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2nd November 2017

Making music with medtech

“It was mostly a beautiful and powerful experience growing up with a prosthetic hand,” says Keith Xander, the lead singer and guitarist of Xander and the Peace Pirates.

“It was a feeling of being different, but others would seem to react positively most of the time, and would often be inspired by my ability to always follow my heart and therefore succeed through the belief in my ability and not my so-called disability,” he tells This Is Medtech.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The first time he tried playing the guitar at age 13 was frustrating, as “striking the strings and practising accuracy was a challenge. The first music teacher I experienced said to forget it and try the trumpet instead,” remembers Keith. Fortunately a new teacher arrived and encouraged him to pick up the guitar again.

“From then on I was obsessed. Music found me and took hold of my being. Many people are limited by belief, but I have always been a dreamer, and passion always was the key to success,” says the musician, who was largely influenced by masters like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robben Ford and Eric Clapton, among others.

As an adult, Keith continues to inspire. The band he formed with his brother Stuart has only been around for a decade, but they’ve already shared the stage with rock and blues legends such as Buddy Guy, Eric Bibb, Sam Brown, Elvis Costello, Jools Holland and Bon Jovi. People may wonder how a right-handed guy who was born without a right arm below the elbow can physically be a professional guitarist whose playing rivals the best in the industry.

Keith is happy to share. “I use a split prosthetic hook with a plectrum held on with a rubber band. I have tried other designs for playing, but always return to the simple pirate split hook for playing guitar,” he says. “This is how I learned to play from the beginning of this musical journey.”

Although his guitar-playing prosthetic is relatively low-tech, Keith credits higher-tech versions with making his life easier. “I have an amazing electronic hand that can be used to produce different types of grip and the option to operate individual fingers, which is very useful when performing day-to-day tasks, but not so good for guitar playing,” he comments.

Keith also sees huge potential with prosthetic technology developed by the US Department of Defense that works through brain control and nerve impulses, and even creates the sensation of touch. “I don’t think I could improve on a hand that can feel and move like a real hand, but I feel there could be advancements on the guitar playing side, to help make picking easier and more effortless,” he notes.

Another area that holds great promise in his view is 3D printing for customisable prosthetics. To this end, Keith says he’d “love to work with more amputees and help develop ideas, as I love helping others realise their dreams and passions”.

Keith is one of three artists with an unbreakable spirit who will perform at Art of Life, an evening reception organised by MedTech Europe in partnership with EU40, to be held at the European Parliament on 22 November 2017.