The Guitar Player Without A Left Forearm
Though he was born without a left forearm and hand, Tony Memmel taught himself to play the guitar by building a homemade cast out of Gorilla Tape that secures a guitar pick to his arm, and allows him to pluck and strum the strings.
The Guitar Was Calling Out To Me
“You have one arm. Why choose to play guitar?” I get asked this a lot. The thing is; for me, it wasn't really a choice so much as the guitar calling out to me. It was an obsession.
At the age of 13, most of my time was focused on sports and music. I played soccer, baseball, basketball, and was on the track team. I played trumpet in the school band, and sang in the show choir that practiced before first hour began.
My friend Max, whom I'd known as an acquaintance since kindergarten, was in a number of my classes that year, and we became close friends. He was a music-prodigy, in my mind: a master on the piano, he played drums better than anyone I knew (not just for his age), and he was an exceptional guitarist. In addition to his skill, he just seemed to know so much about rock and roll, jazz, and blues music… I wanted to be around him all the time!
We started writing and recording our first songs, formed our first band, and before long, I wanted to learn to play guitar, myself.
I was born without a left forearm and hand. Perhaps it was naïveté, but I don't recall ever thinking twice about playing a traditionally two-handed instrument. I just trusted the principle: where there is a will, there is a way. And I never looked back.
The guitar proved to be very challenging for me. First of all, I had to save up to buy one because, though my parents agreed to the idea of me playing, they were not going to buy me an expensive instrument outright. I had to save up for half... $300... I took on a few odd-jobs and saved for many months until, over my Easter break, we went to Cascio Interstate Music Store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I picked out my brand-new, left-handed, midnight-blue Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I took it home and started to learn to play.
From library books, I'd learned that Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain were all left-handed players. I figured, like them, I could strum with my left side, and use my right hand to construct chords on the fretboard. My left arm, alone, did not produce enough sound, so I learned on my first day that I'd have to get creative and build a cast to hold a guitar pick in place.
I started cheap and simple. I collected a box of supplies from around the house: tape, glue, and a hodgepodge of other items that I thought might be helpful on my quest. I started with scotch tape, advanced to duct tape, and tinkered and honed the cast for years. Though I made a lot of progress, I was unsatisfied because on a humid day or under hot stage lights, the pick would sweat off of my arm. I'd sometimes have to stop a song, or re-tape in the middle of a concert so the show could go on. It taught me how to talk to an audience, and to go with the flow of the show, but I still knew I could improve the device itself.
It wasn't until I was in college when a friend asked me if I'd ever tried Gorilla Tape… I told him no, but I went out and bought a roll right away. The tape was extra durable and extra sticky, and proved to be a solution. I still use Gorilla Tape to this day.
From Hobby To Mission Of A Lifetime
Though my early motivations were simply to be able to write and play my own songs, as I played more concerts and began touring, I started receiving emails and Facebook messages from people all over the world who had hand and limb differences themselves, or their children did. (Check out the amazing non-profit that I am proudly an ambassador with: The Lucky Fin Project).
It was in this way that my life's mission was revealed to me. My true hope is to help the next generation of adaptive (and non-adaptive, for that matter) musicians, athletes, scientists, artists, doctors, and engineers to let their lights shine, and to look at any obstacle with positivity and a deep, focused, unwavering strength.
We’re often told to believe in ourselves... Having faith in oneself is well and good, but for me, I know that my true strength comes from my faith in God and from seeking His guidance in my life. From that foundation, I seek to use any gifts, talents, and abilities that He’s given me in service to others.
"Tony, Make It Happen!"
A friend of mine from Kyser Musical Products (my capo, guitar strap, and other guitar-related tools sponsor) sent me a care package a while back, to help with my music education work. Included in the package was a simple, hand-written note of encouragement that said, “TONY! MAKE IT HAPPEN!” I liked it so much that I hung it on the door to my office, and I saw it just before I sat down to write this article.
The letter reminds me that I have 24 hour days and I get to live them one moment at a time. Each moment that I've worked to hone my skills on the guitar, and have used that instrument as an even greater instrument to serve other people has been a moment well spent.
With that sentiment, I leave you with this: You are wonderfully made with unique gifts, abilities, and a purpose in mind… So, today, I'd like to encourage you in the words of my friend:
“[INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]! MAKE IT HAPPEN!” in your school, in your home, in your community, in your church, in your business, in your country, and in your world.
More About Tony, His Music And His Other Projects
And visit The Lucky Fin Project to learn more about their incredible work.
And watch his video, showing how he plays guitar with one hand.
Guest post by Tony Memmel. Tony is an award-winning singer-songwriter. Born without his left fore-arm, he taught himself to play the guitar. Building on his personal experience, he is an ambassador for The Lucky Fin Project, inspiring others with limb differences.