Headline: Blues, rock and soul — with a twist
Tag: The Jason Williams Band makes their local debut
Jason Williams has been playing and teaching guitar for years.
He’s been a key member of such established touring Southeastern blues and jam bands as Wayside Riders and Nothing Simple, graduated with honors from the Atlanta Institute of Music, and later signed on for several years as a member of their faculty.
These days he fronts his own namesake group as both lead guitarist and vocalist, but he clearly remembers the moment he first became seriously interested in music.
“When I was a child,” he recalls, “my dad showed me how to play a few major chords on the guitar. After I got a few of those under my fingers, he taught me Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘Hey Joe.’ Next, I learned Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary.’ Then, he thought I should be able to figure out songs on my own. He taught me how to transcribe by listening. I taught myself everything else from that point on.”
There’s not much about that anecdote that seems unusual. After all, hundreds if not thousands of young kids are introduced to playing musical instruments through their parents.
However, most kids have two hands.
That’s right. Williams —an accomplished and proficient soloist and solid rhythm player— was born with only one hand: his left. His right arm ends just beneath the elbow in what “Lefty” calls his “nubb.” And yet, while many might understandably perceive this as a disability, Williams instead has chosen to view it as nothing of the sort — which is understandable.
“I’ve never known any other way, so I can’t imagine things differently,” says the Norcross, Ga. resident. Plus, to hear him tear off a ripping lead or complex picking part, you’d never guess that he was in any way different from the average ace guitarist. He actually plays much better with one hand than most folks do with two!
In fact, Williams says plenty of people come to his shows, enjoy the band’s high-energy approach to soulful Southern rock and blues, and leave without even noticing anything unusual about him.
So how, you may wonder, does one play the guitar with only one hand — especially when the missing hand is the one required to actually pluck and strum the strings?
Well, first off, one has to come up with a special apparatus to help keep a guitar pick in place. Which is exactly what the young, enterprising Williams did.
“I was actually strumming with just my nubb when I started,” he explains. “But, I could only do up-strokes. I needed some way to hold a pick, so I approached a prosthetician who made my prosthetic arms, and he said he had an idea. While I appreciated his effort, what he made was useless. But, it gave me some ideas. I tore one of my old arms apart and made my first pick. In a nutshell, it fits onto a strap attached to a ring. The ring goes over the end of my nubb. The strap goes around my elbow. I bend the pick up to catch the strings properly. I’ve gone through a few changes over the years in how I attach the pick. For example, at first I used staples, but they usually shattered the picks. So I went through a paperclip phase. That worked, but it was very crude. I eventually tried rivets. They’re great — secure and strong. But rivets make it hard to change out the picks.”
One of the most intriguing things about Williams’ circumstance is that in some ways, it works to his advantage as a player.
“My limited range of motion creates perfect picking technique. Every instructor I’ve ever had has told me they were envious of my technique. On the flip side, it’s much harder for me to compensate for finger-picking. So anything that requires that —like slide or classical guitar— is much harder. I can still do it by using my left pinky, but it’s very hard.”
“Lefty” burns through a wide variety of rock, blues and even jazz licks on his new indie CD, Big Plans, and is looking forward to showcasing that material and more on his first Savannah gig under his own name. He describes the mood of his current live shows as “one big party.”
It’s a party he’s looking very forward to bringing to Savannah.
“I’ve played there off and on for the last seven years, since starting out at J.J. Cagney’s on a recommendation from my friend Brock Butler of Perpetual Groove. But this’ll be the first time with my new band. I’ve always had a great time in Savannah. It just has a great vibe to me.”
The Jason “Lefty” Williams Band plays the Mercury Lounge Friday at 10 pm.