Nikolai Gvozdev was a 10 year old kid playing around in a vacant lot when he suffered the unimaginable: terrible whole-body burns that changed his life and looks forever. He spent months in the hospital. He realized that his hands, especially his left hand, were crippled. He could not extend any of his fingers as his tendons had permanently fused.
After recovering from this horrific event Nikolai went back to school, where he was mercilessly teased by every single kid in the school with the exception of one little boy who made an effort to befriend Nikolai. In an unfortunate and ironic twist of fate, that little boy is now a man who is severely crippled and isolated from society himself.
When Nikolai–11 years old at the time–was in grade school, some kids had a rock band in a local children’s club. This was the first time he had heard the electric guitar and he fell in love with it immediately. He instantly had the urge to not only play the instrument but become really good at it.
His only remaining relative, his grandmother, bought him a children’s acoustic set to help nurture his dreams and Nikolai scraped some of his own meager money to buy a pickup for his guitar. Not satisfied with the sound, he rewired everything himself to get a certain tone and power out of his simple instruments.
Being right handed, Nikolai began to train to play the guitar as anyone else, strumming with his right and playing with his crippled left hand; it just came more naturally for a right-hander.
He learned how to play the guitar by listening to recordings of musicians like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Nazareth among many others. He would pick-up notes by ear since he knew nothing of music theory, let alone how to read sheet music. As you would expect, due to the fact that his hands were so severely injured, Nikolai had to employ non-traditional methods, to say the least, of teaching himself how to play the guitar.
He later joined a band while in school and studied musical theory/grammar himself. Eventually he joined a night school for musicians to study foreign pop guitar methodology, techniques, and theory. However, because his grandmother and himself were very poor, he couldn’t afford the tuition and dropped out after a year. He tried to get into the Mussorgsky Musical Academy, but because of his left hand he wasn’t accepted. The old guard was scared for the classics; they couldn’t bear believing that a cripple could improvise music so well that he would play better than a “conventional” musician (as a side note, this is quite ironic; for Mussorgsky was known for being anything but conventional in his musical style and abilities and probably would have enjoyed Nikolai’s unique take on music and musical technique).
Not long after this, Nikolai’s darkest chapter of his life began; his middle finger of his already battered left hand had to be amputated. Nikolai thought his musical career was over. He thought he was finished. But he knew he couldn’t give up. Music was his life and he knew if he didn’t give up he could do anything.
At first Nikolai thought the best thing to do was to re-learn the guitar by playing with his right hand instead of his now even more crippled left hand. This didn’t work as well as he had hoped and he realized that instead it’d be best to retrain himself to in some sense continue to play with his left hand, but now with one less finger, one that can’t move, and two that can’t fully extend. Nikolai had to not only train himself in unorthodox methods, he continues to play and improvise in ways that other musicians simply don’t have to. This however, has not diminished the quality and style of his play.
Further tragedy hit as Nikolai’s only supporter in life, his grandmother, died when he was 15. Nikolai was now alone, forced to fend for himself, in a country that is unforgiving to not only handicapped people, but in Nikolai’s case, those who are epileptic and deemed “not beautiful”.
He lived for years as an impoverished, homeless, ever hungry, sick, and ostracized member of an already poor society. His daily bed was the cold, hard, urine stenched concrete of apartment blocks. His breakfast? The dumpster; if there was any food left over, that is. His medicine for his severe epilepsy? There was none.
He started to play in the streets to supports himself. He first played acoustic Flamenco and then bought a guitar combo amplifier and began his life as a wandering musician for 5 years all over Europe. He lived in Helsinki for a year, where he bought his Fender guitar. Nikolai describes this as his formative years as he learned a lot about himself, his abilities, and people in general.
In general, his advice is to give your all, work hard, and most importantly: love what it is you do. If you don’t have the latter, nothing good will come of all of your troubles.
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