Guitar lessons—and life lessons

Think of the single thing you absolutely most love doing. Now imagine being told that an incurable disease will prevent you from doing that thing—ever again.

That’s exactly what happened to Billy McLaughlin.

I met Billy in passing some 20 years ago, when his career was just taking off. He used to play in downtown Minneapolis sometimes and I’d listen as I ate my lunch.

Before long, Narada records signed him. He was in demand as a studio musician. He was playing concerts regularly. And then, the unthinkable happened: He was told that he had focal dystonia, an incurable neurological disease.

As the dystonia progressed Billy lost his recording contract, his livelihood, his home, his family … his music. By 2002, his career was over. For a lot of musicians the story may have ended there.

But not for Billy.

I had the privilege of hearing him play a benefit concert a couple of weeks ago. And I was astounded to discover how he was able to play. In his own words, here’s his description of relearning the guitar left-handed:

Billy lottery story

Not sufficiently inspired yet? Check out this YouTube video. And if you get the chance, go hear him play sometime. The guy deserves a HUGE comeback.


  1. It seems to me that the recipe for success in the arts is a lot like the recipe for Haggis. First of all, you need the stomach for it; then you need lots of guts; and finally, you need heart. After that, it’s a matter of hard work and a little bit of luck. It would appear that Billy has everything necessary for success, despite the challenges he’s had to confront. He reminds me of another guitarist. Django Reinhardt was learning violin when a fire partially destroyed the mobility in his left hand. So he took up guitar and created a style that was unique in its time. The fire didn’t destroy his genius; or his determination; or his appetite for hard work; or his will to prevail. I bought my first guitar when I was 13, with my own money. But just having a guitar and having a vision of oneself on stage, making music is not enough. Billy’s story tells us what it takes.

    • Congratulations on providing the grossest/tastiest analogy for what it takes to “make it” as an artist, XpatScot! (I happen to rather enjoy haggis … but other readers may not concur.) And thanks, too, for drawing the parallels to Django Reinhardt. I love his music, but am ashamed to admit I didn’t know his story. I *have* known enough musicians, though, to know that only a small fraction become rich and famous. The rest either stick with it because they love it, or go on to pursue ill-advised modeling/acting careers. I’m very hopeful that Billy will be able to make it — again. BTW: Do you still play the guitar? As always, lovely to hear from you …

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