Don Alder

April 9, 2012

The photo is so freighted with nostalgia that it could have been a still frame lifted from Stand By Me: three teenage boys proudly holding six freshly caught steelhead trout plucked from the lakes around Kleena Kleene in central B.C. It’s June 26, 1973, near the end of what was supposed to be a week-long fishing trip. The day is cool, with trace amounts of precipitation. Smiles all around.

Two of the boys, Rick and Don, hitchhike back to their hometown of Williams Lake in an old Ford pickup—the same vehicle that, as fate would have it, they’d helped out earlier that week when they stopped to assist the driver change a flat tire. A lucky break, and a favour repaid.

They climb into the bed of the truck, crammed with tools and other crap. Finding a place to sit comfortably is nearly impossible. About 50 kilometres from home, the truck rounds a corner and starts to tailspin. It slides sideways, then flips.

You’ve heard the rest of this, or think you have. Rick Hansen’s spinal cord is severed, and he is thrust into his life’s second act as Canadian icon. His friend, who sustained only minor injuries and a smashed steel-string guitar, walks away from the crash—in a literal sense, at least.

Almost 40 years later, Don Alder, that other boy in the truck, is widely acclaimed as one of the finest acoustic guitarists in the world. Acoustic Guitar magazine calls his playing “spectacular”; Guitar Player editor Michael Molenda says he’s “the full-cowabunga package—talent, technique, and passion.” After seeing Alder perform, legendary heavy metal guitarist George Lynch said, “That was transcendental. You just took everybody to school.”

But the road to musical success is often as full of switchbacks as any mountain highway. Just as the accident made Rick Hansen who he is today, much the same can be said of Don Alder.

In a recording studio near the Cambie Bridge, Alder sits casually, working his way through one of his compositions while a videographer circles. The open-tuned chords ring clear, the rhythm propelled by the thwack! of a right hand that pounds the lower bout of his guitar like the kick pedal on a bass drum. His approach is at once percussive and pugilistic: although Alder is capable of subtle runs and delicate arpeggios, he often beats the living crap out of his guitar, strangles harmonics from it and bends their pitch by twisting its neck.

Alder plays, for lack of a better term, “fingerstyle” guitar. More an approach than a genre, it simply means “someone who plays with their fingers,” a widely cast net that includes everyone from Merle Travis to Lenny Breau. Over the last three decades, though, the term has become associated with the new-age-music movement. At their best (Alex De Grassi, Pierre Bensusan, and the late Michael Hedges), the new fingerstylists are sublimely expressionistic. More often they’re maudlin noisemakers, to be endured in a spa while an esthetician cleans your pores.

As he runs through the rhythmic, fluid tunes, Alder tosses out tales from his past. Of a murder-suicide that, years ago, claimed the life of a close platonic girlfriend; he still deeply feels the loss. Of how, in his early teens, he fell into a stream and swallowed sewage-contaminated water. While recovering from the hepatitis that resulted, he received his first guitar, a $39 piece of junk his mother bought from Simpson-Sears.

His hands tell another story. His nails are fax paper thin. When he was 15, Alder went joyriding in his grandmother’s car, crashing it at about 120 kilometres per hour and breaking his pelvis; today, his body diverts most of his calcium to the old injury site. Still, he survived. A lucky guy? “Oh yeah,” he replies.

Born in Vancouver, Alder was nine when his family moved to Williams Lake. It was not an easy childhood; Alder’s father died when he was a preschooler, and he withdrew after that. In junior high—by then he was already banging out tunes by the Stones, Black Sabbath, and Wishbone Ash—he met Hansen on the basketball court. Hansen was the captain; Alder was one of the worst players on the team. Hansen took the older boy under his wing. “Because he did that, he basically won my loyalty,” says Alder. “That was a big thing for me: this was the ‘cool guy,’ hanging out with me.”

It was the start of a friendship that would take a fateful turn near a place called, appropriately enough, Riske Creek. It would outlast high school and survive the gruelling 26-month Man in Motion Tour where Alder, again literally at Hansen’s side, was the only one in the entourage to stick it out for the duration. The friendship would be central to film adaptations (Heart of a Dragon) and theatrical plays (Rick: The Rick Hansen Story). Even Alder’s day job is a legacy of the accident: today he works as the technical production manager at the Rick Hansen Foundation, where he oversees the organization of photos and other media.

Much of his identity has derived from being the consummate corner man. “There are leaders and followers,” he says, making it clear where he falls. “I was always trying to win Rick’s approval.” True before the accident, it only became more so after. “The accident triggered a new awareness in me that I had to rise to challenges because of the standards he lived by.”

Applying this insight to his musical career proved harder. Despite years of playing, Alder had never been much of a performer. Nerves were a big part of it; so too was his lack of direction—he’d spent much of his musical life aimlessly strumming, playing by, and for, himself. With Hansen as inspiration, though, about 10 years ago Alder started going to talent nights at local pubs.

At first, this didn’t go too well. “They used to have an open mic at the Piccadilly Pub,” he says. “I’d sign up, and then when my name was called, I’d just pretend I wasn’t there.” After weeks of this, Alder finally found the courage to take the stage. Not good. “The lights went on,” he says, “and I just froze.” For years, he had played guitar while reclining on his sofa, feet up on the coffee table. Now, he discovered that, performance anxiety aside, he was unable to make the transition to the stage—his technique wouldn’t allow it. “So I went home and learned to stand and play,” he says. “Just chipped away at it, one step at a time.”

Since then, Alder’s dynamic performances have been honed at guitar festivals around the world. In 2007 he took first place at Winfield, Kansas’s, annual International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, the most prestigious contest of its kind. In 2010, he won the annual Guitar Player Magazine Guitar Superstar Competition, receiving the only standing ovation of the final event—a considerable accomplishment since Alder, armed with only an acoustic guitar, was up against serious rock and metal players supported by a full band. In December, he replicated the feat in London, this time winning Guitar Idol UK, playing an instrument held together with duct tape. If Rick Hansen were a guitarist, this, you’d think, is exactly how he would do it.

Today, Alder lives by himself in Kitsilano. At night, he works on writing new songs. He’s touring more, and recently returned from a swing through Florida. Next month, he’ll join Hansen in Williams Lake, and elsewhere, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Man in Motion tour.

He still gigs locally. A recent appearance at the Electric Owl didn’t go so well: halfway through his first song a pickup dislodged and fell into the body of Alder’s guitar; the performance eventually skidded to a halt. Bad luck. But like Hansen—perhaps because of him—Alder has learned how to pick himself up and soldier on.
The next night at the Fairview Pub there were no snafus. Alone, guitar in hand, Don Alder stepped out from the shadows and took the stage.

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