Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Parkinson's disease and guitar

I have what has evolved into a fairly regularly scheduled beginner and intermediate guitar group. I had a friend come join us three sessions ago. I sent a guitar home with him, but I saw no significant change between sessions. He is an older gentleman and was not having much success, but he seemed to love trying. He really enjoys our picking circle that we typically do for an hour or more after the lesson. Whenever I worked with him, his hands were quite shaky and he seemed to lack the hand strength required to fret a note. I initially chalked it up to (hopefully) a combination of age and nervousness and thought I’d see if he progressed. Last night, I wanted to spend some one on one time with him, so we split off while the rest of the group worked on a few things. We got to talking about his challenges and he told me that he has Parkinson’s disease. In short, even fretting a single note does not look like it will likely happen with regularity. I didn’t share the assessment of the previous sentence, but you could tell he was losing hope about being able to make music with the guitar.

He’s a great guy. He’s a VietNam vet with a big heart, and he really seems to want to make music. I pondered what I could do for him. I did some reading, and it seems most approaches for such situations involve keyboards. It seemed that he wanted to specifically play guitar, so a keyboard didn’t seem like an ideal choice. I saw where someone had prototyped a single string guitar with essentially a sliding capo. Closer, but still it didn’t feel like the right fit. Then I came up with this: What about playing slide or maybe even dobro? I am not thinking of playing like Jerry Douglas, but rather, just being able to strum some major chords. I am going to initially just tune the guitar to an open D tuning and try a glass slide (I might go to a D5 tuning if he wants to try it for a while). I don’t know, but I suspect he may have better success playing in his lap as opposed to an upright position. If this seems like a potentially workable way for him to make some music, I suspect I’ll be on the hunt for a “beater” resonator. I called him this morning to tell him I had something I wanted to try. He was excited. It’s a busy weekend, so I suspect we’ll get together next week and see if it’s a possibility.

Any suggestions? Any thoughts? Anything would be appreciated. I haven’t worked with those who are significantly physically impaired in music before, so this is unknown territory for me.

Thanks in advance,

We had a missionary come to our church sometime back and he had but just enough fingers left to hold on to a slide for the Dobro and he did an excellent job tell your friend to not give up I have my own problems and am working on ways around them , I am finding my fingers are slapping the body of the guitar while I pick and it annoys me and can’t really tell if does any one else but I am working on a different way of picking so wish me luck there. a lot of entertainers use the tuned approach, Dolly plays back up and depends on others to send in the minors and 7th’s and so forth and she has done real well, those long finger nails do not mix with fretting at all. but if the want is there that is all that is needed, he and you will find a way for him to make some great music. He might turn into what I call a music oddity and be a real plus for your group. GOOD LUCK BOTH OF YOU.

Thanks for the words of encouragement. I will pass them on.

There are some alternate tunings that allow some beautiful chordings with minimal fretting. Do a youtube search for just about anything Jackson Browne plays on the acoustic.

I’m not sure how this would translate into him being able to “jam” with you guys. But, I’m certainly not dismissing it, either.

Thanks jv. That will be something to consider. I’ll look around and see what might be good.
I did a song a while back D5 (DADAAD), and that has promise. I am thinking he could play the five chords over major or minor. The downside to that tuning is cranking the G string up to an A note, I popped a few. If I was gonna do it much, I think I’d replace the G string with something thinner gauge (maybe another B string).

Lots of good left hand ideas, but I wonder about the right hand. Seems like it might be tough to pick accurately with tremors.

You are correct Larry. He cannot pick well, but bigger muscle movements like a strum seemed more doable. Accurate picking isn’t really an expectation I have. I am thinking almost along the lines of using the guitar like an autoharp. If you have open tuning and you have the slide at the Nth fret, whatever string or strings you happen to hit will be ok. If he could do that, I think he would be ecstatic. I will probably have him try a big thumb pick to see if it makes it easier for him.

This is a tough one. My best friend in the world now lives in Denmark. In our younger days, we played many, many gigs as a guitar duo. These days, he has found himself with Parkinson’s and his hands have slowed and weakened considerably. So, I have though about this.

A dobro is a good idea. I wonder about the possibility of major and minor chords in the same tuning.

This tuning includes both the A minor (bottom 4 strings) and C major (top 4 strings) chords for strumming.

This tuning is in E minor (bottom 5 strings) and G major (top 5 strings) and may work even better for being able to play major and minor chords without hitting the wrong strings.

They probably would not work as well for picking, but the string selection might be okay for switching between major and minor chords.

Just a thought…

Great thoughts on the tunings. EGBGBD seems like it might be a real good option. Having a big target for minor and major strums is going to be good thing. He doesn’t know any music at this point, so minor chords are not a priority, but it sure would be nice to have that option if he does stick with it. I might start with that tuning and see if he can generally use the top five strings. If not, I can punt back to an open major or 5 chord tuning.

Thanks to everyone who has chimed in. Keep it coming. I am still reading and learning what I can. There are people out there with PD that are making music with guitars. One thing I was surprised to learn is that the involuntary movements are often a side effect of the medicine and not the disease itself. It’s an odd disease. The most effective medicine, Levodopa, is also the same (or closely related) to the miracle medicine that brought people out from the sleep disorder about which they made the movie “Awakenings” (with Robin Williams).

If it happened to me, id use picked Banjo or guitar in open tuning with a slide. If that took too much dexterity, The mountain dulcimer seems like it would be easier to handle than the Dobro because its smaller. If he can play a drum, he should probably be able to play rhythm on a dulcimer?

Hey Julian,
Thanks for the suggestion. I have a dulcimer and that is certainly worth consideration, but I don’t think he would be able to fret a note on it due to a lack of strength. At least, not from what I could tell based on what I saw with the guitar. I am going to try to try the slide first and if that doesn’t seem promising, the dulcimer would will certainly be worth a shot.

Yesterday, I used my wife as a guinea pig. I set up a guitar with Doc’s suggestion of E G B G B D. I briefly explained how to make G, C and D chords using a glass slide. Within a few minutes we were playing. I gave her a little more in depth discussion than I will initially give him (she has more music background to draw from) and explained that you not only had a major chord on the top five strings, you also have the relative minor on the bottom five strings. She immediately started playing music including some minors quite acceptably well in the key of G. It was a promising test run. The coolest part was when we were done, she said she really had fun playing like that.

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Hey Julian,
Thanks for the suggestion. I have a dulcimer and that is certainly worth consideration, but I don’t think he would be able to fret a note on it due to a lack of strength. At least, not from what I could tell based on what I saw with the guitar. I am going to try to try the slide first and if that doesn’t seem promising, the dulcimer would will certainly be worth a shot.

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I was thinking of the dulcimer where they push the rod against the strings. People with arthritis play that way, and they’re not strong enough to fret strings. But it sounds like the slide guitar is going to work out, So that’s good news!

That’s funny… I didn’t even think about using a stick. I use my fingers on it for fretting, so it didn’t even occur to me. That might even be easier than a slide. Thanks for the suggestion!

I went and met with Will (my friend with PD) tonight. I tuned him up to E G B G B D and showed him how to play Amazing Grace. I think it was a good start. He seems excited about it. If he sticks with it a bit, I might make a flat nut for the guitar and get the action up on it. I also checked in at guitar center and told my buddy working up there to keep an eye out for a used squareneck and to let me know if something came in that was a good deal. You never know, something might turn up.

We have a group picking thing tomorrow, and Will can make some noise in the circle. I am looking forward to it.

Last night we had our picking group. Will did ok with it. He really seemed to be enjoying it.
We’ll see where it goes from here.
Thanks for all the thoughts and suggestions!

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If he sticks with it a bit, I might make a flat nut for the guitar and get the action up on it.

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Those little metal nut extensions are simple and they work pretty good.

Good thought on the metal thingie. I didn’t even think to look for one at GC. Thanks for the tip!

My mom has Parkinson’s. Although she benefits greatly from a procedure known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), I know through her experience that the therapy derived from manipulation and exercising of the extremities is particularly valuable, although frustrating. Your work with will is a wonderful thing and I know that it means a lot to him. It’s tough for those with PD to be forced to let go of those things in life that we all take for granted. Being able to play an instrument and make music can make a huge difference in the life of someone with that terrible affliction.