Category Archives: acoustic guitar

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!