Playing Guitar Despite Physical Limitations

Do It Different: Playing Guitar Despite Physical Limitations

Last Updated: Dec 20, 2017

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.

 

16 replies
  1. Allison
    Allison says:

    I know nothing about guitars, but am asking for my dad. Google brought me here, and I’m hoping for some suggestions. My dad has a terminal brain tumor, and after a surgery to remove as much of it as possible, he suffered a stroke which left him with no use of his left side at all. In addition, his vision is now impaired due to the stroke, which is probably less of an issue. He is right handed, and he has fairly good dexterity in his right hand, but I was wondering if you had any tips on how to make trying to play as good as possible. Like which guitar or device could help with position and how to set it up to not use his left hand (not really sure about this because I don’t play). Prior to his surgery, he said that he just wanted to be able to walk and play guitar. Walking is out, so I’m trying to focus on making the guitar playing happen.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Allison. First, I have to make it clear that I’m not a professional in these matters, but I do have some ideas. I figure that if there are people out there playing guitar with their feet, only one arm, etc. then just about anything’s possible.

      Firstly, I would recommend that your dad buy a left-handed guitar. Or, if he already owns an acoustic guitar, he can take it in to have some minor modifications done that’ll allow him to essentially flip the guitar over (like Jimi Hendrix). A guitar tech will install a left-handed nut and saddle in the guitar and install the strings accordingly–essentially turning it into a left-hander (albeit upside down).

      This will allow him to do all the fretting with his right hand. He will also need to learn how to play percussively, and essentially use his right hand for all fretting, strumming, hammer-ons, pull-offs, legato, etc. On this page, watch the Andrés Godoy video. That’s the kind of technique I’m referring to–except your dad will be doing it with his right hand instead of his left.

      It won’t be easy, and it’ll take some work and a lot of dedication, but then again this is true of learning guitar the “standard” way too.

      There aren’t any teachers out there that teach Andrés technique–it’s unique and something that he made up based on existing/known techniques. However, if your dad is struggling to figure this out on his own, a good guitar teacher should be able to help. Much of the stuff Andrés Godoy is doing in that video is stuff we all know about, but he’s adapted it all in a very unique way so that he can play one-handed.

      As far as setup of the guitar itself, he’ll want the lowest action possible without too much string buzz. Having the strings as low as possible will make it easier to do the percussive stuff–the hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc.

      I hope this helps. Please keep me updated on how all of this goes. I genuinely believe your dad CAN play guitar, it’ll just need to be very different than the way most people play.

      Oh, one last thing: Your dad will probably need to always use a guitar strap (even when sitting, which is what I assume he’ll be doing). It’ll probably need to be pretty tight too, to ensure the guitar stays in the playing position. It’s hard for me to say for sure since I’m not there and can’t work one-on-one with him, but you may need to find other ways to ensure the guitar stays in-position too. I’ve seen some guitarists make strategic use that non-slip stuff you can buy at the grocery store (the mesh stuff you put under rugs).

      Reply
  2. Penelope Stephens
    Penelope Stephens says:

    I was on a drug that caused hand tremors, and now l have trouble strumming. Seems like half the time l miss the strings entirely. What bugs me is that all the examples manage to get a clean sound out of the guitar, and when l play it all sounds muted. I am not ever going to be a hot shot lead player, l just want nice, crisp chords with which to back up my lyrics.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Penelope. It’s always hard for me to advise in these situations when I’m not actually there to work with you. If we could sit down, one-on-one, we could brainstorm and try different ideas.

      If it’s your strumming hand that’s the main problem, a larger guitar pick can sometimes make up for bad strumming accuracy–if you’re actually missing them sometimes on a downstroke or upstroke. Perhaps look into something like a large triangle-shaped picks. Sometimes, the extremely large shape can be more forgiving of missed strums. And, if that’s still not big enough, you can actually cut your own (larger) shapes from pieces of plastic (like the lids from butter containers). Essentially, the bigger the pick, the harder it’ll be to miss the strings. Just be forewarned: your guitar will probably get scratched up a bit, so you’ll need to be okay with that fact.

      If you give that a try, let me know if it helped.

      Reply
  3. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    I have a skeletal disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis, and I have lost most all movement in my shoulders, and I have completely lost all movement in my neck. What I wanted to know is if there are any tutorials out there that you know of on how to play guitar the Jeff Healey way. I have searched and found nothing.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Jeremy. I don’t know of any instructional materials that teach Jeff’s method of playing with the guitar on your lap. However, don’t let that stop you–it doesn’t mean you can’t find your own way to play guitar. That was what I was trying to communicate with this article. I don’t know how many of the people featured in this article were actually taught to play the way they do. I think they just figured something out that worked for them. If having the guitar flat on your lap seems to be what’s most comfortable and realistic for you, then go for it. You’ll need to ensure it doesn’t slip off your lap, and you could try draping a non-slip pad across your lap. After that, I think it comes down to experimentation.

      Reply
  4. robert mullan
    robert mullan says:

    my left hand was partly amputated 10 years ago. i have a 3 string shovel guitar.my left hand i have my thumb its partly fused. they moved my baby finger to where my index finger should be. that finger is completely fused. my hand looks and functionions like a crab claw.i’m taking my first guitar lesson next week. if anyone has any ideas that would help contact me. thankyou

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Robert! I’m convinced that anyone can play guitar, but each case is different and everyone has unique challenges. So, there definitely isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

      Based on what you’re describing, the first idea that pops into my head is for you to actually play left-handed. In other words, your left hand becomes your picking/strumming hand and your right hand does the fretting. Since you lack articulation in your left, I think it may be better suited to just holding a guitar pick. Then, you still have your wrist and elbow to do a lot of the picking and strumming work. Since your right hand is fine, it can do the more difficult job of forming notes and chords.

      That said, I’d recommend buying a left-handed guitar, but if you’ve already got a right-handed acoustic, you can flip it over and restring it accordingly (you may need a new/different bridge saddle though). You can sometimes get away with that on electric guitar too, depending on the model, but then your controls and switches are usually under your forearm, which can be a problem. But hey, Jimi Hendrix made it work!

      Let me know how your guitar lesson goes!

      Reply
  5. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    I started playing guitar at 31. I’m now 41. However, at the age of 24 I suffered a severe injury to the joint of my left hand (fret hand) ring finger. The last joint only has half of the range of motion, is fat and my finger curves out towards my pinky rather than in towards the middle finger. Many doctors told me that playing guitar would be impossible. I decided that was BS and I learned to play anyway. I enjoy playing as the lead guitarist in my band and continue to find ways to get around my “disability”. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t play guitar.

    Reply
  6. Gene
    Gene says:

    I suffered a car wreck 5 years ago had alot of nerve damange in my neck that causes my left arm on the back side to go numb from my elbow down to my finger tips. Kinda like the deal dave mustaine had with his nerve damage. I quit playing for several years but said one day i cant just give up after 30 years of playing. I play alot of thrash and speed metal
    Some days i cant play fast so i just practice scales and finger exercises

    Just dont give up if theres a will theres a way

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Gene, I’m glad to hear you kept at it. I hear what you’re saying about difficult days. I’ve developed arthritis in my hands that flares up BAD sometimes, and I really have to take it easy on those days (or not play at all).

      Reply
    • Gerard
      Gerard says:

      Nice story Gene, in the words of Joe Satriani “Keep it alive, till your ninety-five!” And great inspirational article Mr. Bobby “Guitar Answer Guy”! I’d like to re-tweet this. Keep it alive and rockin!

      Reply
  7. Don Kennedy
    Don Kennedy says:

    Gosh, I feel guilty because I have all my parts working and this article proves to me that I’m just a lazy scuzzball for not using what I have.

    I feel motivated.

    I feel admiration for those of whom you spoke.

    Reply

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