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Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2

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Rick Fielding 20 Nov 01 - 12:03 AM
DonMeixner 20 Nov 01 - 12:50 AM
ddw 20 Nov 01 - 12:50 AM
Genie 20 Nov 01 - 03:06 AM
53 20 Nov 01 - 04:48 AM
GUEST,doug 20 Nov 01 - 05:16 AM
Peter T. 20 Nov 01 - 08:44 AM
GUEST,Don Meixner 20 Nov 01 - 08:56 AM
Homeless 20 Nov 01 - 10:05 AM
Midchuck 20 Nov 01 - 10:06 AM
Peter T. 20 Nov 01 - 10:16 AM
Jeri 20 Nov 01 - 10:41 AM
Rick Fielding 20 Nov 01 - 11:07 AM
Leeder 20 Nov 01 - 12:39 PM
JenEllen 20 Nov 01 - 01:39 PM
GUEST,Don Meixner 20 Nov 01 - 02:30 PM
Melani 20 Nov 01 - 03:32 PM
Jeri 20 Nov 01 - 03:41 PM
Homeless 20 Nov 01 - 03:48 PM
bill\sables 20 Nov 01 - 04:12 PM
Jon Freeman 20 Nov 01 - 08:49 PM
DonMeixner 21 Nov 01 - 07:36 AM
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Subject: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 12:03 AM

I think most folks know that Django Reinhardt had burned his hands badly and had to play those amazing leads and phrases with primarily two fingers (his ring and pinky could still fret a bit but wouldn't move), and there have been a number of players on different instruments who were missing a finger (or more).

Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, is missing most fingers on his picking hand but that's much less of a hassle than the trouble being with your fretting fingers.

I'm working with a couple of folks right now who have great problems with the "pad" of one finger. It's simply very painful for them to press down hard on a string, so alternate fingering is being employed.....which can be limiting.

Mudcatter and friend, Jeri, has just taken up guitar (she's a fiddler primarily) and is dealing with missing the tip of her index finger. I've asked her if I could talk about this and she's cool with it. Without some form of prosthesis, she pretty well HAS to make her chords with the last three fingers. I've been working with her on really exploring open "D" tuning and her progress has been remarkable in only a very few days. We do it over our respective speaker phones, and I'm hearing some great sounds from her end. I've suggested that if she sticks with this tuning (DADGAD will be next) a cutaway guitar might be in order for access to those higher frets.

Any thoughts, experiences, suggestions?



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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: DonMeixner
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 12:50 AM


A table saw lacerated all the fingers on my left hand almost precisely at the primary joint of each finger and half way through my thumb at the same point. The middle finger was only held on by tissue. The good luck in this was no tedons where damaged. The finger was reattached and I have very limited use of those fingers. They lack considerable strength.

In my case I was pretty much ready to turn the guitar over and become a backwards Bill Staines. My current and probably continuall condition is this. I have considerable scar tissue in the joints of the fingers of my left hand. This limit flextion and extension to about 50 % in all directions. More maddening is the nerve damage that makes it very hard to feel the strings.

I find it most helpfull to play capoed way up the neck. Above the fifth fret. This shortens the distance of travel for chords. I fing chords covering two frets much easier than those covering three. Three fret chords aren't bad when they cover the width of the board, "C" shapes. But if they are limited to the first half of the board, "Bmin" they become very dificult.

I found 'D' tuning to be just about as bad as regular tuning but DADGAD is an area I haven't ventured yet.

Best advice. Warm up suffciently before you play. Stretch fingers, heat the hands, Do dishes. Maybe a hot wax dip. Very often I play with 4 advil in me just to cover the finger pain.... With no feeling in the tips its hard to know how hard I am pressing the strings.

I have heard of prosthetic users on guytar but with the lack of feeling I wonder at the success. I find bridged "A" shapes and "D" shapes played up for "F" "G" and "A" to be a benefit.

A month back I tried to start a thread deeling with partial chords to help with my playing but it didn't get much interest. You might try that thread to see whats there.

I will follow this with great interest.


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: ddw
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 12:50 AM

Hi Rick,

Not sure I can give any practical advice on this — apart from maybe exploring slide guitar — but I can pass on a few things that might help Jeri's morale.

I met Bruce Langhorn once when he was backing Odetta. Nearly dropped my teeth when we shook hands — he had only the first sections of the index and middle fingers on his picking hand. He turned it into an asset — picking bass with his thumb, brushing with the nubs and picking melody with the ring and little fingers. Gave him a unique sound.

Just recently I heard a bluegrass/old time band from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee (the name just won't come at the moment) with a banjo player who had only one joint of his thumb on the chording hand — all the fingers were COMPLETELY gone — but he could really tear it up on the 5-sting. They'd do a bluegrassy speed thing and he'd make jokes about the others not being able to keep up coz their fingers got in the way.

And there was a young woman at the blues camp I went to last summer whose little fingers were very short. She had very long, beautiful fingers and could do amazing stretches, but the little fingers barely reached he first knuckle of her ring fingers. She said she just had to be a little quicker on some things and it forced her to think about her chords more. She was quite good.

Hang in, Jeri — when you figure out how to do it, you'll find it's really worthwhile.



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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Genie
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 03:06 AM

I'm interested in all you folks have to say about this. I have bad arthritis in my left index finger and I cut the end of it off a few years ago, to boot. The skin grew back, but it doesn't have a pad like my other fingers do, and it hurts when I press down on the strings, especially after playing for an hour or two.

I've been talking to "hand specialists" at Kaiser Permanente--and getting nowhere.

The good news is that when I cut the tip off, I was forced to learn bar chords (which I had used only very sparingly before that). But, as you mentioned, Rick, modified fingerings can be awkward sometimes.

Personally, I am thinking of taking up slide guitar (especially Dobro style) if my index finger gets harder and harder to bend.


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: 53
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 04:48 AM

once i taught a guy who was missing the first finger of his left hand right above the knuckle, at first it was strange for me cause i've never seen anybody play who was handicapped, but he practiced and eventually he got to where he could change his chords, he just moved the fingering down and sort of used his second finger as his first.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: GUEST,doug
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 05:16 AM

The start of the thread mentioned DADGAD and the help that it might bring to those with fingering problems (whatever the cause).

I'm sure that DADGAD might help (especially to those just learning) because of the nice resonant sounds that can be played with only one finger (D,G & A with only one finger playing all six strings makes a lovely sound that will get anybody who is learning eager for more). I'm teaching my 8 year old son at the moment and we often slip into DADGAD so that he can get into the habit of listening for chord changes, listening for what somebody else is doing and making more effective strumming patterns (something we can't do if we wait till he changes from D to G etc).


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Peter T.
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 08:44 AM

I have a bad middle finger (the top crushed an industrial accident) which works fine but has not much padding at the top so it sags, and when I press down it goes straight to the bone. I think if I had known how much trouble it was going to cause, I would have switched over to left handed guitar (I am left handed), but I guess it is too late now. I have recently started thinking about maybe tiny strips of rubber band or something to shore the finger up, or at least get it out of the way.

Apart from bitching, which Rick is used to, I find that the biggest problem is that since the finger works for some things I cannot fully commit to using it or not using it. That means that for runs and patterns I am constantly having to make decisions that slow me down. It is a sort of half compensation.
Nice to hear these stories.

yours, Peter T.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: GUEST,Don Meixner
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 08:56 AM


I am unsure what you are indicating here. When you press down what goes right to the bone? Your finger tip? If thats the case what you describe could possibly be repaired with some reconstructive surgery. Have you asked an orthopod about this? More than one? My problem is more one of scar tissue at this time and that can't be removed without creating more scar tissue.

In the U.S. this might be covered by Worker's Compensation, in Far Frozen Canadia I haven't a clue. But I definately have a Doctor look at.

Bank tellers have a finger condom for counting money. These might supply some padding for you. Not quite a prosthetic but it could offer some support.



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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Homeless
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 10:05 AM

My granddad was missing his middle finger and couldn't bend his little finger except for the last joint, which was permanently bent. His way around that was to use a lot of up the neck barre chords, and play "Chet Atkins one note stuff" (his words). As far as I know, he only ever played in standard tuning.

He only ever played for his own amusement tho, so I guess he never had to try to figure out how to play tough chords. He just wouldn't play a song if he wasn't able to play the chords in it.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Midchuck
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 10:06 AM

Anybody else heard of "Daddy Dick" Richards? A musician from the NY Adirondack area. He died in a car accident just recently.

He played guitar and fiddle quite well. His left arm was off about 4" past the elbow joint.

I swear I am not making this up.'

He had a slide attached to the bit of forearm that was left, and tuned to a open chord.

Took me quite a while to believe it, even when I saw and heard it.


P. S. would it make sense for Jeri to learn left-handed? I'm strongly left-handed but play righty 'cause I learned that way, not knowing there was a choice. So it ought to be possible the other way around.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Peter T.
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 10:16 AM

Thanks Don, good question, makes me think. The trouble is that there is not quite enough meat in the top part of my finger to press down, except hard (which hurts like hell, which must be a nerve against the top of the finger bone), and the part right in the fleshy middle part of the top finger sort of sags (and gets in the way of higher strings during chords -- I have a hell of a time doing a standard C chord, which is why open D has been very, very good to me). I thought of using a finger condom, but they are just too bulky. Rick has been working (for another person) on the problem of how to keep a prosthesis tight on the finger, and it occurred to me that a very thin tight band of material around the saggy part might work for me, pushing the underlying material up where it ought to be, and getting the sag out of the way. But maybe an orthopod look would be a way to go. It is very frustrating.

yours, Peter T. P.S. My mother said that the arrival of panty hose was one of the great liberating moments of her life.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Jeri
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 10:41 AM

Definition of "missing tip": I'm missing the finger past the last joint. Complicate that by having another half centimeter of bone removed about 4 years ago because of a cyst formed around a "foriegn object" inside the finger. I'd had surgeries on it to remove a fingernail remnant, and I believe that's what was inside the cyst. I suspect I have another one, as things like barring and holding a rake seem to cause pain. Personal advice: if you can live with something, DON'T SCREW WITH IT. (Murphy's law applies/)

There's no fat pad on the end. The problem isn't that the skin won't toughen into a callus. It's that...oh, try walking on your knees or fretting with your knuckles and see how it feels. I suspect that it will still hurt, even if you last long enough to get calluses.

I taught myself how to play fiddle with the pre-cyst chopped finger, and the low string tension hasn't posed a problem. I find I can fret with the flat part of that finger, and it's great for barre chords. (Well, until the suspected cyst acts up.) The finger is strong, even though it's short and un-padded. In any case, I'm having the time of my life with the guitar, and I haven't felt any frustration yet. If it weren't for the fact I have a teacher who's capable and willing to adapt teaching methods to suit me, personally, I'd probably get very frustrated.

When I was in primary school (age 7 or 8) and wanted to be in band, they wouldn't even consider any stringed instrument, because they didn't believe that, with that finger, I was capable of learning how to play it. I remember thinking that they were wrong - they should have at least given me a chance. I know some people feel strongly about doing things the "right" way, but, for me, it's about making music that sounds good. There are loads of teachers out there who can teach the "right way" to do things. Thank goodness for the teachers who can teach you what works.

Thanks to Rick for starting this, and to folks for sharing their experiences and suggestions.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 11:07 AM

Hmmmmm, already getting some good ideas.

The "D" tuning certainly can be useful because many of the chords are two finger ones, and the 'three finger' ones seem to be easier to play with the last three digits than in regular tuning. Actually a LOT of pretty prominent players employ that tuning exclusively....and not just folkies. Jimmie Rogers (Honeycomb, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine) Ritchie Havens, and (to my surprise) The Guitar playing Gibb brother (BeeGees)

Turning the guitar over certainly is an option, but if you're a 'natural righty' it may cause greater problems while learning. IT's an option that's always there though.

Can someone bring back Don's thread?

One of the things I've been trying to do over the last few weeks is play without using MY index finger in order to get the feel of what Jeri's dealing with. It's not that difficult, BUT that's because I've been playing so long I'm used to making quick decisions on the finger board. The BIGGEST problem I have playing that way is "adding to" barre chords. The middle finger barre is fine, but using the ring and pinky with it becomes very awkward.

Peter's situation (I didn't mention your name 'cause I wasn't sure if your finger had "toughened up" over the last while) is certainly not unique, and seems more of an 'irritant' than an actual barrier. He's getting around in D tuning really well these days...jazz chords, blues, Celtic, Rock, etc. It CAN be done.


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Leeder
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 12:39 PM

My chum Joe Adams, dead these past four years, had hands badly crippled from rheumatoid arthritis. He tuned his guitar to an open tuning, with a raised nut à la Hawaiian guitar, and used a steel and flat-pick. He also devised a capo which allowed him to play in different keys without retuning -- it had a bar between the strings and fingerboard as well as over the strings. He was crippled up throughout his adult life, and music was his therapy. A very inspirational guy.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: JenEllen
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 01:39 PM

I can sympathize, Jeri. A little over a year ago I had an accident through work that smashed the common digital nerve in my wrist (as well as a few bones too!) Now I am working through what they call a 'double crush syndrome', where a nerve has been affected at more than one site, as well as a chronic neuritis just from the build-up of scar tissue around my carpals that is pinching the nerves and irritates it with prolonged use. The common digital affects the 2-3-4 digit web spaces, so there are all together too many times where my mind says 'apply pressure here' and the fingers seems to go 'hmm? were you talking to us?' It certainly gets worse the more I use it, and I've been told that even with scar tissue removal (not an option right now) that recovery is long and never complete. I've been relegated to 45 minutes of physical therapy approved music time a day, so I've had to be selective. I made a switch from fiddle to guitar in an effort to help increase my hand strength (before I knew that muscles weren't the problem) and it has been a bit of a struggle, but it does allow you- force you- to become inventive.

Stupid idea alert: Have you tried moleskin pads? Kind of like the things people wear on their feet to cover up corns? Padded and sticky, it might give you a bit of cushion and still stay in place on your finger?

Best of luck,

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: GUEST,Don Meixner
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 02:30 PM

Hi Elle,

Your nerve problem is in some ways similar to what I dealt with early on in my therapy. On the violin, my fingers knew where to go, I knew where they should go but the permanent bend in my finger may me the spot I wanted but in the adjacent string. And then the nevers would fire off for no reason at all.

IF you have thet where-with-all. Try an Autoharp for combined music and physical therapy. Fingers moving fore and aft as well a up and down. Plus you need to move the fingers individually for very descreet movements. The added benefit of the resistance of the springs helps as well.


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Melani
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 03:32 PM

I have about a quarter inch missing from the ring finger of my left hand, and the tendon missing from the middle finger, the result of a car accident. The middle finger won't straighten on it's own, but will when pushed against the fretboard, so no problem there. The ring finger doesn't callus the same as the others, presumably because the skin is different lower down on the finger than at the tip, though I can't say for sure. If I just live with the pain for a few weeks and play frequently for short periods, it does develop some callus, though usually in just a small strip rather than the whole tip. After the accident, my dad mad the mistake of changing the 2-inch neck on my guitar for a narrower one, thinking it would be easier to play with the short finger. Actually, the short finger is wider at the tip and brushes against other strings, so it didn't help. The wider neck is easier. I just keep trying slightly different hand positions to compensate.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Jeri
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 03:41 PM

One real problem, besides the shortness after the last surgery, was that it felt like the end of my finger was the front because they pulled that skin up over the top.

Elle, I hope things turn out OK for you. Nerves can take one hell of a long time to heal, if they're gonna heal.

I tried the moleskin when I was learning, and it was great for simulating a callus, but wasn't thick enough to simulate that fat pad. Something thicker might work, but I think I'd still have to feel a bit through it.

And now, for some silliness - sorry Rick. Preferably played on slide guitar:

Well, I woke up this mornin,
Had them missin' finger blues
Well, I had 'em when I went to bed
But you need that line for blues

I got them missin' finger blues baby,
And you know it ain't no jive
I only got 4 and 2 thirds,
And most folks, they got five...
(whole ones, with fingernails 'n' everything)

Take this advice from me
If you don't wanna suffer the same lack
Don't you give no one the finger,
'Cause they might not give it back
I got them missin' finger blues baby
But you know, I ain't gonna fret
I keep mashin' on that sucker,
Ain't got it workin' yet

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Homeless
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 03:48 PM

Something else I just thought of. A while back I was reading an article about how Black Sabbath got started with their gloomy sound. It seems that back when they were still primarily a blues band, the guitarist, Toni Iommi, was involved in an industrial accident that left him with only partial use of the fingers on his fretting hand. Since he had a difficult time applying the pressure needed to play without causing a lot of pain, he detuned all the strings by 2 full steps so that they wouldn't have as much tension on them and he wouldn't need to apply near as much pressure to fret them. It inadvertantly lead to their boomy, low sound, but enabled him to continue playing.

Would moving all the strings one place (and getting a custom gauge e string) and tuning them a fifth lower help anyone who can make the chord patterns, but has a tough time applying the pressure?

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: bill\sables
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 04:12 PM

I remember a folk group in the UK called Swan Arcade in the 60's where the leader had no right arm below the elbow but it didn't stop him playing guitar and anglo concertina. The concertina was held between his knees and he just played one side with his left hand. When it come to guitar he chorded the strings with his first three fingers and strumed with his little finger.

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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: Jon Freeman
Date: 20 Nov 01 - 08:49 PM

Just a little drift. There was a very good B/C (I think - Double Ray) box player in the session tonight who played with the longest strap I had seen and he played the box with one side resting on his knee and the righthand buttons facing downwards. My mum commented on this to his wife. Apparently the reason for his style was an arthritic elbow.

I went to a session a couple of months ago and met a fiddler who didn't rest the fiddle under his chin - he had a sort of necklace onto which he hooked something attached to the fiddle. He also played with a bow which was about 1/2 normal size but he was a fine session fiddler. It turned out that this was his adaptation to play with physical ailments that had troubled him later in life.

It's amazing how some people adapt and adapt well!


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Subject: RE: Learning guitar with a wonky digit or 2
From: DonMeixner
Date: 21 Nov 01 - 07:36 AM

Here is something that I have noticed about my injury. The nails on my left hand grow twice as fast as those on my right. This is subsequent to the finger injuries. I recall before accident I had to trim my nails at about the same time for both hands. Now its two to three times on the left to every one on the right.

This is observation and probably is unimportant to this thread but I thot I'd pass it on.


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