Injury, Adaptation and Neuroplasticity in Guitarists

Over time, the guitar shapes us. With long-term practice and experience, our brains will physically change to accommodate the demands of guitar performance in process called neuroplasticity (Pascual-Leone, 2001).

Since the 1990s, the continued development of MRI and fMRI neuroimaging technology has fueled discoveries in brain plasticity and musicians. Early neuroscience research was limited, as it was difficult to examine the brains of living people (although traumatic injury case studies such as Phineas Gage provided some knowledge). In one of the earliest neuroimaging studies of musicians, (Elbert et al., 1995) found that the left-hand fingers of string players (including one guitarist) were disproportionately represented in the brain. As the subjects would use their left hands to ‘fret’ (a more complex endeavor than right-hand bowing or picking) the brain’s structure was essentially ‘reorganized’ over time to accommodate the increased activity. Since then numerous neuroimaging studies have used musicians as subjects (Merrett, 2013), as they can be seen as the ideal candidate for plasticity research (Münte, Altenmüller & Jäncke, 2002).

Few neuroimaging studies have been conducted exclusively with guitarists, with the exception of some work in focal dystoniamirror-neuron and cortical phase synchronization research (dos Reis de Moura, 2012; Pujol, 2000; Buccino & Vogt, 2004; Lindenberger, 2009). However, neuroplasticity case studies exist, including (Galarza, 2012), which examines the history of Pat Martino, a jazz guitarist who underwent a partial temporal lobectomy (removal of most of the left temporal lobe) in 1980 as treatment for epilepsy. Subsequent to the surgery he stopped playing guitar for a time, and then over a period of several years he ‘re-learned’ to perform at his previous level of expertise by listening to his recordings and watching filmed performances. This accomplishment is remarkable, especially considering that the left temporal lobe is involved in auditory processing and musical memory (Ayotte et al., 2000; Sampson & Zatorre, 1991). Among possible explanations, (Galarza, 2012) suggests that as Martino was learning to play in his teens, his brain plasticity ‘worked around’ the slow-growing malformation and surrounding dead tissue, lessening the impact of the eventual resection. However, the extensive amnesia and musical incapacity immediately after the surgery, and continued mild verbal impairment and memory problems, suggests that at least some of the adaptive plastic changes must have taken place during the ‘re-learning’ phase (Duffau, 2014).

This ability of musicians to adapt also extends to limb injury, through the alterations of motor patterns through practice. One example is free improvising guitarist Derek Bailey‘s conscious adaptation to a degenerative disease late in life. No longer able to hold a plectrum, he began using his thumb to play, creatively altering his performance practice to suit his injury.

“Very movingly, the illness that eventually ended Bailey’s life provided another opportunity to exercise … discipline. The motor neurone disease (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that was initially misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome rendered Bailey unable to hold a plectrum, and as an alternative he developed a thumb technique with his right hand which had subtle but important consequences for Bailey’s attack and agility, and, of course, required intensive practice to master …” (Lash, 2011 p.165)

Another famous example of physical adaptation in guitarists is of course gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who lost the use of two fingers in a fire subsequent to his initial training. (Wininger et al., 2014) analyzed archival footage of Django and compared it (using 2D biometrics) against six current gypsy jazz guitarists, and found that to accomplish his unique performance style, Reinhardt significantly altered the typical angle and positioning of his uninjured fingers.

“The results show that Django indeed showed a predilection toward more abducted finger postures … [in] a separate analysis of fretting finger orientation with respect to the long axis of the guitar neck, Django again showed a substantially more parallel hand orientation than all other comparison subjects …” (Wininger, 2014 p. 245)

This adaptation to injured limbs can also be considered an example of altered body schema as well as a plastic adaptation. Body schema can be described as the mental representation of our bodies in space – the totality of different bodily sensations that give us autonomy and control in our environment. However, altered body schema can also extend to physical additions to the body and tool use. Philosopher Ken Pepper sees the plastic fingertips used by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath as a potential extension of his body schema, connecting their use to the philosophy of phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty (Pepper, 2015). In a 2016 interview Iommi indicated that he felt the plastic fingertips inhibited his playing, but were a necessary adaptation nonetheless.

“I would have liked to have not chopped the ends of my fingers off. It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did. It’s just something I’ve had to learn to live with. It affects your playing style; you can’t feel the strings, and there are certain chords I can’t play. Right at the beginning I was told by doctors: “You won’t be playing guitar.” But I believed I could do it, and I did.”  (Interview with Paul Elliott. Team Rock, August 2016)

Through neuroplasticity, guitar practice shapes our mind. Although the (Ericsson, 1993) theory of 10,000 hours is still being explored and discussed, sustained, careful and thoughtful practice (at any point in life) can adapt us to the demands of the guitar.


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