One of the most vulnerable topics of being a musician, accidents. We musicians are typically stubborn, and since rejection is part of this business, we are masters of finding new ways to get where we want to get to! We are creative because we have to be in order to “get there”. In fact, some of the greatest guitar players had hand accidents in the past, yet developed their own techniques that led them to be the great guitar players that they became. Here are my three favorite who developed their own techniques after the accidents they experienced:
1) Django Reinhardt
When he was young, the fourth and fifth fingers on Django’s left hand were badly burned. Doctors even told him that he would never play guitar again. But Django did not pay attention to them. In fact, he started studying the guitar and figured out a way to only use his left index and middle fingers. He developed an impeccable technique that created his trademark gypsy jazz sound, which put him on the spotlight as one of the best guitar players of all time.
2) Jerry Garcia
When Jerry Garcia, the guitar player of Grateful Dead was 4, he was vacationing the Santa Cruz Mountains with his family. Young Jerry was then tasked to steady the wood while his older brother was chopping it. He accidentally placed his hand in the path of the falling axe, which resulted for him to lose two thirds of his right middle finger. As he was right handed, the challenge for Jerry Garcia was to change the way he hold his pick. He explained this as:
“Generally I use a Fender extra-heavy flat pick, which I sometimes palm when using my fingers. The way I hold the pick is a bit strange, I guess. I don’t hold it in the standard way, but more like you hold a pencil. I think Howard Roberts describes it as the scalpel technique. The motion is basically generated from the thumb and first finger rather than, say, the wrist or elbow.”
Normally we hold a pick with thumb, index and ring finger, but for Jerry’s case he obviously held with his thumb and index, while he anchored his ring and pinky finger. This resulted in a very unique guitar sound difficult to replicate in many Grateful Dead songs.
3) Tony Iommi
The founder of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in an industrial accident on his last day of work in a sheet metal factory. He was 17 years old, and just like Django, the doctors told him that he will never be able to play guitar again. (Why do doctors keep saying that?)
A friend of his later played a recording of Django Reinhardt, which encouraged him to keep playing guitar and continue as a musician. As Iommi later wrote:
My friend said, “Listen to this guy play”, and I went, “No way! Listening to someone play the guitar is the very last thing I want to do right now!” But he kept insisting and he ended up playing the record for me. I told him I thought it was really good and then he said, “You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire.” I was totally knocked back by this revelation and was so impressed by what I had just heard that I suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again.
Iommi started modifying his guitar to adapt to his new condition. First, in order to bend the strings easier, he put very light gauge guitar strings to his guitar. Then, in order to make it even easier to bend, he tuned the strings in lower pitches. In order to play big chords with two fingers, he focused on the root and fifth note of a note, creating the ‘power chords’. Combined with the lower pitch strings and distortion, he created the signature heavy metal guitar sound of Black Sabbath.
Terrible things happened to these three musicians, as well as others, but the point is that they had the music inside them. They kept on going no matter what happens, and they found a way to express their gift. As musicians we have a truth that we need to express because it is our responsibility – not just to other people, but first to ourselves. There might be obstacles along the way, but as we figure out our ways in our daily lives of being independent musicians, we are hardwired to solve any problem that comes along the way!
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Alper Tuzcu is a Berklee College of Music and Denison University alumni, and a Boston based guitarist, songwriter and producer. His new album ‘Aurora’ was released on October 19, 2018 and his debut eclectic album ‘Between 12 Waters’ featuring 8 different vocalists is available on Spotify. In addition to being a musician, he regularly teaches workshops and masterclasses internationally. You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter, and for more information you can visit his website www.alpertuzcu.com