How music cured the blues

A terrible car crash left musician Ian Campbell unable to play. But specialist therapy taught him a unique one-hand guitar technique – and gave him his groove back, he tells Simon Usborne

A cup of blood – no more – would have been the difference for Ian Campbell between death and a life barely worth living. It was the night of Halloween 2009, and the renowned blues guitarist with a career spanning five decades had set off alone for a gig with the King Earl Boogie Band. He never showed up. As his bandmates, including the Status Quo drummer John Coghlan, played on with a man down they had no idea Campbell lay unconscious in a ditch, bleeding by the pint through a ruptured artery.

Firefighters cut Campbell out of his car, which had been struck head-on by a speeding teenage driver. They and a team of surgeons would save his life, but they could not rescue large chunks of his brain that had been starved of oxygen. As the guitarist came round, he would discover he no longer had the use of his smashed left leg, eye or arm. He could learn to live without limbs but a life without music threatened to rupture his soul.

"Guitar has always been the channel for all my emotions, angst – everything," Campbell, 62, says at his home in Farnborough, Surrey. "Blues is the ultimate expression of that emotion. When I became aware of my view of the rest of my life, I felt utter despair. I didn't think I would walk again or ever play the guitar." Later, he adds, "despair became rage, and then a feeling of total grief."

When he got home after months of treatment and rehabilitation, his guitars rested on their stands as cruel, silent reminders of a different life. "I could only look at them but I couldn't pick them up," he recalls. "Just being aware of music and what other musicians were doing made me feel even more of a sense of loss and lack of control."

Physiotherapy helped Campbell regain the use of his leg, but his arm and eye remain dead. Counselling, meanwhile, helped him resolve the anger he felt towards the 19-year-old driver, who admitted to losing control on a bend. But without music, Campbell's biggest wounds would never heal. It was a case worker at the insurance company dealing with the accident who suggested a possible remedy. Campbell was sceptical at first.

"I had a bit of a prejudiced view of music therapy," he admits. "I thought it was all about helping disabled children bang drums, which is terrible of me, but I just didn't know what it was going to give me. I was adamant I wouldn't go."

Campbell's partner, Julianne, a nurse who has also become his carer, persuaded him to try a session. He travelled to Croydon and a therapy centre run by Nordoff Robbins, a leading national music charity. Lindsay McHale, a classically trained musician who enjoyed a first career as a record-company executive, remembers well her first meeting with Campbell, almost two years after his crash.

"He was quite hopeless and uncertain about how I was going to be able to help him. I think he was also unsure of the quality of musicianship involved in therapy, that it was just playing a triangle not very well, so he first asked me to play a Chopin piece on the piano."

It was the first time McHale, 37, had worked with a professional musician. Campbell got his first electric guitar as a teenager in the mid-1960s. Inspired by the evolving sounds of musicians such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton, he taught himself to play blues. Within a few years he was performing at top venues with the Levee Camp Moan band. Spells followed with the Nashville Teens and his own Ian Campbell Band, while he remained the lead guitarist with the King Earl Boogie Band.

McHale did not normally grant requests to play herself, but felt it was important in Campbell's case. And so she sat at the piano and played the "Raindrop prelude". "It completely changed the dynamic," she recalls. Campbell agreed to come back. Soon McHale encouraged him to touch a guitar for the first time, and then to put one on his lap. By using only the fingers of his right hand to pluck the strings over the neck of the instrument while fretting at the same time, Campbell realised he could create a sound he liked. With McHale's accompaniment on the piano, he had a go at George Gershwin's "Summertime".

"It was a revelation to me," he says. "I couldn't believe what I was doing. I was crying, which surprised me. It was the moment I realised I could do so much with one hand." With those few notes Campbell found hope. After two years of tuneless despair he threw himself back into practice, sometimes spending eight hours a day perfecting his one-handed technique.

In Farnborough, Campbell limps from his kitchen to his music room and sits with his Fret-King Super-matic electric guitar, which uses a built-in computer to tune itself, leaving his one hand free to play. He says there are some things he can't do, but a listener with closed eyes would not know he had any impairment; Campbell's technique is startling, his five fingers doing the work of 10 as they dance over the strings.

"It sounds like a cliché, but being able to do this was like being born again," he says while playing "Hoochie Coochie Man", the 1950s blues classic. "I thought I'd lost this completely and suddenly I had a route to get out my feeling and emotions again. Blues is about your soul shouting out. I'd got my soul back."

McHale admits she did not expect Campbell to reach the level he has. Her job was not to rebuild a professional musician, but to help him regain at least some of what music had given him – confidence, a sense of worth, a social life, control. The therapy also helped heal his brain, restoring some of the memory he had lost in the crash.

As early as the 1940s, physical therapists observed the effects of music on injured soldiers learning to walk again. Rhythm has since been shown to help bring order to the brains of patients with neurological disorders such as Parkinson's. Singing "American Pie" and other simple songs helped Gabrielle Giffords, the US congresswoman shot in the head in 2011, learn to speak again.

In the late 1950s, Paul Nordoff, an American musician, and Clive Robbins, a teacher, founded the Nordoff Robbins charity, initially to help vulnerable children. It now delivers more than 50,000 sessions a year across the UK to people of all ages with challenges including depression, dementia, autism and trauma, helping them physically and emotionally through a combination of playing, listening and conversation.

As Campbell gained confidence he began to jam again with his old pals. They formed the Ian Campbell Single Handed Blues Band (iancampbellblues.com) and, this year, Campbell decided he was good enough to perform again. This Halloween he will play at the annual gig he missed four years ago. It won't be his first. 10 days ago, the band played at a small music festival in Reading. McHale was in the crowd. As he began to play, Campbell's pre-gig nerves, something he had not felt before, quickly vanished.

"There was a moment during a Van Morrison number called "Gloria" when I did a solo in the middle and realised it sounded as good as it used to," he says on the phone. "I was in another world. I had this amazing feeling of total control and relaxation. I felt like I was in charge of my identity again."

To find out more about music therapy or donate, go to nordoff-robbins.org.uk

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