liked playing heavy metal and rock, but I was into acoustic music,” O’Leary said. “I started learning all these acoustic guitar songs and acoustic guitar players and that’s the instrument that really stuck with me and I still love playing it today.”

The acoustic guitar is just one of many instruments that O’Leary knows how to play. His long list includes the bass guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica, and ukulele. He still craves learning more instruments and hopes that one day he can learn how to play the cello and drums.

For now, O’Leary likes to stick with his GPC-16E Martin guitar. Drawing inspiration from musicians like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, he has honed in on a style of music that he describes as a blend of indie, folk, and Americana.

“I like a lot of [different] music, so I have a lot of influences,” O’Leary said. “It’s hard to say that just one person inspires me because with each song I work on, I have a different influence for it.”

And O’Leary is always working on new songs. He spends a lot of time in his apartment practicing cover songs or trying out tunes for his own creations.

Walking around his apartment, O’Leary messes around with different chords and fingerpicking techniques until it sounds right. Previously, he relied on using notations to learn songs, but now he’s gotten to the point where he can just learn a song by ear.

Of course, sound has a lot to do with learning how to play songs. So much so,  O’Leary said, that he has found an ideal way to hear himself practicing, even if it is a little unconventional.

“I like going right up against a wall because I like hearing [the music] back from the wall,” O’Leary said. “I’ll literally just take a chair, sit in the corner somewhere, and just face the wall and that’s how I write a song. I like it because I can actually hear [the music]; it’s not going out into the air, it just comes right back to me.”

O’Leary likes learning different cover songs and then performing them at gigs, but what he enjoys most, he said, is writing songs and sharing his original work with audiences.

Looking at everyday life and personal experiences, O’Leary is able to write meaningful music that he can then record or play in front of live crowds. Writing a song can take him as long as one night or a few months, he said.

“With songwriting, I come up with the melody first and whatever sounds right in my head, and then lyrics come out through the melody,” O’Leary said. “Then I’ll just be like ‘oh, these words sound intriguing in this spot, so I’m going to go with that.’ Sometimes I just create stories that way, but I would definitely say that my own experiences and my own story, what I’ve heard and what I’ve lived through, is definitely what influences [my music] the most.”

With this songwriting process in mind, one night, O’Leary felt compelled to write “Violet,” a song inspired by one of his old friends:

“We indulged in philosophy, made sense of catastrophe.

Northern lights in our periphery, psychedelically seeing things.

And I fed my conscious mind, I inhaled all the beautiful sights.

She helped me out, I let her in, oh Violet where do I begin?”

As much as O’Leary enjoys getting to practice his music in the comfort of his apartment, he said there’s nothing quite like being able to perform for an audience.

O’Leary has been fortunate enough to play all around the Lehigh Valley. Some of his most frequented spots include Artsquest, Lost Tavern Brewing, and Vynecrest Vineyards and Winery.

“My favorite part about getting to watch Colin play is that I can see how much he really enjoys doing it,” O’Leary’s girlfriend Marissa Price said. “He is always happiest when he gets to play his guitar and perform for people!”

Whether it’s an open mic or a paid gig, O’Leary has found that these are the best places for him to test out some of his new music and connect with other local musicians. When he’s not behind the mic, you can find him sitting at a table, drinking a beer, and chatting with other musicians.

O’Leary said that it’s through these connections that he is able to land high-profile gigs. The more places he plays, the more people he meets, and the more likely he’ll be able to perform at different venues. Without these connections, O’Leary might not have had the opportunity to perform at Musikfest this past summer.

“[At Musikfest] my set got cut short because of a terrible rainstorm, so that part wasn’t fun, but it’s always a good experience when you’re playing your songs and people that you don’t even know stop and listen to you for a couple songs or the whole set,” O’Leary said.

In addition to first-time listeners, O’Leary also had a group of loyal fans make their way to Bethlehem’s Main Street. His supportive family and friends cheered him on sporting their Colin O’Leary t-shirts. 

“Even though it wasn’t as long as what he expected, it was so much fun getting to watch Colin play at Musikfest,” O’Leary fan Katrina Berman said. “It’s always nice to see him in his element, just having a good time and sharing his talent with different people. I’ve watched him play at small wineries and breweries, so getting to see him on a big stage at Musikfest was really cool.”

Gigging around is fun, but when it came down to it, O’Leary said he knew that he had to get a steady job in order to pay the bills.

That’s why when O’Leary isn’t performing at a local bar or winery, he’s actually working at one. 

During the week, he clocks in at Easton Wine Project, an urban winery in the newly renovated Simon Silk Mill in Easton. O’Leary can be found working at the winery’s warehouse bottling and labeling its unique handcrafted wine.

Even though the winery job helps pay the rent, O’Leary hopes he can one day have a more steady, music-centric job, such as giving guitar lessons to aspiring artists or working on other musicians’ records.

Being a working musician can be a lot of work, but O’Leary urges others to follow their passion and do something that they find enjoyable.

“I think music is, at its core, just about having a good time and expressing yourself,” O’Leary said. “If you want to get into music, do it! Even if you don’t want to be the best musician, just learn it because it can be a good, relaxing thing for yourself.”