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Guitarist switches playing hand to make comeback

Is a guitarist still a guitarist even when his fingers don't work properly?

Apparently yes, as "Early Show" co-anchor Jeff Glor showed with the story of Billy McLaughlin, a musician who faced the frightening loss of his dexterity -- and then overcame it.

Glor said of the McLaughlin, who hails from Minnesota, "His name may be unfamiliar, but his story is unforgettable."

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McLaughlin style is intricate, both unusual and infectious. In his prime, McLaughlin attracted fans around the world, performed 200 shows a year and even hit the Billboard top 10 charts. And then, suddenly, the fingers on his left hand -- the ones that created the complicated chords -- began locking up.

"Some of my more hotshot pieces started to elude me," McLaughlin explained. "I couldn't, I literally couldn't play them."

He added, trying to demonstrate on his guitar, "If I try to play those ... notes now, I can't even."

Glor said, "You can't even press your fingers down."

McLaughlin said, "I can't even get my third finger to lift up. It's uncomfortable to watch."

McLaughlin couldn't explain what was happening. Worse still, neither could his doctors.

"If you suffer from something for three years, before you actually get diagnosed with it," McLaughlin said, "it's awful."

Even other musicians thought the problem with his hand was in his head.

McLaughlin said, "You inevitably get caught in this thing, where (you think) 'I must be losing my mind."'

Finally, the diagnosis came: McLaughlin has focal dystonia, a neuro-muscular condition far more common than you might think. Dystonia, according to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, is the third most common movement disorder, after Parkinson's and tremors.

What McLaughlin did next was remarkable -- and musically -- maybe unprecedented, Glor said. He switched hands from his left to his right.

McLaughlin explained, "Same idea of switching your pen hand from one hand to the other. That is not an easy task."

For six long years, retraining his brain became the focus of McLaughlin's life.

"I'm not very proud of the fact that, that I, I gave up a few times," he recalled. "I couldn't, I couldn't see the finish line."

Recently, he began touring again.

Fellow guitarists DC Hathaway and Henry Austin came to see McLaughlin perform at a recent concert in San Diego. It's not just the comeback that inspires them; it's that they also suffer from dystonia.

DC Hathaway said, "Every song he plays, I'm just, I'm just in awe. He's just amazing."

Austin said, "To see him change and play the guitar the opposite direction, to me, is just astounding."

Hathaway added, "Billy McLaughlin has just been a godsend to me."

Back on stage, transformed by his struggle, McLaughlin has reclaimed both his music and his identity.

McLaughlin said, "It affected me in a really deep way, because I lost what I was so in love with, and it gave me one heck of a challenge to try to get my music back, get my life back."

Glor asked, "Do you feel like you have that?"

McLaughlin replied, "Absolutely."

Dystonia affects 300,000 Americans. Glor said on "The Early Show" that McLaughlin has been given some sobering news:  There's a chance the disease may affect his other hand,  as well. But the musician says he'll deal with that if the time comes. For now, Glor said, he's playing as much as he can -- for as long as he can.

For more information on dystonia, go to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation's website.

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