Mt. Lebanon man reconnects with music through guitar

| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Dr. Leo McCafferty cut ties with string music years ago.

He played the violin at his Catholic grade school, but no matter how he tried, it just didn't seem to fit.

The awkward grip of the bow, the weird feeling of jamming part of it under his chin. Nothing worked.

“I just couldn't get into it,” McCafferty says with a chuckle. “My grandmother was a concert pianist, so I grew up with music in my life. But the violin? It made it easy for me to get into sports.”

Guitars are different, although.

Today, he boasts perhaps one of the most impressive collection of acoustic guitars in Western Pennsylvania with 58 axes, including Gibsons, Martins and Les Pauls. Some are autographed, by the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Glen Campbell.

“Guitar music is just soothing. It tells a story,” says McCafferty, a plastic surgeon who runs a practice in Shadyside. “It can make you feel emotions like no other instrument.”

When he travels on vacation, he wanders into guitar stores and buys them, but only if they have certificates of authenticity. Some guitars can run from $2,000 to $10,000 each, though it's not unheard of for some axes to fetch close to six figures.

Of all days, it was Sept. 11, 2001, that McCafferty decided to take up the guitar. The mood across America was somber in the wake of terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

He, like hundreds of other physicians in Western Pennsylvania, expected scores of injured people from the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville to be brought to Pittsburgh for treatment.

Hours passed, and the bodies didn't come, so he went home.

“I remember being sullen on the drive,” says McCafferty, also the president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Along the way, he happened on a guitar store that he had passed numerous times without giving much thought. Something on that day told him to stop in.

McCafferty paid $800, and walked away with a nylon-string guitar, which he plucked and strummed while watching the 9/11 news coverage.

“The guy there told me it would be easier on my fingers to use nylon when you're learning,” he says.

Many guitar newbies start out learning to play nursery rhymes or something easy, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” McCafferty pushed himself; the first songs he learned to strum were “Amazing Grace” and John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

“I knew I'd lose interest ... if it wasn't a challenge,” he says. “If you're gonna play the guitar, play the guitar.”

Now, about 11 years later, he's still plucking.

And strumming.

And collecting.

All of McCafferty's guitars are kept in a humidity-controlled corner of his Mt. Lebanon home (Guitars can develop cracks, even in storage, if the air is too dry). And each of his guitars is insured.

He brings them out occasionally to riff with his buddies in the Monongahela Duck Club Band. But he's not giving up his day job.

McCafferty likens himself to “a weekend warrior,” rather than the next Eric Clapton.

“Guitars aren't like automobiles, they don't lose value the second you take them off the lot,” McCafferty says. “If the wood is right and you have letters of authenticity to go with it ... you've made an investment.”

Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5682.

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