EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from Joined at the Heart, a 2015 memoir about love and resilience, by Pete and Erin Morris Huttlinger. In this November 2015 article from Acoustic Guitar magazine, the award-winning fingerstyle guitarist recalled the challenges of recovering from an earlier stroke and end-stage heart failure. Through hard work and determination, he regained many of his abilities and went on to offer not just music, but inspiration for those in recovery from physical and emotional distress. On January 15, 2016, he died of a stroke.
On November 3, 2010, I suffered a massive stroke. I awakened to find I was completely paralyzed on the entire right side of my body and couldn’t speak.
Thankfully my wife, Erin, was there. She recognized the signs of a stroke and immediately called 911. The doctors operated and my recovery began. It was a very slow process. My right hand, which used to be stellar and would obey my every command, failed me completely. I found that I was unable to do an upstroke with a flat pick. I could not write nor could I feed myself with my right hand.
Then just six months later, I suffered end-stage heart failure. My days were numbered.
I was life-flighted to Houston, Texas, where I had a heart pump implanted and spent the next four months in recovery—all without playing the guitar. Add all the time up and you’re getting close to a year without any meaningful guitar playing from me.
The road ahead was long.
I started out by first deciding that, “Yes, I do want to be a guitar player again.” That was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome. It physically hurt to play and, as far as I was concerned, I had had enough pain. My wife would put my guitar out on a stand or lean it on the couch or put it on our bed hoping that I would get theurge to play. But at first I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wasn’t mad at my situation—not once. I just didn’t know if I wanted to do all the work again. It turned out that given enough time, which wasn’t really all that long, I did want it and I still do.
I had to start at square one (my left hand worked fine and I never forgot anything I had learned, so that was a big plus) and that meant coming up with a plan. I didn’t understand that I would have to revise that plan many times over the next four years (I’m still in the middle of the plan), but I would adjust whenever I hit a roadblock.
And there were plenty of roadblocks.
I began by playing—badly—the simplest things I could remember only about 15 minutes at a time to start. I would fingerpick a little exercise on an open-D chord. I remember going back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4 to keep from going crazy—I hadn’t forgotten anything, I just couldn’t play anything . . . yet.
Yet is the key word if you ever have to recover from anything.
Give yourself time.
Then I would take the chords and move them up and down the neck: D, Em/D, F#m/D, G/D, A7/D, D. Repeat again and again. All while playing a simple eighth-note pattern. I love to play bossa nova tunes, so I would play the basic bossa nova pattern with just the chords to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Lucky Southern,” “One Note Samba,” and “Wave.”
I would get out my metronome and begin to play with a flat pick. Eighth notes at about 60 beats per minute were all I could handle—sometimes it was too much. I would play scales, melodies, fiddle tunes. For several months, I would see progress nearly every day.
My plan was to mix up all this stuff, play as long as I could each day and try again the next day. Mixing it up was really the key for me.
‘Play What You Can Today’
But all was not good—at least not good enough for me. I used to be a player. I used to be a really good player. I played at the first three of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festivals. I played Carnegie Hall—three times. I played for LeAnn Rimes at Abbey Road Studios, toured and recorded with John Oates and John Denver and a lot of other great gigs. Now I was doing simple exercises—poorly most of the time.
I had a hard time with alternate picking, and playing from one string to another was a nightmare. Friends would try to make me feel better by saying things like, “Now you know how the rest of us feel,” or “So you’re mortal after all!” I would laugh it off because I knew their intent, but I was not happy knowing how the “rest” felt.
I did not want to be mortal. I wanted to be what I used to be. I wanted to be a really good guitar player again.
Erin would hear me in our living room playing something, then suddenly I would curse loudly, put the guitar down, and walk away. I was frustrated. Then, 30 minutes or an hour later, I would go back in, grab my guitar, and try again.
This happened multiple times each day for almost a year.
But eventually things got more consistent.
I made fewer mistakes. I started to enjoy learning again, just like I did when I was a kid. Tunes I thought were lost forever were coming back to me.
The great Nashville fiddler Aubrey Haynie told me after I had the stroke, “You may not be the player you once were. You’ll just be different.”
It took me a long time to realize what that meant and to accept it.
Jazz guitarist Pat Martino told me, “Play what you can today. Don’t think about what you used to do.”
That was perhaps the best advice I ever received.
I learned to let go and rebuild.
So now I’m a different player. After four and a half years I’ve got 90 percent of my chops back, which is more than enough for any session or gig. I’m working all the time and I’m a better person for all I’ve gone though.
And being a better person is by far the greater gift.
You can learn more about Pete Huttlinger’s music at Petehuttlinger.com