Autism and the bass guitar: “A music lesson saved my life.”

By Alexander Hodgkins-Jones

For aspiring Leicestershire musician Oliver Major, the greatest lesson of his life did not happen in a classroom. It took place while walking circles around a school field talking music. His teacher was a fellow pupil called Miguel who he had only met an hour before.

“I learned more during that conversation than I had in 14 years of life,” says Oliver, 23.

Those first 14 years of life had been difficult for Oliver because of his autism. He had no friends before meeting Miguel. “Behavioural issues” had caused him to be kicked out of two schools. Getting through a maths or English lesson was a chore.

Autism made Oliver’s early life a struggle

“I could talk to Miguel because he was so much older than his years. He had the sort of patience with me that nobody else had ever had.”

Up until that conversation, Oliver didn’t have much interest in music. He describes his early music taste as “a bit crap”, borrowing superficial influences from his older brother Knill (sic) who listened to generic rap which was all about “sex, partying and drugs”.

Unlike Oliver, Miguel had benefitted from years of rock music education. Oliver was awestruck the first time he went to his house. It was like visiting the hall of fame for guitars. Miguel’s dad collected them. They were all autographed by rock ‘n’ roll legends and hung throughout the place like trophies.

“Miguel taught me what music could be. I started listening to all of these heavy metal bands he told me about. Slipknot. Mindless Self Indulgence. Rammstein. Then I kept discovering more bands. Better bands,” says Oliver.

“I found that I could relate to what they were saying. It was unlike anything I had heard before. The music sounds aggressive, but if you truly listen to the lyrics they tell you about the artists’ lives.”

Relating to other people had always been a struggle for young Oliver. Kids at school never really “got” him. He remembers the bullying and frustration of not being able to express himself. That changed when listening to metal.

“I wish I had known metal music was out there before I was 14,” he says, recalling a troubled youth caused not only by his autism but because of his fractious home life.

Oliver never met his womanising father. He has “three or four” siblings on his dads’ side all with different mothers. Oliver’s mum was severely disabled throughout his childhood due to a car accident, leaving his sister Jo and Knill to raise him.

“I got everything except my music taste from my brother. He would never admit it, but he was pretty much my dad.”

Autism made writing and arithmetic particularly difficult for Oliver. He would never choose to sit down and study, but he jumped at the opportunity to take music lessons when they were offered.

“For autistic people learning is very sensory. With music, you’re engaging at least three senses at once. I can see the music, I can listen to the music and I can feel the music. That’s why finding metal helped me so much.”

After their first music lesson, Miguel jokingly told Oliver they should form a band. Admitting he took the thought a little too seriously Oliver says he “almost immediately” hunted down the music teacher and suggested the idea. The sharp needled response of “well what instrument can you play?” quickly burst Oliver’s overzealous balloon.

Unsure of what instrument to learn or even if he could learn an instrument Oliver went through a few false starts before picking the bass guitar. Often overlooked and underappreciated Oliver was drawn to it like a kindred spirit.

Oliver with his Les Paul guitar, he has learnt to play a variety of instruments but always comes back to the bass

“I thought the bass was just this boring thing you play in the back and guitar was where all the cool stuff happened. But then I listened to Primus. Their bassist is incredible. I wanted to be like that,” says Oliver.

“Playing bass meant I had something to focus on. I had something to do with my hands and my mind. I had a passion and a purpose. I could look back and think ‘wow I did that’ after learning a new song. Trying to learn anything else had always ended in failure and disappointment.”

Nine years later, Oliver is still playing bass.

“I’m glad I didn’t pick drums. I think I would’ve been kicked out of the house because I practised so much,” Oliver jokes.

Bass guitar helped Oliver through some difficult times. His social anxiety slowly, but surely, dissipated as he found like-minded metalheads who he could talk to “for hours”. He ended up going to college to study music.

Oliver is “all about the music”, playing gigs has improved his confidence

He had almost given up hope of being in a band when a small Leicester outfit, Every Rope a Noose, put out the feelers for a replacement bassist.

“They had played gigs, so it was a serious band. It was a big step, but I went to a session and played with them. I wasn’t sure what to expect. They liked me. They thought I was good.”

The validation came as a surprise for Oliver. To him it playing bass was just a bit of fun, but now he was getting the appreciation from other musicians.

Like many small bands’ things broke down. They became more about their image, Oliver says, and less about the music.

It didn’t bother him too much. He now has the confidence to form a band of his own.

“I just want to write and play the sort of music that helped 14-year-old me. Hopefully, I will.”

Oliver does admit to cheekily poaching the drummer from old friend Miguel’s hardcore group, Voidwalker, for the new unnamed venture he is putting together.

Oliver tries to get to all of Voidwalkers’ gigs. He feels he owes his support to the friend who course-corrected his life.

“It’s amazing to think if I hadn’t been out on that field on that day nine years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now,

“That conversation with Miguel was the most important one of my life. It came just as I needed it. Just as I needed that music and that instrument. I’d still be a lonely kid struggling with autism without him.”

Photography by Alexander Hodgkins-Jones, feature photo by Charlotte Coburn


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