A dose of inspiration: The story of Billy McLaughlin

written by Mark Grundhoefer, Metro Music Makers instructor

I want to tell you a story about one of my musical influences.

By the time I was in high school, the guitar was a huge part of my life. There was a small theater at the local college where my dad would take me to shows. One year, we went and saw a solo guitarist named Billy McLaughlin. I didn’t know what to expect, as I hadn’t heard of the guitarist before. Then I saw him play and was forever changed.

Billy uses a unique left- and right-hand tapping style. I had never seen anything like it. His left hand hammered on the strings in a way the average guitarist is familiar with. But instead of strumming or picking with the right hand, it crossed over the fretboard and hammered bass and counterpoint melody lines. I bought a few CDs and went home and studied his music and tried to learn a few licks.

From about 1996-1999, I saw him play half a dozen times, sometimes solo, sometimes with a band. Then I went off to college. I would still listen to his albums and occasionally try to play and write in his style. However, being fresh into college and pursuing my own music career, I didn’t see or hear about Billy McLaughlin for almost a decade. In 2009, I was living in Los Angeles, CA, and I happened to see an ad for “Billy McLaughlin Live at the House of Blues,” I was pumped! I bought tickets and was front and center to see him play! But something was different.

No, the video is not inverted. He is playing left handed. Billy McLaughlin is a right-handed player that was now performing left-handed. Take your instrument and try and play any of your pieces by flipping your instrument to understand how incredibly difficult this is. I spent the first song of the night on my phone googling to understand what was happening. Then Billy told his story.

During the early 2000s, while I was in college, Billy McLaughlin disappeared from the music scene because he had developed a neurological disease called Focal Dystonia. This caused the communication from his brain to hands to be severely limited. He could not perform. However, he found that by flipping his instrument and using his hands in reversed roles, he could get all functionality back. So he did that. He spent years relearning his own songs. He essentially started from scratch. He had to rewire his brain to communicate with his hands. My mind was blown.

There are plenty of articles written (and even a documentary) about Billy McLaughlin and his triumph over Focal Dystonia. For me, the sheer willpower it took to relearn his instrument with essentially new hands is a huge inspiration. There are tons of stories like this. I hope this one inspires you to practice and be excited about playing music. And not to be cheesy, but remember: don’t let anything stand in the way of your dreams!

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