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He Played It Left Hand

PostPosted: Mon Nov 29, 2004 11:17 am
by howard male
When I was reading through the reviews of Tom Wait's Apollo gig - conveniently sign-posted by Alan's links on the website - I came across a casual aside amongst the references to growling and slept-in suits, which, to me, was the equivalent of lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, coming across a previously undiscovered butterfly: Mark Ribot is left handed!

This explained a lot. In fact it explained everything - as regards his guitar playing. He was now my prize example of a slowly growing list of left handed guitarists who play in the right handed manner.

The last time my interest in this rare species was resurrected, was when I saw Errol Linton's Blues Vibe last Summer. I was immediately drawn to the guitar playing of Adam Blake. There was something in his technique which compelled me to go up to him afterwards and ask if he was left handed.
He shared certain characteristics with other members of this small and very exclusive club, I've gradually discovered over the years. These include Joe Strummer, Wilko Johnson, and David Byrne.
A quick Google search reveals I can also add to the list - Knopfler, Paul Simon, Dylan and Bowie - I think I'm really on to something here!

So how was I able to spot a left handed/right handed guitarist at ten paces? I hear you ask. Well, it helps being one myself - and also explains my interest. It takes one to know one, as they say.
And what characterises this rare breed? I believe we lefties generally make excellent funky rhythm guitarists, and if we do venture into soloing, the results are idiosyncratic and even somewhat awkward - but usually in a good way!

But before you ask, no, Hendrix doesn't count. He played left handed guitar left handedly (if there is such a world) - turning his trusty fire-damaged Strat upside-down and restringing it in the process - a totally different ball game, as this is effectively mirroring the right handed player.

No, I mean those bold adventurers who, having been cursed with left-handedness, say "f**k it, I'm going to learn to play this thing the right handed way!"
As a life-changing challenge, this may not be up there with climbing Everest, but it is perhaps akin to learning to write or play tennis with the hand that it feels least natural to write or swing a racket with.
Because of this, I've often wondered why or how each of these guitarists ended up learning the hard way. It's tricky enough as it is to learn a musical instrument without effectively tying one hand behind your back before you even start.

For me, it was because I was 13 years old, desperately wanting a guitar, and all the left handed guitars in the glossy catalogue I'd sent away my stamped addressed envelope for, cost an extra 25% to buy.
My parents were hard-pushed as it was, to afford even the cheapest model, so I didn't want to complicate matters, and risk the chances of not getting any kind of guitar at all. They clearly saw this single-mindedly desired guitar as something I would quickly abandon, as I had previously abandoned half assembled model aeroplane kits and battle-scarred Action Men. So I kept quiet about the hurdle I might face in learning to play the thing. It probably did take me twice as long to learn, but at least I got my guitar!

So besides it being harder to learn to play it, what is it about the potential handicap of having right brain hemisphere domination, that produces interesting guitarists?

Well I think there are two factors. Firstly we lefties have effectively ended up using our stronger hand to hold down the chords and our weaker but more flexible and sensitive one, to strum and pick.
Generally speaking this makes for less speed and efficiency rushing around the fretboard, so less showing off. This perhaps results in a more muscular and thoughtful approach to soloing developing, to compensate for limitations in speed. I also think that it makes for less cliché-riddled playing for the same reason.
So while holding down chords is perhaps easier, picking is perhaps harder. Personally I was never comfortable with a plectrum (always dropping the damn thing!) And so developed a technique which didn't use one. I have since noticed this is another clue to spotting the left/right guitarist - no plectrum.

So let's look at some of these guys to make comparisons.

At the least gifted end of the scale (as a guitarist that is - I'm sure the man himself would have agreed) is Joe Strummer. He didn't earn his name for nothing. But with that strong left hand, holding down those workmanlike E bar-chords, he was a damn fine strummer though rarely, if ever, tackling a solos, as far as I'm aware.

And then there's David Byrne who we were first introduced to via the tight white angular funk stylings on 'Psycho Killer' and then the wild sustain-heavy solos on 'Remain in Light' and 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts'.

Exhibit number three: Wilko Johnson's early work with Doctor Feelgood. He defined their sound and prevented them from sounding like a hundred other pub rock blues bands of the time with his plectrumless hand chops.

And of course Mark Ribot - could you find a more eccentric soloist than Tom's revered sidekick and every Cuban Music purist's nightmare?

Even Bowie has on rare occasions been an interesting - if limited technically - guitarist. Take a listen to the majestic and melodic soloing on 'Sweet Thing' off 'Diamond Dogs' - an album, and I think one of his best, in which he -unique in his whole oeuvre - played almost all the guitars on.

The second factor is that left handedness has always been associated with the artist (and, of course, the witch, but that's another story). That's not to say most artists are left handed, but it is to say - many left handed people are indeed artists.
It's been scientifically demonstrated that right handers are more likely to be good at languages, logic, maths and science - the linear stuff. And we lefties get on with the music and art - the stuff to do with perceptions and emotions.

So there we have it. If anyone can add any other names to this growing list, let me know.
I'd love to hear, for example, that Tom Verlaine or Robert Fripp were closet lefties. Verlaine in particular is a prime candidate for outing if you ask me. His style is quintessentially left handed.

Also, if anyone knows how any of the above musicians came to take up the challenge of learning guitar the hard way I'd love to know.

OK. Better go and do some practising...

PostPosted: Mon Nov 29, 2004 12:40 pm
by Con Murphy
I have to confess that (as a right-handed logician) the technical side of musicianship usually leaves me cold, but that's fascinating stuff, Howard, particularly the sheer number of left-handed guitarists who are at the very top of their art - way out of proportion to the population as a whole. I now have my golden excuse for my own guitar-playing ineptitude as well.

PostPosted: Mon Nov 29, 2004 7:56 pm
by David Godwin
One left-handed guitarist who not only played as a "rightie", but has a style named after her is Elizabeth Cotton, who wrote "Freight Train". "Cotton picking" involved repeated plucking of the bass strings with her little finger. She must have had a strong little finger!!! I have also heard that Jimi Hendrix could play both ways, but I am not sure whether this is true.

PostPosted: Mon Nov 29, 2004 9:38 pm
by David Godwin
sorry to reply to my own post, but I think that I could have made it clearer. Elizabeth Cotton was a left hander, who played a right handed guitar ie the guitar was "upside down".

PostPosted: Fri Dec 03, 2004 8:36 pm
by howard male
Thanks for the encouraging comments Con.
I originally sent an email to Charlie many months ago on this subject, but was reluctant to do a full piece unless I could make it something that wasn't too anal or muso (is that how you spell muso? It doesn't look quite right.)

And David - Elizabeth Cotton is now on my 'must check out' list just to hear what a little finger picked bass string sounds like.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 03, 2004 9:50 pm
by David Godwin
One thing that I have always wondered about Elizabeth's playing concerns damping of the strings. Blues players invariably tend to damp the bass strings by just touching the strings with the heel of the hand. This stops the bass strings ringing out, and I think that the bluesmen all did this. But with the strings "upside down" - how did Elizabeth manage it? It seems to me to be anatomically challenging, to say the least.

PostPosted: Sun Dec 05, 2004 9:30 pm
by David Godwin
Howard - please forgive my responding again to my own post, but I dug out and had a look at a video of Elizabeth playing this morning. The song was "Vestapol", played in Open D tuning. On this tape, she is a "finger and thumb" picker, but with the finger and thumb reversed from the normal positions used by players such as Rev Gary Davis and Merle Travis. In other words, she used the thumb to play the treble melody strings and the index finger to play the bass strings. I suspect that she was always an index finger and thumb picker. It looks to my inexpert eye that she has her picking hand relatively high above the strings, and was unable to damp the bass strings. This is quite unusual.

he played it left handed

PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2004 4:07 pm
by Quintin
expanding into a slightly different area, has anyone noticed the extraordinary number of Malian Bass players with Howard's affliction? The Bass player in Tinariwen, Tartit Ensemble and from memory in Oumou Sangare's band all are that way inclined. No doubt poverty is the reason but interestingly you see few guitarists in West Africa who are left handed and play the wrong way round.

Does that mean that left handed people are more likely to play bass..........................[/i]

...now we're on bass players

PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2004 8:48 pm
by NormanD
And expanding it still further and farther....what about the number of women in bands who play bass? There are more better-known women bass players than lead guitarists: Tina Talking Head, Gail what's-her-name with Bowie, US session player Carole Kaye, Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot" (OK, I'm struggling here). I'd see this as a social/cultural phenomenon, a by-product of the usual music industry sexism: women aren't allowed to take the noticeable lead parts, but they do a good job in supporting and keeping the whole show together.

I can't work this up into a detailed argument, it's just a casual observation. Any thoughts anyone?

Norman (right-handed)

PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2004 11:22 pm
by RobHall
No thoughts, just a name to throw into the mix: Me'shell Ndegeocello. (With thanks to Brian Eno who opened my ears to her on his ping-pong session with Charlie.)

Oh, and Suzi Quatro.

left handed guitarists who play right handed

PostPosted: Fri Dec 17, 2004 12:58 pm
by adam blake
Hi Howard, sorry not to have got back to you before. Just read your piece. Very interesting. To answer your question, I started off by having guitar lessons at school at age 11 (they were free in those days!) I told the teacher I was left-handed but he said that he couldn't teach me left-handed and that I would have to learn right-handed. It made no difference to me then as I couldn't play anything at all with either hand. We were learning classical which I did for four years. Every week I would say, "but sir, I wanna play like Keith Richards, sir, I wanna play like George Harrison an' Jimi 'Endrix, sir", to which he would always say: "If you want to play like that you have to teach yourself". So I did. But I'm glad I had the four years classical as it gave me a solid technique which allows me to almost earn a living as a teacher. With regard to lefties playing righties idiosyncracies: I don't agree with all your comments. I'm happy with a plectrum or fingers but most of my favourite players use fingers. I've found that I can fret just about anything but I cannot pick at speed with any consistency. Perhaps this is why I love slow players (Peter Green was an early hero of mine) and always tell my students not to play streams of notes that don't mean anything. So in that sense, I would argue that playing the wrong way round improves your musical taste! But I could never play upside-down like Albert King or Otis Rush. I saw Rush up close at the jazz cafe about 10 years ago and it was extraordinary to see how he would gather up and grab the treble strings from underneath and pull the most expressive bends out of them. Also explains Albert King's magnificent bends (plus the fact that he was 6'4'' and an ex-bulldozer driver for the city of Memphis). By the way, talking of Bowie, did you know that was him playing guitar on "Rebel Rebel"? I've always thought that was a wonderful bit of idiosyncratic rock'n'roll guitar playing - try playing it, and keeping it up for 4 and a half minutes without making a mistake! He's a very under-rated guitarist, not least, I suspect, by himself! Anyway... we're playing at the Windmill again on the 30th, maybe see you down there. Cheers - Adam

ambidextrous jimi hendrix

PostPosted: Fri Dec 17, 2004 4:37 pm
by adam blake
P.s Reading through the other posts: Jimi Hendrix could play both ways in that he could play a right-handed guitar strung regularly (ie, upside-down to him) as well as a right handed guitar strung back to front which was, of course, his preference. In answer to the question as to why he did not just play a left-handed guitar, Charles Shaar Murray (in his excellent book "Crosstown Traffic") postulates it was due to a touchingly American faith in mass-production - he thought that the left-handed models wouldn't be so sturdily constructed! I found a fascinating curio on the internet of Hendrix playing Noel Redding's Fender Precision bass for Robert Wyatt on a demo of a Brian Hopper song called "Slow Walking Talk". Must have been recorded when they toured the States together in 1968. Hendrix sounds just like Larry Graham! Does anyone know if this has ever been officially released?

PostPosted: Sat Dec 18, 2004 10:39 am
by howard male
Thanks for the comprehensive and entertaining reply(s) Adam.

Yes, learning left-handed would have been hideously complicated - having to transcribe all the chord shapes etc. I too learnt by teaching myself, simply getting a book of chord shapes and playing along to records. But it did feel strange at first. I'd done all my pre-guitar owning posing - my air guitar playing - with a badminton racket with the racket held the left-handed (Hendrix, McCartney) way, so when I first held a right-handed guitar it didn't feel right (no pun intended) at all..

Although you say you don't agree with all my comments, I can't see anywhere where we disagree. The fact you can't pick at speed supports my argument - the streams of notes syndrome does seem to be a right-handed guitarist affliction. And the comment that 'playing the wrong way' improved your musical tastes. I too certainly have excellent musical taste, so - right again!

And yes, I did know about Bowie playing Rebel Rebel - hence my mention of Diamond Dogs (Rebel Rebel being the single from the album) being the one album Bowie plays all the guitar on apart from the Shaft-like choppy riffing on '1984'.
It's always said that part of Bowie's success has been down to his choice of musical collaborators, but I think, on the strength of his playing on Diamond Dogs, he should have played more guitar himself and left the likes of generic (and presumably right-handed) bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan and hyper-fast but uninventive Reeves Gabrels, in relative obscurity.

I recommend other CG listeners head down to the Windmill on the 30th Dec, if all you have heard of Adam's band - The Errol Linton Blues Vibe - was their excellent, but rather polite, drummerless performance on Charlie's Barbican show in the Summer. It's the best way I can think of, of spending the eve of New Years Eve.

PostPosted: Mon Jan 17, 2005 8:10 pm
by David Godwin
Howard,

A couple of people have passed on details of two US pickers that play "upside down". I must confess that I know nothing about them, and have never heard of either of them.

“There is a songwriter, Jules Shear, I saw in Woodstock, NY play that way. The set I saw him do was exclusively at an open tuning, however, and the chording looked much simpler than Ms. Cotton'sâ€

Hendrix's Stratocaster

PostPosted: Thu Feb 17, 2005 5:31 pm
by David Godwin
There's a story in today's Guardian about Jimi Hendrix's 1965 white Stratocaster, which has, apparently, been sold at auction for £100k. The article states that this was "used extensively.. in concert and in the studio". There is an accompanying picture, which implies that this is the guitar in question, and this is clearly a right handed guitar being played upside down. However, it is more difficult to identify the strings, but, guessing (I am not an expert) from the hand positions, it looks to me that they are also upside down - ie the treble strings are at the top.