Not long after turning 16, Don Alder went flying out of the back of a rolling pickup truck in Williams Lake, but managed to survive the incident unscathed. Not so his teenage buddy Rick Hansen: paralyzed in the crash, he’d go on to become the world’s most inspiring paraplegic.
A basketball star in high school, Hansen had forever earned Alder’s gratitude by showing compassion to the less-skilled player and helping him improve at the game. Alder’s indebtedness to his “blood brother” came to the fore in 1985, when he agreed to commit two years of his life to join his mate on the Man in Motion Tour, in which the wheelchair-bound Hansen traversed the globe to raise awareness of spinal-cord injuries.
But first, Alder—who has since become an internationally acclaimed acoustic-guitar virtuoso—suggested some musical accompaniment for the trek.
“I said to him, ‘Man, we need a song for this tour,’ ” explains Alder during an interview at a restaurant in Kits. “And he says, ‘Yeah, why don’t you and your buddy write one?’ I was going, ‘Well, we really need somebody big,’ and I had worked in the studio, so guys like [heavyweight producer-composer] David Foster came to mind. He said, ‘Okay, call him!’ and I was like, ‘Should I call Madonna at the same time?’
“He didn’t understand that it’s not that simple,” adds Alder. “But the beauty of Rick is that, when there’s a wall, there’s a way over, through, or around it.”
As anyone who listened to commercial radio in the ’80s knows, Foster came through big-time for Hansen by cowriting and producing “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)”, which went to number one on the Billboard singles chart in September of ’85. With that uplifting number as its theme song, the Man in Motion Tour proved an unqualified success, visiting 34 countries and earning $26 million for the cause. When the tour finished in ’87 Alder relocated to Vancouver, but the move wasn’t a happy one at first.
“It was actually a pretty dark time for me,” he recalls. “I hadn’t really played guitar in two years. I didn’t have a job; had very little money to survive on. But what happened is it actually became a good time for music-writing. I had to vent, so I got an acoustic guitar and just sat there and started writing and writing and writing, and that was the beginning of it all.”
Inspired by the instrumental success of pickers like Don Ross and Michael Hedges, Alder—a former drummer—devised a compositional approach that incorporated speedy fingerpicking with simultaneous percussion, played on the guitar’s body, to create a vibrant wall of sound. Contest judges everywhere took notice, with Alder being the only player in the world to win all three major guitar competitions: the 2007 International Fingerstyle Championship in Winfield, Kansas; the 2010 Guitar Superstar Competition in Livermore, California; and, just last December, the Guitar Idol III contest in London, England.
After an hour-long chat with the Straight, the ebullient Alder scoots across 4th Avenue to Rowan’s Roof, where he regularly keeps his chops up—and tries out new instruments—at a weekly open-mike session. He takes the stage with the same duct-taped guitar that he won Guitar Idol with, and his intense, off-the-wall playing has the small crowd instantly enthralled. Judging by the ecstatic response, you wonder why Alder hasn’t developed a larger following in his own back yard. Chances are, unless you’ve stumbled across one of his YouTube videos, you’ve never heard of him at all.
“I think I’m earning one fan at a time,” he points out. “But having said that, outside Vancouver I’m very well-known in guitar circles. People like Andy Timmons and John Jorgenson, all those guys are fans of mine. They love what I do.”
When Alder won the Guitar Player magazine–sponsored Guitar Superstar contest, the judges included such notable rockers as Elliot Easton of the Cars, Dokken’s George Lynch, and Reeves Gabrels from David Bowie’s Tin Machine. So obviously the electric players dig where he’s coming from.
“It’s the delivery,” says Alder. “In these contests the electric guys have the ability to go over the top with all this tapping and stuff, so my strategy was to come out in standard tuning and kick ass.
“I’ve been winning all these crazy contests,” he continues, “and it made me realize what I am. I’ve done studio gigs, but I’m not formally trained, so I’m not a professional player at all. I don’t even consider myself a guitarist, because the true guitarist is all about precision, right? I’m sloppy, I’m messy, but I love to create. So I went down the artist track, and with artists there are no rules—you just have to make people try to like and appreciate you. It’s creating your own kinda mystique, I guess. That’s where I’ve been lucky.”