George Dennehy is a multi-instrumentalist and singer. He was born without arms and uses his feet to play guitar, bass guitar, piano, and cello. I recently had the opportunity to chat with George about his guitar technique.
George started playing the cello when he was seven years old. He studied with Jennifer Petry, a Suzuki string teacher who adopted children with limb differences. Jennifer helped George learn to play the cello with the instrument on the floor, arranged so that he could bow with his left foot and press the fingerboard with his right. George knew this would be the most natural way to play; he wanted to use his right foot on the fingerboard and considers himself to be right-footed.
Many skills George practiced on the cello transfer to his guitar playing. For instance, Jennifer created several exercises for George to develop toe flexibility and independence. She would hold down all of his toes except for one, which George had to lift. “Eventually, I got to the point where I could move just one toe without having anyone hold the others down,” he said. George practices regularly and still does exercises to keep his toes as dextrous as possible.
George plays guitar in the same orientation that he played cello. He uses an adaptation made of styrofoam under the head of the guitar so that the tuning pegs don’t touch the floor (see picture).
Guitar picks are often a matter of personal preference, and George searched to find the right pick for him. “The best kind of pick that I’ve found is a medium pick with texture on the end of it,” he remarked. “It is a little easier to hold and I have a better chance of not dropping it.” Picks that attach to your finger (or toe) might be a good choice for those with limited movement or other foot users, but George prefers a pick like the one shown here.
“As far as strumming goes,” George continued, “I try to use my ankle in the same way that guitarists with hands use their wrists.” He always tries to take standard guitar techniques and translate them to what works for him. “When you strum with your arm, you don’t use your whole arm. You use your wrist.” So George uses his ankle instead of his entire leg.
Over the past few years, George has worked on finger-picking, or in his case, toe-picking. It takes great independence of the toes to pluck different strings. George keeps his toenails at a moderate length, just like guitarists who finger-pick often keep their fingernails longer. As he says, “I just want to play like everyone else.”
Bar chords can be intimidating for beginning guitarists. George, however, learned bar chords right away. His big toe can press three strings easily. George numbers his toes as follows: pinky toe is 1, ring toe is 2, middle toe is 3, pointer toe is 4, and big toe. Although his big toe is useful for bar chords, George doesn’t always play with his big toe. For instance, this chart shows how he plays a D chord:
Toes: 2 – 3 – 1
George uses a standard guitar tuning. Occasionally he uses other tunings, like DADGAB, but only because he likes the sound, not because he needs to use alternative tunings for his technique.
I was pleased to hear that George’s schedule includes exciting upcoming opportunities. This fall, he will travel to Nebraska, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. George speaks and performs at many schools and events.
If you are interested more about learning foot guitar technique, George is happy to help. You can contact him on his website. Thanks, George, for sharing your story and your music!