Playing The Banjo During Brain Surgery
April 25, 2014

Playing The Banjo During Brain Surgery

According to veteran banjoist Eddie Adcock, being fully awake and conscious whilst your brain is being operated on is every bit as horrific as it sounds. But that is the price he was willing to pay to try and regain his banjo playing skills, as dexterity left him during later life.

Although never hugely successful, Eddie Adcock has been much-loved on the bluegrass scene for decades, first with various bands, including the highly prolific The Country Gentleman, and later as a duo with his wife as Eddie and Martha Adcock. The duo has appeared on well-respected shows such as Austin City Limits, and charted in various bluegrass, country, rock, college, and Americana charts.

In 2008, Eddie had grown concerned that hand tremors were affecting his playing. He agreed to have Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery, which involves the patient remaining conscious throughout the process so that they can advise surgeons on what is working and what isn’t – allowing them to immediately see the effects of their actions. In Eddie’s case, what they wanted to work on was improvement in, or restoration of, his banjo playing ability. This led to incredible scenes of him lying in bed, surrounded by surgery equipment and doctors, plucking a banjo in his hands.

Stimulation electrodes are implanted in the brain but must be in the optimum location. In order to find out what that location is, it is best to immediately be able to see the results. Consequently, Eddie Adcock could only have local anesthetic during his surgery; an experience that he says trumped any of the hardships of life on the road:

“I came up in music the hard way and learned to be a trouper fast. Some of those early days were pretty rough, and I’ve been stomped, cut and kicked; but I never went through hell like this — it was the most painful thing I’ve ever endured. And it was risky. But I did it for a reason: I’m looking forward to being able to play music the way I did years ago prior to getting this tremor. It means that much to me. I’m far from being done!” he is quoted as saying on several sites, including his own website. He also says that he knew when the surgeons had found “the sweet spot.”

I found that fascinating story in the week that AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young was announced to be taking a break from music due to poor health, after 40 years with one of rock’s most successful bands. Although the group has revealed little information about Young’s condition, it is believed he suffered a stroke that left him unable to play the guitar. Rumors of the band’s consequent retirement surfaced for a few days, but have since been debunked.

It’s sad to think that something which we would like to connect with the soul and the spirit, such as music or indeed any kind of art, is in reality dependent very much on the fine, intricate workings of our physiological selves, and reliant on strict biological functioning. It doesn’t mean that we have to think of music as being any less important or moving, but simply means, I suppose, that we should enjoy it while we can.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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