Dudes Down a Digit! Four Fingerless Players Who Rock Our World!
Who says you need five fingers two rock? These four guitar players achieved legendary status all without five fingers.
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.
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, 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 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.