Rolly in Rehab!!! An adventure with neuroplasticity.

No, it’s not what you think…my major addiction is playing the guitar, and I don’t want to be cured. But here’s my tale:

20 years ago, I decided to concentrate on flatpicking. (I love the social aspect of it, and the sound, and the feel!) For two years, I pretty much put fingerstyle guitar aside in order to progress as a flatpicker. Eventually, I decided that it was time to get back to some fingerpicking, but I found, to my dismay, that something had gone wonky with my right hand, and the accuracy that I had taken for granted for so many years had vanished. I couldn’t quite figure it out… I’d been doing a good bit of boxing, and had taken a couple hard shots to the head. Could it be brain damage? Could it be just a function of aging? Did I have an early stage of some kind of neurological problem?

Eventually, I gave up on figuring it out, and made some major adjustments to my technique. I quit using fingerpicks, quit posting my 4th and 5th fingers on the pickguard, and struggled to reinvent my right hand. In time, I found that a lot of the problem seemed to stem from a lack of coordination between my right thumb and index finger. In order to still play with some precision, I started using my middle finger more, and just leaving my index finger out of the mix. It was a dirty fix, but a fix nonetheless.


A few months ago, my wife Janice happened on a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. It has become a big deal in the neurological science world, because it explores the concept of “neuroplasticity”, the idea that, contrary to previous belief, the brain is capable of reorganizing its map in order to favor activities which are most often emphasized.

One of the issues explored in the book is “learned non-use”. If something doesn’t work well, we quit using it. Then, the “use it or lose it” brain starts assigning that part of the brain to something more current. I realized this was exactly what I’d done with my index finger. By forcing myself to use the thumb-index relationship again, and actually isolating it, the brain should re-map itself to supply more brain power for this process. The “snag”, if you want to call it that, is that it may take at least 3 months of steady practice before you begin to see progress.

So, for the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been devoting a minimum of 20 minutes every day to just playing “2 finger style”, with thumb and index, and concentrating on going back to the tunes of Merle Travis and Rev. Gary Davis, as well as Doc Watson’s fingerpicking, since all 3 played in the two finger style. So far, I seem to be making a good bit of progress, although there’s still a ways to go. I’ll check back in at the 3 month point, and beyond.

The key seems to be continuing to practice carefully and mindfully, using the damaged connections and making sure to play precisely.

So far, it’s slow going, but it’s going.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a similar problem, and anyone who is dealing with neurological issues or who has friends dealing with neurological issues.

Till next time!

Posted on October 21, 2015, in acoustic guitar, fingerstyle guitar, Rolly Brown and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Nice! And many of us certainly won’t object to hearing your performance of Rev Davis’s tunes!

  2. Most valuable, as always, Rolly. Keep sharing your insights. They’re helpful, and inspirational, to all of us.

  3. wow ..that is a great post. ill be interested to hear the follow up..I think Ill look up the book too..(just finished the Rev G Davis book..what threads are in that!! )

  4. I learned to finger pick in Johannesburg back in 1965 by carefully watching players at my favorite coffeehouse… learning about designating the bass strings to my thumb, and the trebles to my 1st, 2nd & 3rd fingers, without posting my pinky to the guitar top.

    A Brit player of some repute appeared in town and I soon became a pupil, learning how to pick with my 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers (!), I only found out a couple of years later that he’d had an accident years previously and was unable to use his forefinger… and his pupils were mimicking him!

    After moving to the States in ’70, I figured out how to re-learn finger picking, eventually using all of my fingers… it has taken a long time, but thanks to neuro-plasticity I am getting there.

  5. Another interesting aspect of this “brain power”: Simply by observing a physical activity being performed by another, will allow our brain to carve neural pathways to accomplish this task, as though the observer was actually performing the task. Now we still need to get that muscle coordination through practice but the neural pathways are available from observation.

  6. Charlie Ortolani

    I understand how a digit can unlearn things. As with most of us I grew up playing with thumbpick and fingerpicks on the index and middle finger. Since I started playing in a hybrid style, I pick with a flatpick, middle and ring fingers. Now my index finger is just about worthless when I try to play the way I used to play. It is an odd experience given how much I used to rely on it. Keep the insights coming. I’ve loved them all.

  7. Beth Anne Beck-Pollard

    Insightful. Your writing is very relevant. It is both informative & entertaining. Keep up the good work. Hope your gifted hands continue to perform the way your neurons ask them to 🙂 best wishes! BB

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Can very much relate to it Rolly perhaps check out the book. Great post, thanks.

  9. rolly in rehab  hey rolly like your suggestion shows either use it or lose it concept. now please help a fellow fingerpicker.  will you tell me a simple doc Watson or travis tune that I could play to get back to fingerpicking.  it would probably be more helpful if you could send me a (very) detailed video of how you  are practicing the tune itself.I know you play tai chi as do I, so the concept of slow practice is not new to me it just seems I have difficulty with the guitar aspect. Thanks for any help.  Wayne

  10. Hi Rolly Along the same line as the subject is cranial adjusting. Back in the 70s I became aware of a type of cranial adjusting done by three groups. The osteopaths, and the work of De Jarnette as seen in occipitall/sacral therapy (SOT) and then George Goodhearts work as in Applied Kenesiology. I found an amazing correlation with what you talked about in this brain use message. The only problem with all of that was the need to constantly repeat the process to make progress. In 1977 I came upon the work of BA Kueenan who himself is no longer extant. I did learn the process of a bi manual correction process that is very lasting. I have done over 2000 craniums with great success. I have taught the same procedure to over 250 practitioners around the country. I have no one in your area. If interested in having it done, or in learning how to do it we could talk. I am the founding president of the group that certifies practitioners. I have taught it to several Cert. Acc.

    I loved your last lesson on the caged system. PS forwarded my annual teachers e mail to you yesterday


  11. Got it, Bernie! Keep on keepin’ on! That’s my advice! 🙂

  12. Hey Rolly – I am a Family doc and I read Doidge’s book a few years back . There’s more in his latest – The Brains Way of Healing. I was impressed by the way you adapted Doidge’s ideas to your own situation. I have always been interested in how we change our brain to learn new habits or skills. Have you ever read or heard of W A Mathieu? His Listening Book incorporates some of these neuroplastic methods ( Mathieu just does not use that vocabulary to describe his method)
    Anyhow , The Listening Book might be a resource for a music teacher such as yourself .
    Just thought I would pass that along .
    Mike McEvoy

    • Thanks, Mike,
      Yes, I’ve read The Brain’s Way Of Healing, too, but I’m not familiar with Mathieu. I’ll definitely check him out. The more sentient info, the better!

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