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The 6 talented guitarists who overcame their disabilities

In this article, I want to shine a light on six guitarists who refused to accept the limitations of their disabilities. Some we all know well, while others might fly a little more under the radar. But their respective stories of passion, determination and drive will no doubt inspire you to pick up that guitar that’s been sitting in the corner by the end of this read.

Not only did these musicians overcome physical limitations but have actually transformed it into a strength that served to shape their sound that countless fans have come to recognize. Let’s dig in.

Tony Iommi

Tony Iommi - guitarist with missing fingertips
Photo: Marek Krajcer

Honestly, I can’t think of a better place to start than the mighty riff master himself. The sole guitarist of arguably the first ever heavy metal band Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi is responsible (in my humble opinion) for writing every heavy metal riff out there. The rest of us are more or less just reinterpreting everything he’s already done. He’s written them all!

But did you know he’s missing the tips of two of his fingers? Indeed. At age 17 while working at a sheet metal factory in Birmingham, Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a freak industrial accident.

When telling his story to Loudwire, Iommi recalled the fateful day: “I’d be on a line and they’d pass stuff down to me and I’d weld it, and then it’d go on to somewhere else. One day, the person that would be sending me the thing to weld never turned up, so they put me on this giant, huge press – a guillotine-type press. I don’t know what happened, I must have pushed my hand in. Bang! It came down. It just took the ends off [my fingers]. I actually pulled them off. As I pulled my hand back, it sort of pulled them off. It was left with two stalks, the bone was sticking out the top of the finger.”

Now to right-handed players, this may seem like an easy workaround as his thumb and index finger were unaffected and wouldn’t prevent most guitar players from being able to hold a pick. However, since Iommi is left-handed, his right hand is actually what he would use to fret the notes on the guitar. This presented a near impossible challenge for the young guitarist as the doctors said he’d never play guitar again.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Iommi wouldn’t accept his fate: “God, I was just so upset,” Iommi recalled. “I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”

Iommi would go on to craft his own set of prosthetic fingertips by taking a soap bottle and melting it down to shape the missing pieces of his digits. To be able to grip the guitar strings, he fashioned a set of straps to hold his new fingertips in place by repurposing an old leather jacket: “It worked, but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them… and it was painful,” Iommi reflected.

Iommi’s patience and ingenuity paid off and he was able to play guitar again but with a slight modification. Legend has it that because the strings were too tight in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) Iommi was forced to detune his guitar a half step (Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb) to loosen the tension on the strings for greater ease of playing which resulted in a slightly darker sound. A sound that would shape what would become the heavy metal genre for generations to come.

Though widely known for years within the heavy metal community, Tony Iommi’s tale of tragedy and triumph has attained legendary status and serves as a testament to the age old saying of “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt - guitarist with paralyzed fingers
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Known throughout the world as the father of Gypsy jazz, the self-taught virtuoso was already paying the bills at the age of 13 but would later lose all mobility in his fourth (ring) and fifth (pinky) fingers from his left hand in a fire that destroyed the caravan he was living in with his wife at the time.

Just like Tony Iommi, the injuries Reinhardt sustained were on his fretboard hand and just like Iommi, the doctors said he’d never play again.

In the years following the fire, Reinhardt began rehabilitation and experimentation with a guitar his brother had given him. He was later introduced to the American jazz of heavyweights like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Lonnie Johnson.

It was the combination Venuti’s jazz violin and Eddie Lang’s virtuosic guitar work in particular that would later inform Reinhardt’s work. Hearing their collective works lit a fire under Reinhardt and a vision of becoming a jazz professional was born. Of course, we all know what happened next.

With patience and physical therapy, Reinhardt regained his ability to play by completely reinventing his technique. By focusing on the use of his index and middle fingers, he developed a way to play lightning-fast licks while relegating the remaining two injured fingers to play chords.

To this day, Reinhardt’s influence is prominent throughout the guitarist community. Jazz virtuoso Frank Vignola says that nearly every major popular-music guitarist in the world has been influenced by Reinhardt.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell - female guitarist who had polio
Photo: Pino D’Amico

When you think of Joni Mitchell, what comes to mind? Your mind may instantly conjure up the vivid poetic imagery of a song like “Big Yellow Taxi” and start singing “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” right?

But have you ever sat down to learn one of her songs? You would quickly discover a wash of huge ethereal sounds courtesy of a collection of lush open tunings.

But what you may not have known is that the use of those open tunings was actually born out of necessity. At nine years old, Mitchell contracted polio which greatly affected her left hand making fretting traditional chords challenging.

Taking influence from the country blues performers she heard on records and met at gigs, Mitchell utilized open tunings which allowed her to form chord shapes she simply couldn’t have played otherwise. The end result being the wide-open sound she was searching for.

When asked about her atypical chord technique, Mitchel said: “My left hand is somewhat clumsy because of polio, but I craved chordal movements that I couldn’t get out of standard tuning.”

She also goes on to say that her limitation then became “a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure” in her songwriting – and a welcomed alternative to what’s available for music fans, even today.

Jose Feliciano

blind guitarist Jose Feliciano
Photo: Bart Cabanier

Hailing from Puerto Rico, guitarist/singer/composer José Montserrate Feliciano García is arguably most known for his Christmas song “Feliz Navidad” among numerous international hits throughout his illustrious career.

Though permanently blinded at birth due to congenital glaucoma, the seeds of his musical pursuits were planted at age three as a young Feliciano would accompany his cuatro strumming uncle by banging away on a cracker tin.

Both Feliciano’s appetite and proficiency for music kicked into high gear at age seven when he taught himself to play the accordion, but it wasn’t until he was nine that guitar would take center stage.

Despite being deprived of his sight at birth, Feliciano would go on to teach himself how to play guitar completely by ear. With his first guitar given to him by his father, Feliciano would spend 14 hours a day holed up in his room absorbing the works of Andres Segovia, Wes Montgomery, and a slew of 1950s rock and roll.

Because he couldn’t afford a guitar teacher, Feliciano would simply listen to the guitarists he looked up to and figured out the chords by sound.

Keith Xander

one-armed guitarist Keith Xander
Photo: Tony Shertila

Guitarist Keith Xander has been touted as “Liverpool’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan.” His outfit Xander and the Peace Pirates have shared stages with legends the likes of Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Richie Kotzen, Joe Satriani, and a host of others with high energy performances fueled by Xander’s blistering licks.

Born without a right arm below the elbow, Xander uses a prosthesis and hook with a plectrum on its end. Due to the nature of the prosthesis’ design, Xander relegates his picking to downstrokes and opts for a legato approach to his technique to achieve dazzling leads that can hang with any of the aforementioned players he’s shared the stage with.

Xander’s story is one of resilience and inspiration in the face of what many would consider to be impossible. In his interview with Guitar World, Xander commented: “Playing with only one arm taught me a lot of patience, because in the beginning I couldn’t even hit the strings. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Eric Howk

wheelchair guitarist Eric Howk
Photo: The Alaska Landmine

When Portugal The Man’s guitarist Eric Howk sustained at T4 spinal cord injury due to a freak accident involving falling 12 feet through a collapsed wall, his future in music came into question by others as he was rendered paralyzed from the sternum down. Leaving him in a wheelchair.

Despite this debilitating setback, it did little to slow down Howk’s momentum. Even when beginning rehab, he was visited by friends who brought along a mini recording studio setup to conduct what might be the first recording session held inside a major trauma center.

Howk’s attitude regarding his situation never strayed from the goal of playing guitar as his focus was on the fact that he still had full use of his hands. Even if he didn’t, Howk’s focus was always on finding solutions instead of focusing on circumstances.

In an interview with New Mobility, Howk explained, “After my injury, I knew I had my hands. And if I didn’t have my hands, I’d work my way up to being a world premiere slide guitarist or something. I’d figure something out.”

In order to modify his technique, he learned to sit in a slightly off-kilter position to maintain his balance while playing, and often rolls without his chair’s right armrest to make space for the body of his guitar.

In closing

The next time you find yourself feeling like you’ve hit a wall with your playing, take some inspiration from these vastly different players who all share one thing in common: they embraced what made them unique and created something new in the face of the obstacles that life presented to them.

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2 comments
  • Hi. Wow, I wasn’t aware the Toni Iommi and others had physical challenges, they have given me a new outlook on my physical challenge. Thirty years again I was involved in a near fatal vehicle accident, and almost lost my left arm, doctors where able to save my arm, but it was never the same again, certain movements are difficult, other cause pain, and my hand lost a lot of coordination, I’ve been learning guitar the last two years, really enjoying the journey, but very technical playing is almost impossible, leaving me mad, daunting, and doubting if I should put on, but now that I’ve read the above, I will never give up. Thank you

    • Hi, James! Thanks for taking the time to check out the article! I’m so happy that this was able to give you some perspective on your current situation and I’m super excited to hear that you’re choosing not to give up on yourself. We are much more than our circumstances. This makes my day! Wishing you all the best in your pursuits!