Craig Korth building a guitar. “It’s called an archtop guitar,” he says. “It’s what jazz players use. They are carved like a violin.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Craig Korth: getting back in tune

Nelson’s master banjo player faces down a rare neurological disorder

Performing in a concert more than two years ago, Craig Korth noticed that his banjo playing was losing its precision.

This shocked him.

“I had never been sloppy. It was almost like slurring when you speak.”

A few gigs later, his fingers curled up involuntarily when he tried to play and he had to put his instrument down.

After more than four decades as one of the top banjo players in Canada, Korth couldn’t play any more.

The reason was focal dystonia, a rare neurological condition that occurs most often in musicians. Some people eventually get over it and some don’t.

“I had been playing for 45 years with no issues, and I played a lot. I was a heavy practiser and I toured incessantly,” he says.

Korth, one of the busiest musicians in Nelson and also one of the most in-demand banjo players in the country, had to put the banjo aside and concentrate on his other instrument, the guitar.

‘I felt like my best friend had died’

Then it happened with the guitar too. The fingers on his right hand wouldn’t function.

“I flatpick on the guitar. It’s difficult and it took years to get good at it. These days I can strum all day long but as soon as I try to pick a note, my fingers curl up and I drop the pick. It’s a disaster.”

For Korth, this was an unimaginable turn of events.

“I felt like my best friend had died,” he says. “Playing the banjo had been such a huge part of my life for so long. My whole life was built around it.”

Korth was not only a leading bluegrass player, but he’d taught himself to play other kinds of music on the banjo, notably in the Nelson group The Devils You Don’t.

His wife and fellow musician Julie Kerr (see photo below) – they have two daughters, both musicians – says he took his new reality hard.

“He was absolutely heartbroken,” she says. “And depressed.”

But not only is Korth known as a consummate and enthusiastic musician, he’s also famously cheerful with a positive attitude. He appears to have brought that temperament to bear on this new problem.

“For two or three months he was sulking around,” Kerr says, “and then somehow he came out of it.”

The downside of perfectionism

Korth says he realized his family and friends wouldn’t want to be around him if he was sulking, so he stopped being angry, started researching and went into therapy.

He learned that sometimes dystonia will happen if you push yourself too hard after an injury. He had recently had a shoulder injury that pinched a nerve in his arm.

“I pushed myself too far. Your brain says ‘This is too hard on me,’ so it curls your fingers up and says ‘OK that’s it, you are done with that.’”

He says he’s read about pianists with dystonia whose hands work perfectly until they get close to a keyboard, then they involuntarily curl up.

In therapy he realized he is a perfectionist, and not necessarily in a good way.

“I always thought perfectionism was a great thing because it made you want to be good at things. But my perfectionism came from the fact that I never felt I was good enough. I pushed myself for years and it was OK because I had no injury, but with the injury I kept pushing and that was it. My body shut down.”

Self-talk and forgiveness

Korth and his therapist talked about events in his childhood that led to this stressful perfectionism, and he made some changes in the way he talked to himself.

“I started to realize I really am enough. I let go of all negative self talk. I don’t dwell on the past.”

Korth is inspired by the story of Pat Martino, an American virtuoso jazz guitarist who suffered an aneurysm in 1980 and lost all memory. He had to re-learn how to use a knife and fork and how to dress himself. After 17 years of practice he regained his former guitar abilities and started performing again.

But to relearn the guitar, Martino had to learn to experience his instrument not as an obsession but just another tool for living.

“That took a lot of the sting out of losing the ability to play the banjo,” says Korth, “and brought me more into the present.”

His therapy also led him to think about forgiveness.

“I come from a family who hold grudges, and I started to actively forgive all the people in my life where I would grumble ‘I can’t believe they did that to me.’

“I really made the connection that a grudge is like a big rusty chain that holds you to the past, and to cut that chain you have to forgive the person who did what you imagine they did. All of a sudden I felt lighter and felt more present.”

Learning to play bass

Kerr says she was worried about her husband, but on the other hand she knew he’s never had time to do all the things he’s interested in.

“He has a remarkable number of interests that he dives deep into: old tools, music history, knife sharpening, guitar building, restoring vintage table saws. It is endless.”

So he’s returned to instrument making — a vocation he’d followed off and on for years. Not only is Korth a woodworker and musician, but he’s a trained machinist who makes many of his own instrument-making tools.

Many of his larger tools (table saw, lathe, and more) are vintage collector’s items and he has many ecstatic stories about where he got them and how cheaply.

He’s also learning to play upright bass, taking lessons from local bassist Rob Fahie.

“I took it to a jam session, and I had never played it before, but I played for four hours. It’s tuned like the bottom four strings of a guitar, and I think of myself as a musician, not as a guitar player or banjo player.”

Moving into the background

There is a chance his ability to play banjo will come back. If that happens, will he approach it differently?

“Completely. There is a macho side to playing the banjo like there is to being a lead guitarist in a rock group, but I never felt good about that, felt like I was compelled to be that way. You keep pushing and pushing and I don’t want to do that any more. I just want to play beautiful music.”

But Korth says he can do that in the background.

“Now my whole role as a musician has changed after 43 years of being out front. I am now in the background. As we all know, the bass and drums are the bedrock of the music, that’s where it comes from. I have been out front for a long time and now I am happy to be the bass player.”

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Julie Kerr on her husband Craig Korth: “He has a remarkable number of interests that he dives deep into: old tools, music history, knife sharpening, guitar building, restoring vintage table saws, it is endless.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

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