March 29 2018 10:45 AM

One handed guitarist carving out music career



Lee Cleveland grew up like many other kids living in a family of musicians. He enjoyed listening to jazz records with his parents and he started playing trumpet in third grade before taking up piano shortly after.

The difference between Lee and other kids is he did all this with only one hand.

Lee was born with congenital limb deficiency, which affected the development of his left arm while in the womb. Despite this, he’s never seen it has a setback or shied away from the challenge that comes with learning something new.

“It’s definitely given me a different approach to problem solving and the way I approach any task,” Lee said. “I don’t take myself too seriously and just have fun with it.”

“At first, guitar was definitely tough. I thought, ‘How am I going to do that,’ and a lot of people didn’t think I could either,” he said as he looked down at his left arm.

Lee tried to build different style picks and holsters to aid him in playing, all to no avail.

“I have this thumb thing. Nothing I built really hit at the right angle, but the thumb did so I said screw it, I’m going to power through the pain and take it from there.”

That during Lee’s freshman year of high school. Now as a senior at Michigan State University studying media and information, as well as acting, Lee is gearing up to record his first full-length solo album. He hopes to have it released by summer.

“The songs I’ve been working on, I’ve been performing them live for about a year now,” he said, “But now I’m at the point where I’m ready to put them out there. Some people think my lyrics are kind of funny, but I just want it to be lighthearted easy listening.”

As Lee gets things in motion for the eventual release of his solo work, he also hopes to record a new album with Blind Merle. Lee said all the songs are written, the band just needs to arrange studio time.

“Lee was a huge catalyst for the band early on. At first the band was kind of lazy, but he’s really been the driving force for things like social media, crowd involvement, and just getting our band to be of a higher caliber,” said Blind Merle front man Jake Trisch.

“He’s kind of been our secret sauce for a lack of better terms.”

Trisch never saw Lee’s lack of a hand as a limitation for what he could do on his own music or with Blind Merle.

Through Blind Merle, Lee has also had the opportunity to play with Dan Campbell of the Wonder Years, performing trumpet for Campbell’s folk rock side project Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties.

“It opened up a lot of doors in whole other ways,” Lee said. “I didn’t realize how much people needed horns. It’s given me opportunities to record on a bunch of people’s songs and albums that I’m happy about. I just love being in the studio and helping people with that process.”

The only limitations Lee feels he’s facing as a musician is the lack of a DIY house show culture around Lansing and MSU’s campus.

“With the Lansing area, there’s really only a couple bar venues. If you’re not playing one of those it’s kind of tricky,” Lee said. “There’s a joke that drummers come here to die, because there’s nowhere to practice. It’s rough here, but Lansing is still a bit easier than East Lansing.”

Though Lee plans to continue living and performing in Michigan until he saves enough money or is offered something better, his eventual goals are to head out west.

There he hopes to become a career musician and explore his interests in film, acting, improv and standup comedy.

“If I could get paid to do any of those things, then I’d do it,” he laughed. “I love playing and performing, so if I could do that for the rest of my life, I’d be happy. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop trying.”