Guitar after a stroke

This afternoon, I’ve been replying to a website visitor who is trying to find a way for a guitarist to continue playing after a stroke affecting the left-hand side of the body. I thought this reply might also be of interest to others:

“If your guitarist has some use of his left hand, he might be able to play a Suzuki Q Chord, a sort of combination of electronic keyboard and guitar. There are many ways of using this versatile instrument, the most guitar-like of which is to press chord buttons with the left hand and strum various patterns on the ‘strum-plate’ with the right. The internal sounds are pretty good but the Q-chord can also be connected to an external MIDI device such as a sound card or guitar-sampler. (See: http://www.suzukimusic.com/qchord/)

The simplest, and cheapest, solution might be a customised version of GridPlay software. Gridplay, published by my own company, The Full Pitcher Music Resources, is a (Windows) software instrument that can be played by means of the mouse. Each GridPlay package has 15 grids, each a mini-application in which the instrument is configured in a different way. It can be used with the nothing more than the internal sound-system but it also has a full MIDI specification and like the Q-chord can be used with other software/hardware synthesizers and samplers. (see: http://www.fullpitcher.co.uk/gridplay_level_2.htm, for demos of a standard package and http://www.fullpitcher.co.uk/softwareSN.htm for more information about customisation for special needs). Grids could be prepared using guitar sounds and various scales, arpeggios, block chords/ strum patterns.

I know that a stroke often has a negative impact on learning and recall but, if this does not apply to your gentleman, the Sibelius G7 software has great guitar samples and provides an excellent way for an experienced guitarist to channel their musical energies into composing for the instrument. A Suzuki Q-chord or a GridPlay/MIDIgrid software package could be used to play the music for recording/editing in G7. (see: http://www.sibelius.com)

Update 7/02/2014: What do you all think of this? Ian Pearce can play again, after 47 years, with this adapted guitar:

24 thoughts on “Guitar after a stroke

  1. Hi, I have been playing guitar for 48 years but suffered a stroke laming my left side, an d wonder if somwone has a good way to proceed in traing to get back to normal
    playin, I can move my fingers on the left arm an lift it but not keep it holding on to the neck while playing

    • Hi!
      I don’t know anyone who’s had an exercise regime to recover left hand guitar-playing function but an article at http://cre.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/18/5/538 might be of interest. It suggests that mental imagery is helpful in recovering skills. I can well believe this because I have found silent practice sessions following this principle very useful in mastering new pieces when physical practice was not possible. I wonder whether watching videos would also be beneficial. On my instrumental teaching forum at guitar riffs on video someone has posted links to videos of guitar riffs. Might be worth a try. You might also like to post your question there.
      Audrey

      • Hi Audrey,

        I was left hand dominant until I had a right sided basal ganglia (sub-cortical) stroke ~ 3 years ago, on 7/14/07. I am a stubborn SOB, 38 years old, a former hack guitar player. but dammit I loved the hobby as much as I loved skiing and Mtn. biking. I cannot seem to move on, though I know it is a necessary part of the whole recovery process. I want to be that one in a billion person that can play guitar again and show all what can be done with intense will and hard work. do you know anyone who I could be inspired by? my fire wanes frequently this far from the stroke.

  2. Hi Tim,

    All power to your elbow!

    As it is, as you say, the one in a billion person who can play guitar again after a stroke, role models are a bit thin on the ground. I know that playing guitar 1-handed as an amputee is a different matter to regaining the skills after a stroke, but watching the 1-handed guitarists on you-tube might afford you some encouragement. A search on Google for “guitar 1 hand” throws up a few examples.

    Playing classical piano may seem a million miles from hack guitar, but the success of the concert pianist Cyril Smith in rebuilding his performing career after a stroke might also provide some inspiration. Cyril Smith was fortunate in being married to another concert pianist, Phyllis Sellick. After his stroke, they formed a a very successful 3-handed duo and Cyril was invited to return to teaching at the Royal College of Music, in London. Might there be some mileage in looking at playing with one, or more, simarly-minded musicians?

    You seem to be aware that ‘letting go’ is the real key to recovery but, if you can’t ‘grasp this nettle’, it might be helpful if, at least, you don’t try to recreate the past exactly. Could your guitar skills take you in a new direction? easy for me to say, I know!

    I hope that, however things might work out, your music will bring you much joy!

    Audrey

  3. I had a stroke many years ago, when I was 17 (now 34). I’m still a hack but I’ll never give up…! It was my right side and I’m left handed (but I’ve always played right handed) haha that sounds confusing.

  4. i HAVE BEEN AN AVID PERFORNER/WRITER SINGER IN THE lEHIGHvALLEY FOR 10 YEARS. i HAD A STROKE jUNE 1ST 2010 AFFECTING MY LEFT SIDE AND i CAN’T PLAY.mY mARTIN d16 SITS IDLE. THIS IS KILLING ME. GUITAR IS MY LIFE. ANY SUGGESTIONS?

    • lfeel your pain l started teaching just one student with basic playing skills this has been great for me as l’m able to revisit the fundamentals again l find l have retained my guitar playing skills l don’t have any arm or hand/finger movement on my left side l’m working doing heaps of exercises to keep my hand and wrist supple byusing a streching board &night splint l also use an electrical stimulation unit hopefully all these interventions will give me back my hand have you tried mirror box therapy ? l do some of that as well hope this helps cheers frank butters melbourne australia once we’re back playing it would be great to one day have a jam lollhad my stroke on dec1st 2009

  5. Hi Marshall,

    Sorry to hear about your stroke! I don’t really have anything further to add about physically regaining guitar-playing skills, but I do believe that fretting about losses will get in the way of any recovery.

    You obviously have a lot to offer so why not channel your love of guitar by creating music that is a joy for others to perform and enthusing the new generation of would-be guitarists. You could start a blog, here on WordPress -it’s very easy once you take the plunge! As you describe to others the physical processes, you will be mentally rehearsing them youself and, who knows, the brain may find new ways to make the fingers respond. Even if it does not, you will be one happier person and you will certainly be ‘Mr Guitar’ to grateful newbies.

    Whatever your situation as a performer, I do hope the guitar will continue to bring you joy and enrichment!

    • “Fretting about losses will get in the way of recovery”? Fretting? Was that a joke? I’ve heard the same thing from people: Stop focusing on what you can no longer do and be thankful for what you can still do. Oh, and find new interests/hobbies. Easy for someone to say if they’ve never been in our shoes. Imagine losing your ability to do something that gave your life great joy. Imagine that ability being gone forever. The other frustrating comments (aka What not to say to a stroke survivor who’s lost the ability to play a musical instrument) include: “Play it the way a lefty plays using your right hand to finger the notes”, and “Take up a new instrument. You can use your fully functional hand to bang on a drum or hold a kazoo to your mouth.”

      • hi there i played bass before my stroke it took my left arm and hand. i’m left handed, but i played right hand bass finger and pick. since 2009 i havn.’t played a note,my hand just sticks on the neck. with no fluid movement. i’m still gutted.i’v takin up photogaphy which i can do with some good results it fills a gap! however it doesn’t replace the fun i got from playing my bass.i had my stroke during a brain tumour operation. i had no movement down my left side,i couldn’t walk,move my arm,hand. i can walk now iv got arm movement.
        my hand is still very poor,but i’m not giving up. rob

        • Hi Robert,
          I progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and am loosing my left hand entirely. I understand your longing to play again. I also am left handed, and forget and drop things when grasp with it.
          I am trying to play my guitar across my lap with a finger steel/slide. It does give me a sense of playing music WITHOUT the frustration of trying to cord my notes.
          Also, I am learning to play the “bowed-harp (psaltery); it only requires one hand and can be placed on the table or your lap.
          Thoughts and prayers are with you!
          Carolana

  6. My Father was an avid acoustic rhythm Guitar player and singer for as long as I can remember. It was part of him and our family growing up. He had a severe stroke in 1996 that paralyzed his left side. The Doctors said he was lucky to live and thought he may never walk again. … But he us a very stubborn man and did not take their word for it. My father now is entirely self sufficient and finds ways to do almost everything he used to do and has a very full life. I’m happy to say he walks unassisted everywhere but with a pronounced limp, and while he can hold objects with his left hand, unfortunately, he has not regained enough fine motor skill and feeling in his left hand to play the guitar again. He keeps his guitar in the living room ready to go but unfortunately it is collecting dust. His hope has inspired me to build a device that let’s him play chords using his feet and strum with his right hand. I have a prototype I hope to bring him at the end of this month. Let me know if anyone is interested in such a contraption…. I think it will work. God bless all of you… don’t let the disappointments get the best of you and never give up… you never know what might come out of creative persistence and determination!
    Kevin

    • I have a brother in law who just had a stroke & his left side is paralyzed. I’m 62 years old & have been playing about 5 years now & this has made me wonder what I would do if I had a stroke & could not play as it is so much of my life now. I was thinking of a device that would hold a slide & move up & down effortlessly over the frets & when you are ready to stop or apply pressure you would bite down on the linkage connecting your slide to your mouth….just in the dreaming phase now.. would like to know about your idea. In no way would I think of taking this from you. I just feel there is a need for this & can’t get it out of my mind….Thanks for listening…Mike (aka Leo Man)

  7. I am living in this situation now. I’ve been playing 35 years, teach at GC Studios, and this is my profession. My influences are Malmsteen, Rhoads, and many more. This is still a journey for me, but…. 1. I would soak the left hand In Ice water, then push/ massage the edima beyond the wrist. 2. Find a patient friend to frequently massage your affected hand. Edima/ fluid is a roadblock to your fingers flexibility. The stiffness,lack of sensation In feeling the strings are huge issue to grapple with but you should remember that lateral movement in your wrist and forearm are as important. Once I was able to successfully hold a slide, I had a hard time keeping the slide parallel to the frets due to weakness In my wrist. This is a HUGE challenge for us but if we take one step at a time we can beat the odds. Play an Eminor first then graduate from there!

  8. This is a very needed issue to be talked about. My situation is Multiple Sclerosis which has left my left hand with spasticity (frozen muscles). I often have to literally force my hand open, after 10-15 minutes of playing. But my guitar is my best friend during this time of MS Relapse, and I know it helps to keep the depression away.

    GPS–It is a huge challenge! E-minor–that sound pretty well sums up my emotions right now–I feel comforted when I hear it.

  9. Audrey,

    Thank you so much for opening this discussion. I had a really bad day of playing yesterday, and needed to know there are others with my problem.

    God Bless YOU.

  10. im also not being able to play yet left hand doesn’t work well broke my heart I was a stummer and did a lot of neil young america eagles etc my friends keep telling me i can do its with power chords but I’m still looking into it all any hints or youtube people know about or recorded please let me know jedayyt@aol or jedayyt @gmail thanks for posting audrey

  11. John,
    I have just learned the joy of Open D and Open G tuning. The beauty is that I can use a steel guitar tuner on my finger, and play chords in bar form. I have to use the tuner, because bending my fingers is often still a problem. Hey, I am even getting up the nerve to try a lap-steel guitar.
    Who knows???

  12. hi gps, i think i’ll give the ice a try.i’ll let you know i get on! i think its only guitar players understand are pain.i used a seabo flex to get my arm movement back.sadly it doesnt get your hand back.iv been yousing resistance band to build my shoulder and upper arms up. i can grip better but still can’t open my hand. this really upsets me, i feel for all of us.

    rob

  13. Thank you for commenting, Robert. I feel for your frustration! Losing one’s guitar playing skills through a stroke is like a bereavement – of course nothing can replace what you have lost! Your love for the guitar has to go on, though, and find new forms of expression, even if physical skills cannot be regained. After all, it is YOU making music on the guitar that’s most important, not the mechanics of sounding the notes. Work to try and rebuild one’s skills goes on and, as you will see from previous posts and comments, some have found technological aids to physically playing the guitar with one hand, (I wonder how Kevin Krumwiede, who commented in 2011, got on with his device to enable his father to play chords with his feet and strum with his right hand? I will endeavour to find out.) Meanwhile, though, you may be able to use the keyboard to create guitar music. If it has MIDI ports, it could be used to input and control a wide range of guitar software on a computer, selected according to your preferred genre. If the keyboard isn’t MIDI enabled, there are ways of entering what you play via audio recordings.

    It’s almost impossible to offer meaningful advice to an individual about guitar after a stroke without knowing a lot about their particular physical skills, interests, playing history and possible access to music technology. There are so many variables! Contact me again if you have any questions or think I may be able to offer more individual suggestions.

    Audrey

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