In stark numbers, here’s what happens when a guitarist’s hand stops working:
From 1988 to 1999, solo acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin played 1,763 concerts.
From 1999 to 2006, when he lost function in his dominant guitar hand because of a neuromuscular disorder, he played 14.
After a painstaking comeback that took seven years and forced him to completely relearn how to play — what he calls “playing backwards and upside-down” — McLaughlin is back to a more substantial touring schedule.
He’ll perform on Saturday, Jan. 26, at Universalist Unitarian Church in Santa Paula.
Don’t expect typical acoustic strumming and picking. McLaughlin has always played guitar in a unique style he calls “two-handed tapping”: He uses two hands on the fret board to “tap” out notes. One hand (the dominant one) intricately plucks, hammers and pulls to create the melody, while the other mainly plays the bass line.
McLaughlin writes his own music, which he said is difficult to describe, although the instrumental songs have what some might call a new age vibe, and sound more like two instruments than one.
“My music has a lot of texture, a lot of melody, and I really love what I do, so hopefully it has a soulful component to it as well,” he said.
The Rev. Maddie Sifantus, minister at UUCSP, first heard McLaughlin perform in the 1990s at a coffeehouse in Massachusetts.
Sifantus said she remembers “how struck I was with his music and musicianship, and how it wove a web of mystery and beauty.” She followed his career, and invited him to perform in the church’s Santa Paula Concert Series.
McLaughlin started playing guitar at age 12 in Minnesota, where he still lives, and joined a rock band at 15. He studied guitar at the University of Southern California, where he discovered and was inspired by the music of acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges, a pioneer in the guitar style McLaughlin adopted.
McLaughlin toured relentlessly in the mid-1990s as a solo guitarist, performing more than 200 shows each year. He signed a contract with the Virgin Records new age label Narada in 1996, and his debut album, Fingerdance, reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s New Age Albums chart.
But in 1998, he dislocated two fingers after falling.
The injury never seemed to fully heal. “Something had crept in . . . into my hand, my wrist, my arm,” he said. “I had no name for this visitor who caused my fingers to suddenly curl, caused the music to veer out of control as audiences cringed.”
McLaughlin was diagnosed three years later with a neuromuscular disorder called dystonia.
Dystonia can affect the entire body or individual parts. The kind McLaughlin suffers from, focal hand dystonia, is more common in musicians than other professionals who use their hands repeatedly, such as surgeons. Symptoms include curled, clenched or shaky fingers. According to the Dystonia Society, it’s caused by changes in the brain that affect control of the hand. Some treatments can help, but the disorder has no cure.
When McLaughlin’s hand stopped functioning normally, he stopped working, too. “I lost my record deal, agent, income, even my marriage and home,” he said.
He tried hand specialists, orthopedic specialists, chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists and acupressurists. Eventually though, he just had to learn how to play with his other hand. The intricate stylings that he formerly played on his left hand he learned all over again on his right, one note at a time.
“I can’t sugarcoat any of it; it was really hard, and took a really long time,” he said.
McLaughlin’s comeback story was the subject of a documentary, Changing Keys: Billy McLaughlin and the Mysteries of Dystonia, and he’s become a motivational speaker.
“Part of the joy I hope to share on stage is that we’re all more capable than we think,” he said.
Dystonia can worsen over time.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be able to play the way I do now,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been asked, if I have to learn to play with my toes, would I do it? The answer is yes.”
Billy McLaughlin performs on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. at Universalist Unitarian Church, 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula. For tickets or more information, call 805-525-4647 or visit www.uucsp.org.