By: Bill McRea
Learning to play guitar when you have a physical disability can be frustrating and may seem down right impossible. The fingers are the most important part of playing the instrument. When I was 5 years old (1967) my sister slammed the door of my parent’s car. No one told me to pull my finger away. The top of my fret hand index finger was crushed down to the knuckle. The doctors removed the crushed bone, stitched me up with the flap of skin that had the nail still hanging. As a result my index finger is about ½” short and has a claw “hook” for a nail. To make matters worse I have no feelings on the tip of my finger.
When I was senior in high school my girlfriend bought me a Gibson Les Paul guitar for Christmas (used and in bad shape). I also purchased an acoustic guitar and signed up for classical guitar lessons at my local junior college. I played a number of musical instruments in Junior High and High School band (one time in band camp….) so I thought this would be easy. The school did not have classes in Rock Guitar, there was no internet, and I don’t even think there was such a thing as tab back in those days. Imagine trying to learn to play classical guitar with a stubby claw finger with no feeling. Some of the spreads in those chord forms were just impossible. I became depressed and quit playing after two years.
One day my wife dug up that old guitar and asked me what I wanted to do with it. So I took it to a local guitar store and had them look at it, and they gave me $20. So newly rich with my $20 I started looking around at the guitars and picked up a Fender SRV Stratocaster. As I was looking at the guitar the guy running the store quickly showed me how to read guitar tab and play a basic power chord. To my wife’s delight (NOT) I came home with about $2,500 in new equipment.
I signed up for guitar lessons, but struggled with my mangled index finger and was about to give up again. Then one day my instructor looked at me and told me the only disability I had was in my head. I was so pissed at that punk, but I kept doing what he told me, exactly the way he told me. Today I don’t even worry about what my hands are doing I just play by instinct and ear.
The moral of the story is simple 90% of playing guitar starts by what’s going on inside your head. My physical limitations were nothing but an excuse. If I can learn to play anyone can. Playing guitar is the single most satisfying thing I do with my clothes on. It’s worth the effort.