Advice & Inspiration

Do It Different: Playing Guitar Despite Physical Limitations

Last Updated: November 22, 2019

I’m probably the least-qualified person to be writing this post.

When I was born I popped out with 2 arms, 2 legs, 10 fingers, and 10 toes. Everything was where it’s supposed to be and it all seemed to work okay.

So, it was no problem for me to pick up a guitar as a kid. My only challenges were putting in the hard work–to practice consistently and endure some finger soreness. After all, the instrument was made for someone like me: someone with 2 arms, 2 hands, 10 fingers, and a healthy brain to coordinate it all.

But what if that’s not the case for you? What if something in that formula is a little less than ideal? What if something is a lot less than ideal? Does that mean your dream of learning to play guitar is simply out of the question?

If that’s a question you’ve been pondering, read on.

Occasionally, but not infrequently, someone will write to me–someone who considers themselves to be “physically limited” in some way. They want to play guitar, and ask me if it’s possible despite the fact that they have some challenges.

The challenges presented to me have ranged from simply having very tiny hands, to missing fingers, to having only 1 arm. And these are only the people who have actually contacted me. There are many others out there with other challenges who haven’t written to me. Some were born with challenges, other’s encountered (or developed) them later in life.

The human spirit is incredible. I’ve seen some amazing things over the years–truly inspiring stories that have humbled me as a guitar player and as a human being.

So, while I may be the least qualified person to write this post, it needs to be written.

You see, I’m now a firm believer that anyone can play guitar, but you many need to find a different or unique way to do so. Don’t let society tell you what you can and can’t do. Don’t get discouraged by watching all the 8-year-old shredders that litter YouTube. If you want to play guitar, then do it. You’ll just have to…

Do it Different.

The “standard” way of playing guitar is not the only way. This is where a lot of aspiring guitarists get discouraged, and resign themselves to not even trying. As you’ll see in the videos below, numerous guitarists have found other ways of getting amazing sounds out of a guitar. Many have gone on to have professional careers as performing musicians.

I can’t to tell you exactly HOW to approach learning and playing the guitar. There are too many different physical and neurological situations out there. I couldn’t possibly address them all, nor do I have any personal experience or qualifications to talk about such things.

Instead, this post is here to show you that it IS possible, and to inspire/motivate you to find your way to pursue your dream.

A Few Guitarists Who Do it Different

I’ve selected a few people to showcase here–people who have overcome various physical challenges and found (or invented) new ways of playing or expressing themselves on the instrument. And they don’t just play guitar–they’re AMAZING guitar players. If you simply heard them on the radio, and knew nothing else about them, you’d have no idea that they’ve overcome some physical or neurological challenge(s) in order to play. Some of these players have very successful careers as professional musicians.

Jay Harris

Jay Harris is a guitarist and singer for the band Chainbreak3r. Jay has been battling a neuromuscular disease for years that is causing him to progressively lose the use of his hands. However, he’s persevering by making creative use of two-hand tapping and, more recently, by playing slide guitar.

Learn More About Jay:

Billy McLaughlin

In 1998 Billy, already an accomplished musician, began mysteriously losing the strength and coordination in his right (strumming/picking) hand. The condition slowly worsened, doctors were baffled, and after 3 years of thinking “he was going crazy” he finally received a diagnosis: a neuromuscular condition know as Focal Dystonia. To continue his music career, he spent 6 years working on a completely different way of playing guitar.

Learn More About Billy:

Kang Yana Mulyana

I wasn’t able to find much information (not in English, anyway) about Indonesian guitarist Yana Mulyana. However, I think the video sorta speaks for itself. I’ve absolutely no idea how he’s playing those fast Yngiwie lines AND manipulating the trem. Amazing example of someone determined to do what they love.

Learn More About Kang:

Benjamin Teacher

Benjamin is from East London, UK. He’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, multi-instrumental musician, and producer of Rock, Progressive, Metal & Alternative music. “Benjamin is an amazing example of finding a way to do what one loves despite having such a physical limitation…Very inspiring and admirable.” – Vince DiCola

Learn More About Benjamin:

Andrés Godoy

There isn’t much information available in English about Andrés Godoy, but I was able to figure out that Andres began playing guitar at age 10. At age 14, he lost his right arm in an accident. In order to continue playing guitar, he developed a percussive, one-handed technique he calls “Taptap.”

Learn More About Andrés:

 

Well-Known or “Famous” Guitarists

Some of the guitarists featured above are professional musicians and “famous” in their own right. However, I’d also like to feature a few of the more well-known guitar players who, despite significant challenges, found a way to do it different. No dream is too big, and if yours is to become a famous guitarist, then let’s take a look at a few who’ve proven it’s possible.

Joni Mitchell

While you may not see anything obvious when you watch Joni play, you may be surprised to know that a childhood bout with polio left her with somewhat limited use of her hands. This is supposedly why Joni makes such extensive use of alternate tunings. You may know of Joni Mitchell as an artist, but if you’re not familiar with her as a guitarist, I strongly recommend checking out her guitar work.

Learn More About Joni:

Django Reinhardt

If you’re not familiar with legendary Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, watch his fretting hand very closely in the video above. Notice that he’s only using the first two fingers of his hand (and, occasionally, his thumb). In his late teens, Django was severely burned in a fire and lost the use of his ring and pinky fingers. Close your eyes and listen to Django play, and you’d never know the difference. A true inspiration.

Learn More About Django:

Tony Iommi

At age 17, after only playing guitar for a few years, Tony lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers (on his fretting hand) in a factory accident. He considered giving up guitar, until someone played him a recording of Django Reinhardt. Inspired by Django’s ability to play so fluently with only 2 fingers, Tony persevered, going on to become one of the most well-known guitarists of all time (in one of MY favorite bands of all time).

Learn More About Tony:

Jeff Healey

Just before his 1st birthday, Canadian blues guitar legend Jeff Healey lost his eyesight to a rare eye cancer: retinoblastoma. He began playing guitar at just 3 years old. I’m willing to bet that this is what led to his unique method of playing the guitar on his lap.

Learn More About Jeff:

Final Thoughts

This is nowhere close to being an exhaustive list. The guitarists I’ve featured here and just a few of the multitudes I found online, but I needed to keep this post to a reasonable length. There are thousands of others out there who have found ways to overcome their physical limitations and do the thing they love: play guitar.

They’ve all found a way to approach their passion from a different angle, or with a different technique. I’m inspired and humbled when I hear their stories.

If you have physical limitations, a disability, or deformity (or all of the above) and have wondered if YOU can learn to play guitar, I hope that this article helps you to see what’s possible.

Question:

Have you had to overcome any obstacles in order to play guitar? If so, and you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear about it in the “Leave a Reply” section down below.

 

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