One-handed guitarist Tony Memmel takes a roll of tape and tears off three pieces from it. He then deftly uses them to secure a guitar pick to the end of his left elbow.
Memmel is showing the audience how he builds his homemade cast before giving a special performance at the US Ambassador’s Residence. In less than a minute, he’s all set, strumming the guitar with gusto. The process seems simple and quick. However, during an interview with Star2, Memmel reveals it’s anything but.
Born without a forearm and a hand, Memmel took eight years to find the perfect material to build the cast. “I first picked up the guitar at 13. At 21, I was playing at local open mics. The cast that I had been building were from materials that weren’t strong enough to hold up on a hot day or under hot stage lights. They would just peel off of my arm,” he shares.
“A friend heard about what I was going through and suggested I tried this really strong tape, Gorilla Tape. It’s been a solution for me since then. It’s not that I couldn’t play the guitar at all in those eight years, it was more of a confidence-building thing. It came full circle when Gorilla Tape came into my life.”
Memmel was first drawn to the guitar after getting to know a musically-inclined friend from school. “He could hear a song and by the time the song was done, he could play it on his guitar without looking at a single note of music. I thought it was the coolest thing,” he recalls.
He saved up and bought his first guitar, eager to learn how to play it. But when he approached a music store for lessons, its owner said he wasn’t able to help the differently-abled Memmel.
“Music is such a big part of who I am, it didn’t really matter to me that I couldn’t play yet. I knew I could play some day, and it seemed like it was something that was beyond a passion, it was almost an obsession.”
He continued: “There were difficult days along that eight-year stretch. But I never let it enter in my mind that I couldn’t do it.”
Bringing American Music To The World
Today, the 31-year-old has not only mastered the guitar, but is a singer-songwriter with six albums to his name. He is the lead vocalist and guitarist of Tony Memmel And His Band which also comprises his wife Lesleigh (piano) and Joey Wengerd (guitar).
The trio’s visit to Kuala Lumpur is a part of its 39-day tour around Asia under the American Music Abroad programme. Organised by the US Department Of State, the initiative aims to communicate American music to a global music audience.
“We bring American music to the places we go. So, we’ll perform songs from Johnny Cash and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Besides that, we also collaborate and learn from local artistes,” says Lesleigh.
This is their second time touring as part of the initiative, having performed in South America last year.
“We were really drawn to the rhythms of the region, it was a very rhythmic-based music. We enjoyed learning songs in those styles and bringing them back to the US and working them into our music,” Memmel shares about their experiences performing in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama.
The American band performs a balance of both originals and covers. One original song in particular that has resonated with listeners is the Lucky Fin Song.
“‘Lucky fin’ refers to the Disney film Finding Nemo where its lead character is a fish born with a small fin but he’s able to do all kinds of amazing things. He’s become sort of a hero for kids born with differences like myself,” Memmel explains.
He is also an ambassador for the Lucky Fin Project, a non-profit organisation which serves as a support group for children with hand and limb-differences. He gives adaptive guitar lessons, helping students with physical differences to develop custom methods and devices that allow them to play.
With their country-leaning sounds, the trio is naturally based in Nashville. “There are so many artistes and so much music happening. It’s tough to be heard. You have to have a unique voice and message and I think Tony and Lesleigh have a unique voice, that’s why they’ve been so successful,” Wengerd shares about the difficulties of making it in the country music capital.
“It also pushes us to be better. Because there’s so much amazing talent, it makes you want do your best. It brings out a different side to you that you thought you didn’t have,” Lesleigh adds.
Asked if the country music scene is anything like it’s depicted in the drama series, Nashville, Memmel smiles at the question and replies: “Maybe to an extent. There are certain elements, but there’s also fiction.”