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Dudes Down a Digit! Four Fingerless Players Who Rock Our World!

December 18, 2013

Who says you need five fingers two rock? These four guitar players achieved legendary status all without five fingers.

 

Tony Iommi

Tony is the man behind the tone for Black Sabbath and his huge sound and playing style influenced an entire genre of music called heavy metal.  Bands such as Judas Priest and Metallica took their cues from Black Sabbath.


Born in Birmingham, England in 1948 Tony originally wanted to play drums but due to the noise level, he instead turned to guitar.  A lefty player, Tony rocked a few bands before Sabbath such as The Rockin’ Chevrolets, The Rest (with Bill Ward), and Mythology.  In 1968 he joined future band members Terry Butler and John “Ozzy” Osbourne in a band called the Polka Tulk Blues Company which shortly thereafter became Earth.  In August 1969 there was some confusion with another band called Earth and they decided to change the name.  Black Sabbath was born.


In 1965, when Tony was 17 he decided to quit his full time job and become a professional musician.  On his last day of work at the sheet metal factory, an accident occurred that took off the ends of the middle and ring fingers of his fretting hand (right hand).  Thinking his music career was over before it started, Tony went into a period of depression.  One day a friend (his foreman at work) came over and brought some music over.  He told Tony to listen to the guy on the record play, that guy was Django Reinhardt.  At this point Tony listened and agreed that Django was a great player and he was surprised to learn that Django played without the use of two fingers on his fretting hand.  This inspired Tony to start playing again and conquer the guitar no matter what.

From there Tony initially tried to learn the guitar right-handed but that didn’t work out.  So he proceeded to bandage his injured fingers together and play using only his pinky and index fingers.  After this he had an idea that would change his life.  Tony melted down a dishwashing detergent bottle making a couple of blobs of plastic.  He then sat down with a soldering iron and melted holes into the blobs large enough for his damaged fingers to slide into.  Once they fit comfortably, Tony proceeded to file them down to an approximate fingertip size, attach a piece of leather to each tip, and rock on.  Here are his words on the “thimbles” taken from www.iommi.com:


“It took me quite a while to get them exactly right because they couldn’t be too heavy or thick but had to be strong enough so they didn’t hurt the ends of my fingers when I used them. When I had sculpted my “thimbles” to the right size and tested them I realized that the ends weren’t gripping the strings so I cut up a piece of leather and fixed pieces to the ends of them. I then spent ages rubbing the leather pads so they would get shiny and absorb some oils and would help me grip the strings better. I filed down the edges so they wouldn’t catch on anything and it worked!”


This wasn’t the end of the hard work though, since he still didn’t have any feeling in those two fingertips, Tony had to train his ear to hear what his fingers were doing and practice a ton to get used to bending notes and adding vibrato.  As we all know he was more than successful going on to have one of the longest running careers in rock and roll guitar, inspiring an entire genre of music and millions of fans worldwide.

 

 

Jerry Garcia


Born in August of 1942, Jerome John Garcia would later become an iconic guitar player and musician as well as being referred to as the backbone of the Grateful Dead.  At 15 Jerry received his first guitar as a birthday present.  This was also the year Gerry was introduced to marijuana.  In 1960 Jerry enlisted in the Army and was shortly thereafter discharged after racking up 2 court marshals and 8 AWOL offences.  After his return to the Bay area, began playing and teaching acoustic guitar and banjo.  One of his students, Bob Matthews, introduced Jerry to Bob Weir on New Year’s Eve 1963.  In 1965 Jerry’s current band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions evolved into the Warlocks after adding Phil Lesh on bass.  The Warlocks soon figured out that there was another band with the same name and after some deliberation, became the Grateful Dead, one of the longest touring bands in history.  In their 30 year career, the Dean played 2,314 shows, touring almost constantly from 1965 to Jerry’s death in 1995.

When Jerry was 4 years old, the family was on vacation in the Santa Cruz mountains when his older brother accidently chopped off two-thirds of Jerry’s middle finger on his right hand.  His father drove him 30 miles to the hospital and had him bandaged up.  After a few weeks, his bandage fell off during a bath and Jerry witnessed the missing finger for the first time.  Fortunately, the missing finger was on what turned out to be his picking hand but that didn’t stop him.  Formulating a mixture of bluegrass and jazz influences into a unique perspective Jerry played both banjo and guitar with restrained abandon.  His picking technique was somewhat unique, he held the pick more like a pencil than how most of us hold a pick.  Even though Jerry was down a digit, that didn’t stop him from fingerpicking as well.  Jerry went on to be a huge influence on modern guitarists such as Warren Haynes and Trey Anastasio as well as being loved and adored by thousands of fans for 30+ years.

 

Phil Keaggy


Phil Keaggy, born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1951, is a contemporary Christian guitarist that has been said to be one of the top-three fingerstyle guitarists by Guitar Player magazine.  Raised in a farmhouse, Keaggy originally wanted to play drums.  He asked his dad for a set for his 10th birthday, but since they couldn’t afford them, his dad gave him a Sear’s Silvertone guitar instead.  Since Phil didn’t know how to tune it, he spent a few months just learning little melodies until his brother sat down and showed him how to tune it.  In sixth or seventh grade Phil got his first professional gig with the help of a friend named Nick that worked in an electronics store in California.


In the mid 60’s Phil played in a garage rock band called the Squires and in 1967 recorded with The New Hudson Exit.  In 1968 Phil and some friends formed Glass Harp.  They recorded their first album at Jimi Hendrix’s studio in 1970 and started opening for bands such as The Kinks, Iron Butterfly, and Yes.  Glass Harp continued on with Phil until 1972 when he left the band citing spiritual differences.  In 1973 Phil recorded his first solo album What a Day and continued on from there to release 50 solo albums and obtain himself an induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

At the tender age of 4, Phil was climbing on top of a large water pump on his family’s farm.  Once on top of the pump, it broke and the faucets came down on his right hand, severing half of his middle finger.  The doctors attempted to sew the finger back on but were unsuccessful.  Initially this was an embarrassment for Phil when he played guitar but he soon learned that people weren’t staring at his hand when he played as he once suspected.  Similar to Jerry Garcia, Phil Keaggy’s missing finger is on his picking hand, leaving his fretting hand free to play normally.  Phil can be seen playing with a pick often though his fingerstyle guitar technique has earned him an incredible reputation.  Being voted one of the top 3 fingerstyle guitarists by Guitar Player and his induction into the Gospel Hall of Fame both pale in comparison with an alleged Tonight Show taping where Johnny Carson asked Jimi Hendrix, “How does it feel to be the world’s best guitarist?” to which Jimi replied, “I don’t know, ask Phil Keaggy!”.  An honor not easily afforded and rightly bestowed upon him by a legend.


Django Reinhardt


Django Reinhardt was born into a Manouche gypsy family in 1910.  He would go on to invent a new style of jazz guitar and create a legacy that still lives today.  He started his first instrument when he was 12, a banjo/guitar that a neighbor gave him.  By watching musicians around him, Django started mimicking their fingerings and astonishing all around him.  He made his professional debut by the time he was 13 playing with an accordion player at a dance hall.  Django grew up in a gypsy camp outside Paris and did not know how to read or write at the time, so his name appeared as Jiango Renard on his first recordings with accordionist Jean Vaissade.  Django continued on to make a living off music through his teens, eventually abandoning the banjo/guitar for the guitar.  After making the acquaintance of violinist Stephane Grappelli, they formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France, one of the few well known jazz ensembles made up entirely of string instruments.  They would commonly use their guitars for percussion since they had no percussion instruments in the ensemble.  WWII broke up the ensemble and in 1946 he toured the U.S. with Duke Ellington followed by two nights at Carnegie Hall.  In 1947 Django returned to France and the Romani lifestyle.  His final album Djangology was recorded in 1949 in Rome.  He passed away at age 43 from a brain hemorrhage.

When Django was 18 years old, his first wife Florine Mayer made a living selling celluloid flowers at the market.  After returning home from a gig at one o’clock in the morning, Django bent down with a lighter to investigate what he thought was a mouse in their caravan.  The lighter caught on the celluloid, instantly turning their caravan into an inferno.  Although he managed to escape, he suffered severe burns on his left hand and the right side of his body, nearly resulting in amputation of his right leg.  The nursing home where he spent his recovery was very good and they managed to save his leg but the tendons in his left hand had been badly damaged and retracted from the burns causing his ring finger and pinky to permanently curl into his palm.  This prompted Django to develop an entirely new fingering system for guitar utilizing his two good fingers.  His damaged fingers could be used on the high strings for chording but he soloed exclusively with his index and middle fingers from there on.  If you’ve ever heard Django’s records, it’s instantly obvious how talented and determined this man was to make music no matter what.  His enduring legacy is one of hard work and determination and continues to this day to inspire thousands of musicians around the world.

 

 

Comments

  1. DonM says:

    I got caught on the business end of a table saw some years ago and cut through the tendon in my pointer finger to the point where it kind of hangs out at the top of my hand pretty much in the shape of a shallow “C”.  Not much use for fretting single notes but I can use it on the higher strings for barre chords.  I am learning to work around it but still have a ways to go.  I appreciate the stories.  They will help inspire me to keep going.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:14 am
  2. John MacFee says:

    These guys were/are still a huge inspiration to me. I lost the top of my index finger from the first knuckle on my fretting hand. Figures it happened four hours before a gig! I instantly knew I’d still be able to play knowing these guys had gone before me. That was about seven years ago.I had switched over to bass about 25 years ago so I was able to just switch my lead finger from the index to my middle finger until it healed and hardened up. Had a big brace and bandages and it looked so goofy while I was playing but point is, I was playing. Not able to do as much on guitar as I used to. Pretty tough to fret a bar chord with such a stumpy finger but I can still fret some cool rhythm. I toyed with the ide of getting a prosthetic but I lost it right at the knuckle so I have no rigidity left there, but not a big deal. I’m 60 yrs old, fat and grey haired and still thumping out at three to four bar gigs a month. Who says you need al ten to rock? ;-)

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:14 am
  3. petey twofinger says:

    lawnmower ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk_37FAC-Q0

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:22 am
  4. Ken says:

    Hats off to these guys and to you gentlemen as well. I’ve always liked Tommy Iommi’s work and had no idea Jerry Garcia was missing a digit as well. It just goes to show that you can do just about anything as long as you don’t give up!

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:24 am
  5. Derek says:

    Great article. For what it is worth, the alleged incident where Hendrix praised Phil Keaggy is almost certainly a myth/urban legend. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Keaggy#Rumored_comments_by_Jimi_Hendrix_and_others. It sounds splashy but almost certainly never occurred.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:24 am
  6. Drew says:

    How about 1 arm.

    http://www.reverbnation.com/billclements

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:31 am
  7. sid says:

    yeah drew, like def leppards drummer.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:52 am
  8. Joe says:

    \m/

    or, I suppose it should be:

    \m

    :)

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:55 am
  9. Dan says:

    I lost the tip of my right ring finger in a warehouse accident. In the long run it did not affect my guitar playing, but the thought that I could have lost the ability to play at all had the accident been worst served as a huge motivator for me to put renewed focus and energy into my music.

    More inspiring is my friend who was born with four fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other, and who also has a prosthetic leg… yet plays drums better than just about anyone I’ve ever met.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:00 am
  10. Bradlee TheDawg says:

    The “Dean” played 2314 shows ?  Nice proof-reading.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:08 am
  11. Enric says:

    Another side of the “hand”: Hound Dog Taylor!

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:18 am
  12. Tom says:

    Carson wasn’t hosting when Hendrix was on- Flip Wilson was the guest host and could of said it though.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:20 am
  13. Todd Hooper says:

    As far as Phil Keaggy goes it was an old episode of the Dick Cavitt show, he asked Jimi what it felt like to be the best guitar player in the world and he looked down at the floor all embarrassed and said I dunno’ ask Phil Keaggy. I saw that myself, had it on a VHS tape for a long time.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:30 am
  14. John MacFee says:

    Some mentioned drummers. I know Victor Moulton AKA “Moulty” from the 60’s band The Barbarians. Lost his hand when he was sixteen. Learned how to play drums with a hook for a hand. Killer drummer! If you can get your hands on a DVD of the T.A.M.I. show, the Barbarians were on for a few tunes.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:34 am
  15. Peter Gill says:

    My son had guitar lessons from an early age and took to it so well that he was playing lead guitar in his own band by the age of twelve. Just as they were beginning to become established he had an accident playing basketball when some metal posts fell on him and smashed his left wrist, breaking the bones and dislocating the wrist. The wrist was set and the bones appeared to heal well but he had lost all feeling in the thumb and first two fingers of his fretting hand. Tests showed that he only had about 20% strength in the left hand compared to the right. He could hardly hold down the strings and could not feel them. He was in despair thinking his playing career was over before it had started. A surgeon in London diagnosed median nerve damage and undertook an operation in which they released the nerve and trimmed off scar tissue. As soon as he woke up my son noticed feeling in the fingers and he regained the strength so fast that he was playing again as soon as the scar healed. This video is of him playing at a school concert just three months after the operation. He is the guitarist on the left. He now has a nice story and a scar to show the girls.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOHdUjQ62eE

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:35 am
  16. Gerard Carey says:

    Great post by PGS!!  I had not idea about Garcia and Keaggy.  All of these guitarists are an inspiration to me, teaching me not to complain about having small hands.  I am blessed to have all fingers.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 5:39 am
  17. Doug McElfresh says:

    Buddy of mine, local San Diego musician, Mark Goffeney.  No arms, plays with his feet:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAhh9ZsyS50

    Also in an original rock band, Big Toe, where he plays bass:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckBxoJS8z7k

    I think of Mark when I get whiny about practicing or gigging with both hands intact…

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:08 am
  18. Brandon says:

    I know his name usually brings scorn around these parts, but Jack White could also be on this list. In 2003 he was in a car accident that shattered his finger, and he had to cancel all shows and relearn guitar quite quickly.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:24 am
  19. Alan Nicolle says:

    Re the Hendrix TV show quote…I heard the name he mentioned was Rory Gallagher. As a fan of Phil Keaggy, I would love to know that it was his name that was mentioned. I know that they played in similar circles in those days. Good article.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:27 am
  20. Dennis says:

    When I was 11 I caught the tip of my right ring finger in a pump and it was severed all but a piece of skin holding the tip on.  My mom bandaged it and the next day we went to town and a surgeon reattached it.  I works great and has feeling, but it is bent toward my middle finger a little.

    This has been an asset for fingerstyle playing, my ring finger has a little curl to it to grab the strings better!

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:32 am
  21. hobson says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DH1RHkYi_wg

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:38 am
  22. Lawrence Abbott says:

    Django Reinhardt… I hoped and expected to see him in this article after reading the title and clicking on the caption… He is truly one of the best guitarists of his time… No one can compare the depth and complexity and years of playing and his approach to the instrument… He is Timeless as is all musicians of our days, we watch and listen on by to the wind that inspires our ears, to capture what we listen.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:11 am
  23. Jonathan says:

    Saw PK a few times over the years, at Creation, and a full band concert, and solo at a church.  I asked Phil once, being young and ungracious and dorky at the time, if he knew the story to be true, and he sort of sighed and said, not that he knew of.  Despite my question he was a gracious and conversational gentleman, even after a concert and trying to pack up (I was helping a little).  Legendary baggage is what you get for being a public person, and that good a what you do.  Having said that, if such a video were to surface, it would put rumors to bed, I suppose.  Todd, you don’t still have that tape?

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:18 am
  24. mattyboy says:

    being a better guitar player then most of you…im sure even if i had no fingers id be better then all the losers you just talked about…now go buy some expensive pedals…youll need them to keep up with me

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:43 am
  25. sid says:

    take the dick out your arse mattyboy, what about deaf or blind guitarist? (like mattyboy perhaps)

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 8:05 am
  26. Bryan Reece says:

    Barry Abernathy.  Banjo player with NO fingers on his fretting hand.  Awesome picker with drive and tone, check out the band Mountain Heart.  You won’t believe it if you see him live!

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 8:05 am
  27. Chris Curtin says:

    I had an accident at work where my pinky on my fret hand was crushed.  it took a couple years before i was really comfortable playing with it again.  by the time i had the accident, i had already been playing guitar for about 12 or 13 years, and i had to relearn how to play without use of that finger, for the most part.  after a few months, i could use it to a certain degree, but i’d rely mostly one my ring finger for slides and certain quick run.  and then i had to relearn how to play with it again gradually a couple years later, once i realized it didn’t bother me to press down on the strings anymore.  nothing like some of these stories, but i can relate to a point.  I’ve learned how to play with my index and my pinky for a bit, as well, because i broke my middle and ring finger on my fret hand.  definitely lucky i can still play fine.  it definitely could have turned out otherwise.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm
  28. ChopItUpBuryIt says:

    I broke my picking hand pretty bad once trying to punch through a wall and landing on a beam instead.  I just had to relearn how to whack off with the left hand is all; ‘twas a bit awkward at first, but with a little dedicated practice and vigilance, I was stroking it like champ in no time at all.  Even beat some of my best times.

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 4:19 pm
  29. Jonathan says:

    So, that’s about the average amount of time and posts it takes an intelligent discourse to be interrupted by persons of limited vocabulary and depth of character.  Any misconceptions that society is full of basically decent and thoughtful people has been shown in countless exchanges like this one, to be incorrect.  Take your time and read it through if you need to; your responses will prove or disprove my thinking. 

    posted on December 19, 2013 at 11:03 pm
  30. ChopItUpBuryIt says:

    Waaaaaaaaah.  Poor wittle Jonathan’s butt hurt again.  What’s wrong buddy?  Want another tummy rub?

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 1:01 am
  31. Robbie Stewart-Mathews says:

    Check out Xander & the Peace Pirates from Liverpool.  Keith Alexander was born with one hand and uses a hook as his picking hand.  The band supported Bon Jovi at their Manchester gig in 2011.

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 1:27 am
  32. steve miller says:

    Phil Keaggy is the man.  Thank you for recognizing him!

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 5:45 am
  33. Jonathan says:

    Chopitup etcetera, do you have anything to say to the forum about guitarists who play with missing fingers?  You have demonstrated your inability to say anything intelligent so far.  (Go ahead.  I dare you to say something smart.) That’s what a forum is for; to share what you know, not how abusive you can be, safely anonymous on the internet and all…

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 6:34 am
  34. ChopItUpBuryIt says:

    Jonathan, as it happens, I find your sandy vagina exquisite.  To wit I’ve composed a poem, an ode of sorts to your irritable, highly humorless, sandy vagina.  I’ll share it with you sometime, when the time is right…  in the meantime, douche dat thang, sweetheart.

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 6:45 am
  35. Jonathan says:

    So…nothing smart, then?  Thought as much.  You have no idea how humorous or humorless I am, because you started out abusive and have stayed that way, and so are unable to have an intelligent conversation.  Remember that as you compose your next bit of drivel.  Apologies to everyone who wanted to talk about guitarists with missing fingers; I’ll leave this guy alone and he’ll probably go away.

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 7:03 am
  36. ChopItUpBuryIt says:

    Waaaaaaaaaaa, cry some more sweetheart.

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 7:08 am
  37. CBJ says:

    Missing the tip of a finger?

    George Dennehy is shy two . . . arms.
    He probably ignored all of the nay sayers, and rejected all of the imposed limitations and I’m sure he not only broke the rules but crafted his own.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/george-dennehy-18-year-ol_n_1695944.html

    posted on December 20, 2013 at 10:09 am
  38. Simon says:

    Hey ” mattyboy” posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:43 am…..This conversation is about fingerless guitar players, whereas you are a Trouser Flute Champion , and undisputed from what I hear.

    posted on December 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm
  39. Ivan Hawkins says:

    I severely broke my right hand after falling down a flight of stairs a few years ago. I didn’t have insurance at the time, so I didn’t get the best medical treatment available. My metacarpals bone snapped in half below the knuckle on my index finger. It healed badly, resulting in my right index finger being about an inch shorter, and about half the strength it was before the accident. I am thankful that it happened to my picking hand rather than my fretting hand. It has effected my playing somewhat, but I like to think of it as a blessing in disguise, because I’ve played far more, and improved as a player more since it happened because I was scared that my injury would keep me from being a “good” guitarist. Whether you’re disabled in any way or not the only way to improve your playing is to remain determined, and practice, practice, practice! Stick with it no matter what, and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

    posted on December 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm
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