Around 10-15% of the world’s people are left-handed. Why so few? No-one knows. Yet studies show that mathematicians, musicians, architects, and artists are more commonly left-handers than would be expected. When it comes to guitarists, that certainly seems to be true. Let’s look at guitar’s left-handers… some obvious, but others you’d never even know.
The obvious biggies first – Jimi Hendrix, Tony Iommi, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney and many more play left-handed. But it wasn’t always easy for some of them...
Jimi Hendrix was naturally left-handed but his father, Al, initially tried to force the young James to play right-handed. Al Hendrix reportedly believed playing left-handed was a sign of the devil. Why so? It has its roots in language. “Sinister”, in ancient Latin, means “left” and also “unlucky” – in modern times someone “sinister” is un-trusted or even evil. These linguistic oddities persist. “Right” means “correct” in English, obviously. In French, “gauche” means both “left” and “awkward.” So, even in language, left-handers get a bum deal.
Jimi Hendrix tended to write right-handed – there are photos of Jimi signing autographs and writing lyrics right-handed. And Jimi did learn to play guitar right-handed, as demanded by his father Al. Jimi modified his first (right-handed) guitars for his natural leftism – restringing and changing the nut. But when Al was around, he felt he had to play a right-handed guitar simply flipped over (treble E at the top). So Jimi taught himself to be “both-handed.”
Free’s Paul Kossoff, when he was a young guitar salesman in London, once recalled Jimi circa 1967 trying a guitar in the shop where Koss worked, and simply flipping it over so the treble E was closest to his face. And Hendrix still played brilliantly. Maybe all this explains why Jimi could play just about anything on the guitar?
Paul McCartney’s “handedness” has become something of a legend. Philip Norman, author of Shout!, the 1981 biography of The Beatles borrows heavily from Hunter Davies (their authorized biographer) and muddies the myths about McCartney.
In Davies’s (1968) book he says: "His [Paul's] guitar cost £15 and Paul couldn't get anything out of it at first. There seemed to be something wrong with it. Then he realized it was because he was left- handed. He took it back and got it altered. "
And here's Norman (1981): "Paul, strangely, made little progress [at the guitar]. His left-hand fingers found it irksome to shape the patterns of black dots shown in the tuition book, and his right hand, somehow, lacked the bounce necessary for strumming. Then he made the discovery that, although right-handed for every other purpose, he was left-handed as a guitar player."
But the myths never went away. In #7 of The Beatles’ Anthology movies, Paul is seen playing right-handed. Which led some to believe the myth that Paul is Dead, and that the man playing is a lookalike stand-in. Now that’s just weird…
Yet Paul McCartney in 1963 said: "The only thing I couldn't cure myself of was being left-handed. I do everything with my left hand, and no matter how I try I can't change the habit. I just seem to do everything back to front. I used to even write backwards.”
McCartney eventually answered questions about it all. In 1986, he simply stated, “I'm quite definitely left-handed.” Then again, McCartney is able to sign autographs with his right hand. Some even suggest the way Paul folds his arms implies a natural right-hander. Like Jimi Hendrix, maybe McCartney doesn’t care too much and he has more talented hands than most of us?
Gibson Les Paul trivia? Paul McCartney’s left-handed 1960 sunburst Gibson Les Paul is one of only a few made in that year. Gibson didn’t even reverse the “Les Paul Model” logo on the lefty headstocks back then (so the logo is upside down).
So, a 1960 sunburst Les Paul = very rare. Left-handed = super rare. Owned and played by Paul McCartney = mega fab rare. If McCartney’s 1960 Gibson Les Paul ever came up for auction, you’d pay your right arm for it. Or would that be your left arm?
Blues legend Albert King was not only left-handed, he was an upside-down player. King played right-handed guitars (usually Gibson Flying Vs) simply flipped over, so the low E string was nearest his feet. He also used unorthodox tunings, as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bends.
And techniques differ. Since King played his guitar upside down and not restrung, he would pull the high-E down to bend a note. Many medical studies suggest this makes more sense anyway, as human fingers are “better” at gripping than pushing away.
In most ways, King did everything in reverse – guitars, stringing, bending techniques and chord voicings. That he managed all that and still cemented his place in blues legend is impressive indeed. “I knew I was going to have to create my own style because I couldn’t make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could,” King recalled.
Otis Rush was the same – but he often played left-hand made Gibson ES-355s but modified them for “upside down” stringing. So Rush got the controls on the ES-335’s lower bout, even if his strings were reversed.
Surf legend Dick Dale and Doyle Bramhall II (Eric Clapton’s band, Arc Angels and solo artist) also play “upside down” stringing.
Lefties take a swerve
You’ll see Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, Danny Gatton, Billy Corgan, Michael Bloomfield, Gary Moore and Noel Gallagher play guitar right-handed. So which is naturally left-handed? Answer = all of them.
Guitar can be a strange instrument in many ways. If you are right-handed, your more-dextrous right hand often does less work (unless you are a devoted fingerpicker or classical player.) Why is it “normal” for guitar players to fret notes/melodies/chords with their “weakest” hand?
For Mark Knopfler it was the way he was taught – he started as a young musician playing violin right-handed violin, and when he took up the guitar it seemed easiest to continue. Michael Bloomfield remembered, “I was left-handed and I couldn’t play well. I took lessons for about a year, a year or so. I learned rhythm.” When he played right-handed, he got better. Billy Corgan can sign autographs with his left-hand.
Does leftism matter?
Possibly not. But left-handedness can get you places. Of the last five U.S. Presidents, three (Obama, Clinton, Bush Snr.) are lefties. The downside? Lefties are apparently three-times more likely to suffer from alcoholism.
Any right-handers out there who play guitar left-handed? Or vice-versa? Or both? Scientists believe preferred “handedness” is established at six months of age in an infant. So we guess that if you want to find out you favored way of playing guitar, you better pick up that axe very early…
Goofball fact of it all? Avenged Sevenfold’s guitarist “Synyster Gates” is not even left-handed, despite his stage name. But Avenged Sevenfold’s co-guitarist “Zacky Vengeance” is.