Who is Billy McLaughlin?

Published 9:15 am Saturday, November 28, 2009

Billy McLaughlin is recognized as an innovative performer and composer who embraces the advantages of acoustic guitar amplification, unorthodox techniques and altered tunings while celebrating a gift for melody. His vision of an acoustic guitar that sounds as big as a grand piano but which plays fluidly like a violin has carried him around the world, to Billboard’s Top-Ten Chart and most recently through a devastating medical disorder called focal dystonia. McLaughlin is in the early stages of what might be described as “one of the great musical-comeback stories of all time.”

Billy McLaughlin grew up in Minneapolis, with five brothers, three sisters and one phonograph record player with only one pair of highly fought over headphones. Still, music was a family obsession and Billy tried learning trumpet and piano before settling on guitar as a junior high student.

While studying music at the University of Southern California, he became interested in the minimalist compositions of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. McLaughlin launched into a period of intense exploration and began composing for his first CD released on his own record label in 1986. Many of the new pieces featured a technique using both hands on the fingerboard in which the notes are “tapped” in a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs creating a harp-like effect. The technique became McLaughlin’s stylistic signature and by the early 1990s he was touring coast-to-coast, primarily on university campuses. McLaughlin found the style useful in both settings for either solo guitar or with his nine-piece ensemble. He also played guitar with Lorie Line on her Christmas tours for many years.

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In 1995, Narada/Virgin Records signed McLaughlin to a multi-album contract, ending his string of seven self-released titles. Narada’s first release, “Fingerdance,” climbed to No. 7 on the Billboard’s New Age chart and was distributed worldwide. McLaughlin’s touring maintained a torrid pace through Narada’s second release, “Out of Hand,” in 1998.

But personal issues required that McLaughlin cease touring to re-organize his family life and deal with problems in one of his hands — the lingering effects of a fall he suffered on an icy sidewalk en-route to the photo shoot for “Out of Hand” that dislocated his ring and middle fingers. Over the next two years it became clear something much worse was threatening his career.

By 2000, McLaughlin’s skills on the guitar were severely degraded. He could no longer perform most of his own repertoire. Knowing he could not deliver another recording to Narada, he ended to his record contract and sought treatment. Several months later, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia.

It is similar to Parkinson’s disease in that the body can no longer relax naturally when it should. Practiced movements become unpredictable.

Some dystonias affect the whole body, but McLaughlin’s is called focal because it is limited to one area of his body — his left forearm, hand and fingers. He is told he is at risk of developing additional dystonia, but it might not spread at all. At this time, there is no cure, but research continues.

McLaughlin, a single father of two sons, is playing music again because he found a way around it — he taught himself to play guitar with the other hand. “I was forced to have to re-learn it,” he said. “I’m still battling this, and I have to do whatever’s required.”

McLaughlin taped a fortune cookie to his dashboard in 2001. It reads: “Many people fail because they quit too soon.”

— From McLaughlin’s Web site and a 2008 Albert Lea Tribune interview.