JOHN DENNER: AGAINST ALL ODDS, A GREAT GUITARIST
By Paul Freeman [2012 Interview]
Most of us who have tried to play a musical instrument have complained about how difficult it can be to master the techniques.
For John Denner, playing the guitar involved overcoming unique challenges. You see, Denner was born without a right hand.
Pouring his heart and soul into rock guitar when he was in his thirties, Denner painstakingly achieved a remarkable level of ability. In fact, the Hal Leonard Corporation [world’s largest print and educational music publisher] recently released “John Denner: Legato Licks & Fretboard Tricks,” an instructional guitar DVD. It includes lessons on tapping, phrasing, whammy bar, speed picking, delay, harmonics and more.
“The whole thing is really surreal,” Denner told Pop Culture Classics. “So many things have happened to me in strange ways that I never could have predicted the directions. The DVD experience was overwhelming.”
At the NAMM convention, a gathering for musicians in Anaheim, vice-president of Hal Leonard Publishing approached him, saying he was familiar with Denner’s guitar playing and YouTube videos and asked if Denner would like to film a full-length DVD.
Denner recalled, “I said, ‘You realize I’ve only got one hand, right?’ He said, ‘It’s more about your delivery and the way you’re able to explain the way you play.’”
Along the way, the Connecticut-based Denner has developed an enlightening and entertaining way of explaining how to play guitar. He conducts clinics at public schools, reaching third-graders through high schoolers.
“Working with kids has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve done. The kids ask the best questions in the world. And it goes over well. It’s about the challenges we all have in life. If it’s just about the arm, they would have a hard time relating.
“I created this philosophy of problem solution. Nowhere in the explanation of a guitar technique does it say you need two hands. At the end, I ask them, ‘Should I not have tried to play the guitar, because I was born without a hand?’ And they all yell, ‘No, you should have done it.’ It’s a nice reassurance, because kids are very honest. Adults will sometimes mask themselves or say the politically correct thing. But kids will tell you what they’re really thinking.”
They’re probably thinking, “Wow!’” Denner can shred with terrific style. He has always been fascinated by guitar.
“In elementary school, KISS was big. I’m 40 now. So when I was 10 years old, everyone was listening to KISS. The superhero images that they gave off - I had their posters all over my wall - gave me the desire to play way back then. I thought about it for 25 years or so and never really followed through. There weren’t a lot of role models and there was no internet, so you couldn’t search the world to see if anyone was doing anything like what I would be trying to do.”
Eddie Van Halen was one of Denner’s guitar idols. “To this day, for me, it’s so much about his sound, the way he makes music work. Less is more. He’s known for playing fast and having all this crazy technique, but he’s really very melodic.”
Denner toyed with the idea of playing when he was in his twenties, but he wasn’t ready. “I just wasn’t confident enough. I was so worried about how I would be perceived. That doesn’t even make sense to me now. But whatever that insecurity is that keeps people from doing what they love, because of what others might think, whatever that is, I had it big-time at that point. And it really destroyed any chance of me playing.”
Seven years ago, the time was right. “My wife bought me the guitar because she knew I had a fascination. She’s my best friend. She didn’t ask questions. And, for a year, I left my employment and I learned to play guitar. And I started learning Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption.’ I said, ‘If I can do this, the sky’s the limit.’ “
The electric guitar his wife purchased for him was the Ernie Ball Music Man Axis. “I’ve always loved the way they looked and the way they felt,” Denner said. “I had a million reasons why I’d never buy it - it was too expensive, i wouldn’t follow through. Now I don’t think I’ve gone a day without playing it.”
Before he could play, Denner had to invent a picking device. “I started thinking about the problem and the solution. All I needed to do was sound a note on the right side and hold the frets with my left hand.”
Experimenting, it took him a year to perfect the device. “I had to alter the design. It wasn’t a matter of just taping a pick onto the end of my arm. I had to angle it and figure out certain ways to hold it. It’s something that evolved over time.”
Then it was a matter of time spent practicing, practicing, practicing. “In the beginning, I played it so much that I slipped a disc in my neck, because of the way I lean and stretch on my right side, because one arm’s a little shorter. I was doing it so much that I was getting headaches and had to go to an orthopedic doctor, get a cortisone shot in my neck. I was playing 10 hours a day for weeks. That dropped down to four or five hours a day for months. Now it’s consistently an hour or two every day. And I love it.”
Denner’s unwavering determination enabled him to achieve his goal. “I wish I could say I was one of those people who’s just always positive about everything. I’m not this perfect guy who’s got the best outlook on life. But when it comes to guitar playing, there’s something special going on there. I just love music so much that, in that area, I seem to have an overwhelming desire to succeed.”
Sensing a tremendous human interest story, Guitar World invited Denner to play at their offices in New York, in front of a film crew.
“I was beyond blown away. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve never played in front of anyone. No one’s even seen the device I’ve made. I’ve only had a guitar for a year. I showed it to my wife the night before I left and I said, ‘This is what I’ve come up with.’ And she loved it. She said, ‘That’s wonderful.’ You solved the problem.’ And I told her I was scared to death to go play this.
“So I went to Guitar World and played it. I did interviews, photos. A week later, they told me they could never use me in the magazine. Later they said that Eddie Van Halen’s publicist had a problem with it, didn’t know what my intentions were - was I mocking Eddie? Of course, I wasn’t. So that would have crushed anybody. I had spent a year loving the instrument and paying tribute to someone I thought was wonderful.”
Howard Stern heard about it and asked him to come on his show. Producer Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate left messages on Denner’s phone, but thinking it was a gag, Denner didn’t return the calls. Then Stern himself called. The guitarist’s performance of ‘Eruption’ on the show opened all sorts of doors. Denner became an internet sensation.
Jackie Martling, the Joke Man on the Stern show, subsequently called Denner. “Jackie said, ‘Would you like to get on stage with Les Paul?’ I was scared to death. I’d never played in a band before, let alone with these jazz giants. A week later, I went and played with Les Paul and Jackie was cheering me on. And Les became a good friend. He invited me to come back any Monday night forever.
“It was a real learning curve. The big lesson I got from Les was to really enjoy what you’re doing. The second night I went on stage with him, I was sweating through my clothes, I was so nervous. I didn’t want to go on. He walked up, laughing, and said, ‘Take it easy. You know, you’re up here with me. I’ll take care of you.’ We got on stage and he introduced me. We joked around a bit. He asked me if I lost my hand playing the guitar too fast. To ease the crowd.
“He told me a story, about this singer, who was going to perform at his club in New York City. And this young kid was so nervous. He told him that everything would be okay and to stick with him. And he winked at me and he said, ‘I think the guy’s name was Sinatra. Did anything ever come of him?’ And he smiled and I realized that if this great musician is in my corner, I can’t lose.”
A great innovator, the legendary Les Paul could appreciate Denner’s ingenuity. “He almost lost his right arm in a car accident,” Denner said. “It was fused at the elbow. He had the doctors set it so he could play. And they wanted to remove the arm. So I think he’d always had it in his head, if he lost his arm, what would he do? I think I gave him an example.”
Denner created hugely popular videos on YouTube, using the name Yoda Van Halen. Now you’ll find them under his own name.
In the past few years, Denner has become disillusioned with the music industry. “It’s really cutthroat.”
He’s more interested in inspiring others than in finding fame and fortune. Denner has visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I found myself listening more to their challenges and they were so different from mine. They weren’t born without a limb. They lost it in the war. And that’s a different dynamic. They’re sitting there now, missing a leg or an arm. But I try to steer it towards music. The soldiers I met were musicians before they went in. So they were getting instruments donated to them but they weren’t playing them. So somebody contacted me, thinking that if I went in there and could relate, maybe they would show an interest in the guitar playing or bass or drums. And they did.”
“Maybe if someone’s in that place where I was, hesitating to try, and they see me playing and enjoying it, and maybe they see the device I’ve created and it doesn’t look as bad as maybe they thought it would, then maybe somebody will take it to another level. I’m hoping someone will take this 10 steps further than I ever did.
“I get emails from people all over the world, who have children who were born without a hand and they find my website and they thank me. So now they know there are options out there. That’s a huge reward for me.
“The idea of being famous, being a rock star, is not even in my thinking anymore. You need a manager, a publicist. You need to spend money. It’s a different dynamic from just playing the guitar. I don’t want to sound idealistic, but my main goal is to support anybody else out there who might be challenged to do something they love. I can’t concern myself with that other world. I tried. And I got shot down many times. That wasn’t the road for me. It was a different fight. It had nothing to do with my hand. It was about something else.”
In the beginning, it was about networking with industry figures and trying to land endorsements from big music companies. Now Denner prefers to devote his energies to such organizations as Amputee Coalition of America and Little Kids Rock.
“The direction has changed for me. And I’m comfortable with this new direction,” said Denner; who also hopes to create music for television and films.
“Now my focus is on the kids. If I can work with young minds and just have fun with it, I Ieave there with something. I give them something. I give them a different world to look at and really open it up to them. So if they see something different, they won’t automatically think there’s something wrong with it. And I leave there with a vote of confidence that it’s okay, that what I’m doing is worth it. My intention was just to make it look acceptable. When I’m playing, if I can just make them forget for a minute how I’m doing it, a miracle happened.
“I would like to sit in a room with musicians and just have it be about that and not about what guitar I play or how I look or who I think I’m better than. Just writing simple little melodies that people can enjoy and meeting with the kids, that would be the dream job. Reaching kids is the biggest high I can imagine.
“It’s all about doing what you love. And I love playing the guitar more than ever.”
Learn more about John Denner by visiting www.johndenner.com.