Billy McLaughlin
photo by Ryan Taylor

Billy McLaughlin

Billy McLaughlin is a world-class guitarist, composer and performer who has appeared on Billboard's TopTen Chart. Previously signed to Virgin Records' Narada label, McLaughlin has 14 CD releases and more accolades than we can list.

In 1999 McLaughlin disappeared from the music scene as his career crumbled due to a little-known neuro-muscular disorder called Focal Dystonia. After suffering several years without a cure, he embarked on an unlikely attempt to regain his career by re-learning his instrument left-handed. His remarkable comeback involved re-learning his instrument left-handed. Imagine that. The story was captured in an Emmy-winning documentary film Changing Keys which aired on PBS in 2010, and a concert film called Coming Back Alive featuring McLaughlin with a string orchestra and a reunion of his longtime rock band.

McLaughlin has resumed an international schedule of concert appearances and keynote speaking. He serves as Ambassador for Awareness for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, and won the 2010 Public Leadership in Neurology Award whose previous winners include Paul Allen, Julie Andrews, Leon Fleischer and Michael J. Fox.

He resides in his home state of Minnesota where he's raising two boys.

Luna sits down for an interview with Billy McLaughlin

What advice do you have for players to avoid simple injuries or the development of a more serious condition such as Focal Dystonia?

After much discussion with leading dystonia experts my own opinion is a very simple recommendation:

Practice enough, but never too much! Resisting compulsive over-practicing is critical especially for those under formal instruction at conservatories and universities. Over-practice would include practicing for hours without taking breaks and excessive repetition of the same musical passage without variation in your practice repertoire.

Many young players believe that playing a piece relentlessly and repeatedly in the practice room will ensure a good outcome in public performance or at a jury as required by your curriculum. The truth is that there is no way to get beyond the unique pressures of public performance other than through more public performance. You can't re-create the psychological/physiological reactions that you will experience at a jury or big public gig in your practice room when you are all alone and no one is listening. Don't obsessively practice your repertoire once you clearly have it under your fingers. What often drives many players to do so is the fear of failure in front of an audience or your instructors. Understand that only by getting out of the practice room and sharing your musical gifts can you get comfortable with a concert or jury environment. Invite family and friends to listen to you "perform" rather than endlessly "practice" your pieces in isolation. It's a much better use of your time and addresses the core issue that drives most players to over-do it!

We believe in the power of music to make the world a better place. One writer says, "We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your soul". What powers do you think music has?

From an audience perspective, the power of music or any other art form for that matter lies in the ability of the creative work to communicate more than we have words to express. When music, with or without lyrics, imparts a personal connection to an experience that is unique to each listener then that power has been realized. To say it in more simple terms, we each take away something different from every musical experience. What means little to you may mean a lot to me because of the things that have happened in my life and how I view the world. Some music obviously connects with the masses while other music connects just as powerfully with the few. Much of that is about the way music is delivered and promoted through media channels but none of that matters to me in the moment of performance. What matters most is making that personal connection with whoever is listening and then realizing it's going to make some people laugh, some people cry and some people might just need time to think about it and listen to it again on my CD when they get home.

From the perspective of someone who is learning to play music or who is composing, there's a whole other power which people need to understand in a more tangible way. It's very important that everyone knows that they are capable of making real in this world things that exist outside of it, from the world of the abstract. As a beginner on your instrument, the sound you hold in your mind of someday playing your favorite complicated piece of music is clearly from the world of the abstract. The process of successfully learning your instrument to the point that you can manifest that idea, playing that song you held in your mind, is extremely powerful because you have essentially pulled something out of the world of the abstract and made it a reality here and now in this world. I look at abstract ideas like world peace, justice and human rights as equally achievable by completing such a process of "abstract-moving-into-reality". This is why I am in such support of arts and music education because such a great way for anyone to experience success at such a difficult task. Creative arts education is the foundation for knowing we can succeed at getting our minds to embrace an empty canvas, an empty musical score, a blank page by bringing forth from the abstract world and it challenges us to fill reality with our very best intention by our very best efforts. That's a ladder worth climbing and I agree with the writer that it does reach the highest level of our soul.

You seem like a naturally happy and optimistic guy - where does that come from?

I guess my upbringing which was filled with encouragement that I could achieve whatever I wanted if I set my mind to it and filled my time actively pursuing my goals. I was taught that failure is a doorway to success so never be afraid to try your best. It doesn't hurt that I'm surrounded by so many friends and fans that think the same way and it gives me hope for the future even when my own personal musical future looked so dim. I give a lot of credit to those around me who have always been quick to say "you can do it Billy!" I wish everyone could be so lucky as I have been.

I get the impression that you really see your music as a way to be of service to others. Is that true and if so, why?

I never was very interested in just cranking out new music for the sake of building a catalog. I wait until something really moves me before I can compose and it just so happens that people over the years have told me that it has provided comfort and healing at different points in their lives. Dozens of couples have even shared that the only music they wanted in the birthing-room was my music. Now that is really something I never expected but it makes me smile.

Who would you love to do a gig with, living or dead?

That's a tough one because I'd say it's a three way tie between collaborating with either Rickie Lee Jones or Peter Gabriel and just sitting in as a rhythm guitarist in the Wailers circa 1976 when Bob Marley's music was finally being understood for the powerful message he was trying to share.

Billy McLaughlin by Chuck Plante
Billy McLauglin, photo by Chuck Plante

Read more about Billy McLaughlin and find his music at

Billy McLaughlin

Billy McLaughlin, photo by Eathan Miller

Billy's Luna guitar is a Henna Oasis in Spruce - the lefty.

Henna Oasis Spruce

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