Don Alder’s life has taken many twists and turns down life’s highway.
He’s gone from tuning strings to greasing wheels and back again, and is now making his name as one of the world’s most celebrated fingerstyle guitarists.
The man who has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar, Alder is probably best known as being the right-hand man to his childhood friend and fellow Williams Lake native, wheelchair and spinal chord research champion Rick Hansen.
These days, Alder describes himself simply as a guitarist, composer and musician.
However, his story is as fascinating as the arsenal of acoustic guitars he plays, some of which he’ll demonstrate when he gives his Performances in the Park concert Thursday evening in Boitanio Park.
Alder was the guy who literally greased Hansen’s wheelchair wheels on the 40,000-kilometre Man in Motion World Tour from 1985 to 1987, and has since worked with the Rick Hansen Foundation.
“I’ve been playing guitar since I was a kid but I didn’t get really serious about it until after the Rick Hansen tour ended in ‘87,” said Alder, who first picked up the instrument after he contracted yellow jaundice when he fell off a hand-built raft into a creek, and swallowed water.
“My mom got me a guitar while I was recovering. I really wanted a drum kit, but she won that war,” he laughed.
As a teen, Alder started playing in rock bands, and remembers the one time he and his Black Sabbath loving bandmates got the brilliant idea to load 12 gauge shotguns with graffiti as part of their act.
“I had flames coming out of mine. The gunpowder had ignited and a wad of flames flew out. It lifted a guitar and flew off into the drum stool,” he said. “That’s how we were as kids. It was ‘you can beat me up, but don’t beat up my bicycle,’ so to speak.”
That band ended up breaking up, and it was around then Alder decided to pursue a solo acoustic career in the same vein as Bruce Cockburn, moving to Kaleden in the Okanagan, where he built a recording studio.
Alder was focusing on his music when his best friend Hansen called him up. The two had already been through so much together. In 1973, Alder was with Hansen when a pickup truck the two were hitching a ride home in lost control, rolled over and threw both men from the vehicle. While Alder walked away, Hansen ended up with a severed spine.
Years later, while training as a wheelchair athlete for the Boston Marathon, Hansen ended up back in hospital, this time with a dislocated shoulder.
“He called me up and said he wanted to tell me something,” remembered Alder, who went to Hansen’s bedside. “He said he wanted to go around the world in a wheelchair. I told the nurse, ‘can you get me a straitjacket?’”
After a while, Alder changed his mind about that request.
“As a kid he was always supportive of me, so I decided to support him.”
The men set off on their epic journey in March, 1985, with Alder often biking or running along for six-to-eight miles to catch up with Hansen. He also left his guitar behind as his hands were literally up to his elbows in grease, as he was in charge of Hansen’s wheelchair maintenance. That was until the Man in Motion tour stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant in Nova Scotia.
“We had met George Cohon (the founder and senior chairman of McDonald’s of Canada) and he asked me what I did. It turned out his son played the sax,” recalled Alder. “In Nova Scotia, we stopped at the franchise and the manager there said he had something for me… He gave me a Hondo guitar, saying ‘George said he wanted you to have this.’”
Alder admits he experienced a bit of an anti-climactic low when the Man in Motion tour ended in May of 1987.
“I had no contacts and went back to Vancouver to live in a small apartment. I ended up getting myself a cheap guitar and the music came out. I was writing bits and pieces, or noodling as they say, when all of a sudden it came together.”
Alder started writing and did the music for a series of documentaries on the Man in Motion tour for Shaw Cable.
He also became one of the country’s most respected wheelchair sport experts using the skills he learned on the tour to help others, as well as serving as equipment manager for 16 years with the Rick Hansen Foundation and as a consultant with the Canadian National Paralympic team at both the Atlanta and Sydney Paralympic Games.
“It did get me out of music for a while… I was with Rick at a presentation when he said, ‘a lot of us do not pursue our dreams because we are afraid of failure and failure is just not having the courage to try.’ It was a Pollyanna (principle) moment for me,” said Alder, who with those words decided to enter his first guitar competition, the International Fingerstyle Championships in Winfield, Kansas.
“I got my butt kicked twice, and the third time I had a problem with my nails; the glue I used on them had lifted them off the nail bed. I cut them down and played cautiously and ended up coming in second.”
Alder used that experience as a learning tool: to slow down and work on training his ear and touch to bring out the tonal colours of the instrument. It worked, and he ended up winning the competition the following year.
Upon opening this new chapter in his life, Alder would go on to be named Guitar Player Magazine’s 2010 Guitar Superstar Champion and the 2011 Worldwide Guitar Idol winner, and has since taken his music, and guitars, around the world.
“When I won these things, I did not get much mainstream media attention, but it did get me into a few industry magazines,” said the Yamaha endorsed artist who has not only been featured in Guitar Player Magazine, but just about every other known guitar publication.
“The profile I’ve had has been amazing. You can build a ground base of fans with niche music, but it is difficult.
“When you say you play fingerstyle guitar, people think it’s guitar-only music and they associate it with classical, which has had an elite audience.
“The music I play is for all of us, though. It’s not a circus act. I’m not jumping up and spinning in the air while playing, but I believe there are a lot of new guys packing houses with this kind of acoustic music. They are getting the genre out there in people’s faces.”
Recently hand-picked to play Space Oddity with acclaimed Canadian astronaut/musician Chris Hadfield in Hawaii, Williams Lake area audiences will see and hear Alder apply his fast moving fingers (said to be like four bands in one hand) to his harp guitar, which includes a sub-head with six bass strings, a banjitar (half-guitar, half-banjo), as well as a fan fret, baritone and standard guitar.