McLaughlin: Finger-pickin’ guitar guru extraordinaire

by Jim Fossett
ELLENSBURG – Few guitarists can transplant a brain into each of their ten fingers – and turn them loose on a six or 12-string guitar to do their own things. Legendary, internationally known guitarist Billy McLaughlin has – and he’s still doing it after pulling off a an astonishing comeback after he contracted a neuromuscular condition that caused uncontrollable ring and pinky finger contractions on his left hand. This unfortunate situation precipitated the loss of his career, income, recording contract, marriage, family and home.

McLaughlin’s comeback of a lifetime

After Focal Dystonia took control of the ring and pinky fingers on his left hand, it took McLaughlin six years to re-learn playing his guitar left-handed. The last four of those years he practiced 35 hours per week.
What did you learn about yourself during those six years? “That as a teacher I had a hard time practicing what I preached, which is practicing every day and being consistent. That’s more important than practicing for just five hours one day a week.
“It was so emotionally challenging and humiliating that the first two years I kept quitting. All I could create were ugly sounds.”
During the last four years, what was a typical day like for you? “As a single dad, Monday through Friday I could get my kids off to school, practice three hours, eat a healthy lunch and practice again for a total of about seven hours a day, including Saturday and Sunday.”
The technique you used to re-learn: one hand and one set of fingers at a time? “I had to work it one hand at a time. The style I developed made it possible for me to work one hand at a time.
“I want to be very clear. There’s a good 80 percent of the music I wrote for two healthy hands that I cannot perform in traditional guitar technique. I have to play up on the guitar neck. It’s unusual but I feel like I’m playing better than I ever did.
“Playing that way, I developed a fascination with percussive elements I heard from Michael Hedges (, the gatekeeper, the master of the modern acoustic fingerstyle guitar.
“Without seeing him play he was the first guitar player to leave me utterly confused and bewildered. I thought, how could one person produce that kind of musical landscape with a melody the way he did it. And once I saw that he left the traditional hand position technique behind, that he gave himself permission to be unorthodox, it opened a door for me to take it in my own direction.”
You’ve got some performance miles on you, so you’ve had plenty of time to transcend music. What has it taught you about life? “Being a composer in addition to being a performer has made me aware that there’s a process all kids and adults can benefit from when faced with silence, or for painters a blank canvas, bringing the abstract into reality is essential to feeling confident we can be creative.
“How this plays out for non-artists, non-musicians and non-painters are concepts such as social justice and equality. Those are abstract concepts we need to make real. And when a musician successfully experiences having an idea in his or her mind, they can share it.
“As human beings we can manifest abstract ideas if we have confidence we can do so.
“Having a healthy art education is actually giving all of us confidence that out of nothing or out of chaos we can create something beautiful.”
If your music is what keeps you going, can you explain why in a way that might inspire a younger person to take up music? “When I run out of words I try to express with music what’s in my heart and spirit.”
What motivational quote got you through those six years? “There were so many. I believe you have to take every bit of inspiration from wherever you can find it.
“Early on I gave up, threw my guitar down and went out for Chinese food. The fortune cookie I got blew my mind.
“It read, ‘Many people fail because they quit too soon.’ I thought what if that applies to me?
“Many students of music do push on until they break through to the next level. Although I felt like I was stuck, that fortune cookie told me I was actually on my way to the next level
“I still have that little piece of paper and I look at it every day.”
If you had to pick one person who has inspired you, who would it be and why? “From the beginning of my journey I saw a PBS program that featured a guitar player I didn’t recognize. He closed his eyes and played the guitar and understood the music without words. That was Carlos Santana, my hero, but as I mentioned, Hedges was the most influential. Why? Santana always had a band completing the experience, Hedges did it with one guitar, much like Leo Kottke. It takes a peculiar outlook to want to accept the demands required to play guitar all by yourself yet satisfy the listener.”
Are you still struggling, maybe every time you come up with a new song? “I don’t know a musician who would tell you they’re not still learning. That drives some people crazy enough to quit their job.
“So yes I’m always learning something new. The more you know, the more you don’t know. That’s so true in music and you can let
it drive you crazy or you can let it make you feel confident you do know how to communicate something inspirational, entertaining or motivational with what you can do.
“Some guitar players never leave their bedroom until they feel they know enough.”
Music is healing. Correct or incorrect and why? “Music has a healing quality whether scientists can prove it or not.”
What’s on your Bucket List? “I’ve been so lucky. My work has taken me around the world, but I’d really love to have a year just to travel, not that I wouldn’t bring my guitar to share my music.  That would be a dream come true.”
McLaughlin ended the interview with this comment.
“I love music because it’s about what needs to happen versus what is happening. And you know, if you do what you love you live longer.”