Tony Memmel is a Waukesha native who is living his passion: a career in music. He plays guitar and piano, writes and records his original music, tours the country playing gigs, and works with kids – teaching music and spreading his message of positivity and perseverance. And he’s had to overcome a physical difference in order to make it happen.
Tony’s cousin – producer Brad Kolberg – caught up with him recently as he worked with kids at Crestwood Elementary School in Madison.
Getting His First Guitar
Tony Memmel: “I got my first guitar when I was 13 years old. I had a friend from school named Max, who could hear a song off the radio and before it was even done playing, he could play it on his guitar. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
“I went home to my folks and I said, ‘Hey Mom & Dad, wouldn’t it be awesome if you bought me an electric guitar?’ And they said, ‘We’ll meet you half way.’ So, I got my first couple of jobs. I started dreaming about guitars, learning about guitars, went to the music store and talked to the guitar guys about guitars, and it was over my spring break when I was in 8th grade that I went to Cascio Interstate Music in New Berlin, Wisconsin and picked out my brand new Fender Stratocaster and brought it home to learn how to play.”
Adapting To A Limb Difference
TM: “I was born without a left hand, and when I went to a guitar teacher in my town he said, ‘We’re really excited that you’re learning to play the guitar, but I don’t feel like I have the skill set to teach you, so you might be on your own with that.’ And, I didn’t get angry at him. I didn’t think, ‘Well, there goes my guitar dream.’ I found an empty shoe box and I filled it full of supplies, like scotch tape and glue and string and paper clips. Anything I thought might help me to build a cast.
“So, my first cast was literally taking a roll of scotch tape, putting a pick on the end of my arm, and then just wrapping it over and over again to make my first sounds. Over the years, I evolved all the way to gorilla tape and I now have just honed and crafted my cast to be what it is today.”
Outreach And Teaching
TM: “As I’ve gone out in to the world as a touring artist and musician, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with children and adults alike who have differences of their fingers or hand, legs or arms, and I work with many groups who support those communities.
“One of those groups was called The Lucky Fin Project, like Nemo from The Disney Pixar film ‘Finding Nemo,’ because Nemo – the lead character in the film – has a small fin, which his father calls his ‘lucky fin’ affectionately. So, that’s where the name comes from.
“Some people saw more in me than playing in clubs and restaurants, but saw that I might also be able to share a message with kids. And so I started being asked to come and do a full week clinic with their students where I break down how I build my adaptive cast, and we learn songs together. This week we’re writing a school song together and I’m helping to take ideas from the group, and melody ideas, and then at the school assembly on Friday, we’re going to do a release of the song that we’ve been working on all week.”