MINNEAPOLIS – Guitarist Billy McLaughlin was at the top of his game a decade ago, a fingerstyle player noted for his technique of tapping on strings, when he began having problems controlling his left hand, missing notes with no clue why. Audiences thought he was drunk.
After a maddening couple of years in which his playing grew so bad he couldn't perform his own songs, McLaughlin finally received a diagnosis: an incurable neuromuscular disease.
"When this first started happening, I thought I had done something wrong, I had committed some sort of musician's sin or something," McLaughlin said. "I didn't sleep enough, maybe I was out too many nights after the concerts carousing around."
McLaughlin has focal dystonia, a mysterious ailment that affects about 10,000 musicians around the world. For horn players, it can mean clenched jaws or immobile lips. For pianists, violinists or guitarists, the result can be frozen fingers that spell the end of a career. In McLaughlin's case, the pinkie and ring finger on his left hand — the hand a right-handed guitarist uses to form chords or run scales on the fretboard — curled inward.
Instead of giving up, McLaughlin decided to relearn how to play the guitar left-handed — something another Twin Cities acoustic guitar virtuoso, Leo Kottke, likens to "trying to breathe through your feet. It's exactly that hard."
Now McLaughlin is back on the road and the subject of a recent documentary, "Changing Keys: Billy McLaughlin and the Mysteries of Dystonia."
On a late spring day, McLaughlin — in jeans and boots — shows off his skills at his friend Jeff Arundel's studio in downtown Minneapolis. His eyes closed and his shoulder-length blond hair waving, McLaughlin runs through his composition "Church Bells," and the familiar Pachelbel's Canon. His right hand runs across the fretboard while the index and middle fingers of his left hand hold, then release bass strings. The pinkie and ring finger of his left hand remain bent behind the neck of his guitar, which is emblazoned with "BILLY" on the head. The sound is smooth, calming, flawless.
Arundel, 51, a producer and fellow guitarist, knew McLaughlin in his heyday and watched his return.
"Imagine a guy learning to pitch with the other hand — the idea that a guy would get back to the major leagues doing that," Arundel said.
McLaughlin, 47, grew up in Minneapolis and started playing guitar around 13 after "failing" on piano and trumpet. He studied guitar performance at the University of Southern California, switching to steel-string acoustic when his electric hollow-body Gretsch was stolen after graduation in 1984.
While performing with an ensemble, McLaughlin developed his signature percussive style, a hammering technique that demands strong fingers. He would step out on stage while the band took a break and wow the crowd with his tapping style. Eventually McLaughlin developed a solo act and became a big draw on college campuses, performing 200 days out of the year and logging 400,000 miles on his van.
After self-releasing seven CDs, McLaughlin signed a contract with Narada, an instrumental and world music label, in 1995. His first Narada release, "fingerdance," reached No. 7 on Billboard's New Age chart. It was around the time of his second Narada release, "Out of Hand," in 1998 that McLaughlin's finger problems began.
McLaughlin slipped on ice on the way to a photo shoot for the album and dislocated two fingers on his left hand. He underwent therapy and had gotten past the injury, but he said "something never felt quite right in that hand." He ended his contract with Narada, completing his deal by releasing a best-of CD in 2000, and his marriage fell apart.
McLaughlin found his pinkie wouldn't reach notes and that he had to refinger even easy pieces. He tried acupuncture, deep tissue massage and a chiropractor, spending "a small fortune trying to get this hand to work."
Finally McLaughlin visited the performing arts clinic at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where he was told he had focal dystonia. He didn't believe it and continued trying to practice through the problem until Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis in 2001.
Focal dystonia is a localized movement disorder that's part of a family of neurological disorders. In one form, it can cause a person's eyelids to involuntarily close, effectively resulting in blindness. Writer's cramp is another form. A generalized dystonia can contort a person's entire body. The origins of dystonia — which affects about 300,000 people in North America — may be genetic. Treatments can involve anticonvulsants or surgery, but there's no cure.
Normally muscles work together to raise or lower a joint, but in focal dystonia the muscles don't act together and instead are in a "tug of war," explained Dr. Mahlon DeLong, a neurology professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
After his diagnosis, McLaughlin called renowned concert pianist Leon Fleisher, whose own career was derailed by focal dystonia that affects the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. Fleisher, 80, switched to a left-hand piano repertoire before undergoing Botox injections in 1995. The injections, combined with deep tissue massage, allowed him to resume playing two-handed (he recently released his first two-handed recording of concertos in more than 40 years).
Fleisher told him the skills McLaughlin enjoyed at his height were gone forever. But McLaughlin said he was relieved just to talk to someone who understood what he was going through.
For a musician, according to Fleisher, focal dystonia is "truly, profoundly tragic."
"Your life is over, and it takes a special kind of courage to do what Billy has done," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Baltimore.
For McLaughlin, who didn't want to give up music, the answer was to switch hands. He had his two guitars refitted and restrung for left hand and is about to receive his first custom-made left-handed guitar.
"What allowed me to do what I'm doing now is making a mental break from 'What's wrong with me?' to 'What do I have that still works?'" McLaughlin said. He took a left-handed guitar with him on vacation and for two weeks worked out his pieces note by note.
"The biggest hurdle initially was me allowing myself to sound like crap," McLaughlin said. "I'm a beauty addict, and to not be able to create anything that sounded beautiful was difficult to get through."
Ron Tracy of Hoffman Guitars in Minneapolis was the one who turned McLaughlin's right-handed guitars into left-handed models.
"He basically had to start like a kid learning to crawl and walk, and did it," Tracy said. "It's really starting over. He had the noise in his head, but couldn't make it come out his hands."
When he was ready, McLaughlin debuted as a left-handed guitarist at a solo performance in Detroit in late 2005, an event captured by the "Changing Keys" documentary.
"We didn't know what the story was going to be yet. We didn't have an ending. It was a leap of faith," said "Changing Keys" producer and director Suzanne Jurva. The documentary has been shown on Twin Cities public television and is looking for national distribution.
In April 2006, McLaughlin made what he calls his "comeback" performance, rounding up his old bandmates and playing a mix of old and new music with a string orchestra in suburban Maplewood for a self-released CD, "Into the Light."
"That was me saying, 'If I never play again, this is how I want to go out,'" McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin tours Texas in July. He's busy being a single dad to his 16- and 13-year-old sons and believes his best days of playing lie ahead. He lives with the possibility that his dystonia will migrate to his healthy hand.
"You know the vase hits the floor and in that moment that it shatters and that sound comes out you realize, 'Oh, oh, that's gone forever,'" McLaughlin said. "And in my case, there's no new hand to put on. But I found another way around it. And that's a lesson for every area of my life."