Anyone Can Play Guitar
By Al Neale, MusicWorx Intern
The guitar: the instrument that has been at the forefront of the majority of popular music for the last seventy years. Guitar playing has become synonymous with being a rock star like Eddie Van Halen, Slash, or Jimi Hendrix. Keep this in mind when working with clients that are fans of guitar music, that they can view the guitar as one and the same with being a musician. Rock, country, indie, folk, metal, punk, alternative, grunge, hardcore, and blues are all popular genres heavily centered around the guitar. Also, the guitar is a great instrument to learn. The beginner knowledge of the guitar, open chords, and pentatonic scales, can get any player a long way in music. There are several different guitar lesson channels on Youtube that make this information free and easily accessible.
With the instrument’s wide range of appeal and small starting knowledge base, I wanted to explore how the guitar is made more accessible for music therapy clients with physical impairments that would prevent or hinder them from playing guitar such as loss of limb, loss of limb function, weak muscle function, poor gross or fine motor coordination, or touch sensory sensitivity, by adapting the standard guitar playing to lessen or eliminate playing barriers.
The guitar is the dominant instrument used by practicing music therapists (Keller, 2015). The guitar is the main choice of an instrument because it is an affordable, portable instrument that has a wide dynamic range and is adaptable to fit a wide variety of needs. While these benefits suit the needs of a practicing music therapist, these are also benefits and considerations made when a client has an interest in learning an instrument (Keller, 2015). Important to note are the barriers to playing guitar for anyone without any adaptations: it takes two hands, precise finger dexterity, strength in both hands, and the ability to memorize several different hand positions in order to play. Not to mention the hand cramps and finger calluses that have to happen along the way to graduating from beginner to intermediate levels of playing.
The thinking of reasons a person cannot play the guitar needs to shift focus from the person to the instrument (Bell, 2014). The challenges of learning the guitar are overcome through the use of adaptations of the instrument and through the use of devices that can be held or attached to the instrument. The problems with the guitar and their solutions can be divided into three categories: fretting hand problems, strumming hand problems, and memory problems.
Strumming Hand Problems
The standard way of strumming the guitar involves pinching a small piece of plastic (a pick) between your fingers. At the same time, you must have the coordination to make steady movements across the strings with a wrist or forearm motion in time with the music you are playing along to. The ease with which professional musicians do this can give people the notion that it is the easiest part of playing the guitar. It is not. The average guitar pick is not easy to hold, even for an individual without a disability. This aggravating piece of plastic is small and slick and will fall out of your hand without a constant death grip upon it, and even then it will get away from you. If you have weak hands and are unable to achieve a pincer grasp, adaptive picks can accommodate these needs. If someone is unable to close their fingers at all, plenty of alternative options for picks can make playing possible.
Picks that connect to the hand include bluegrass picks, which are ring-shaped and connect to the thumb, and the Orbit Zero Gravity guitar pick, which connects to a silicone tether that loops around your ring finger. The tether is held in the hand and serves as a handle, while the pick is guided by the thumb and index finger. This pick is a great option because it uses more of a handle grip motion rather than a pincer grip (Castelino, 2014). Also, giant guitar picks, sometimes fitted with a strap or a handle are helpful (Bell,2014).
If the client is unable to move their arm or is missing the arm they would strum with, guitar-strumming devices can be controlled using the foot can substitute the use of the arm. One is a mechanical device consisting of a guided track that attaches to the guitar and goes across the strings, and a mechanism that holds the pick that runs along the track. A foot pedal is connected to the mechanism and is controlled in a way similar to how a drummer would control a high hat. This device is useful for strumming chords but is limited in single-note picking ability. Another device is magnetically connected to mounts on the guitar. The device has 6 wheels with small picks on them that are wirelessly linked to a control pad that the foot manipulates(Bell, 2014). The strings are played individually or strummed by moving the foot laterally along the control pad. These devices allow the guitar to be played with one hand fretting the notes.
The conventional method of fretting notes requires a great deal of hand strength and coordination. You have to be able to contort your hand into different shapes and have your fingers land in precise positions with precise pressure in order to produce a sound. Also, pressing your fingers down onto the strings is painful until you build up calluses on your fingers. These issues compound if a person lacks hand strength, has difficulty with hand mobility, or has sensory sensitivity in their hands. To assist with this, several devices are made to attach to the neck of the guitar.
One is the EZ chord. This device can produce I, II, IV, and V chords with the use of one finger (Bell, 2014). Other variations on the EZ chord can produce several different chords, but require the use of more than one finger. Using the EZ chord to fret chords takes away a lot of the force and finger dexterity required in playing. While the chord choice is limited, you can play a lot of popular songs using only the I, II, IV, and V chords, such as “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, “Think Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran, “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles, and “Good Riddance” by Greenday.
The device/playing system is called “The Barre Chorder.” The guitar is tuned to a specific chord. A flat barre is held in the fretting hand, reaches across the strings on the neck, and is moved up and down to make different chords (Belle, 2014). This tool enables players to make any chord while removing a lot of the difficulties of making conventional chords.
If the player is not able to use their fretting hand, a device called the Robo-tar can be of use. The Robo-tar connects to the neck of the guitar and is a controlled foot pedal. The device’s accompanying computer program inputs a chord progression and then uses the foot pedal to switch between the chords(Disabled World, 2020).
The devices I have described show how the guitar can be further adapted to be accessible for people who are disabled. By taking advantage of these adaptations, the guitar can become a valuable tool for emotional expression. Clients could potentially play independently and use the guitar as a tool in songwriting, or open other opportunities to play with groups. Having a knowledge of these tools opens up possibilities for facilitation with clients that can help them achieve goals, both clinical and personal, that they never thought possible, and allow clients to interact with music in new ways that can foster independence and promote self confidence.
Bell, A. P. (2014). Guitars have disabilities: Exploring guitar adaptations for an adolescent with Down syndrome. British Journal of Music Education, 31(3), 343-357.
Castelino, A. (2008). The Benefits and Clinical Applications of the Guitar in Music Therapy: A Literature Review. New Zealand Journal of Music Therapy, (6).
Disabled World. (2020, December 20). Robo-Tar: Play Guitar with One Hand. Disabled World. https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/investors/robotar.php
Keller, (2015), Perceptions of Guitar Use and Training in Music Therapy: A Survey of Clinicians. Master’s Theses. 604.
Hackaday.io. (2017) Adaptive Guitar.. https://hackaday.io/project/26088-adaptive-guitar