LEFTY MATTERS


Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix.
A disparate and unlikely collection of individuals, but all share a common trait - they were all left-handed.

The word 'left' comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'lyft', meaning 'weak' or 'broken'. Many cultures throughout history have treated left-handers with varying degrees of intolerance, ranging from suspicion at best to outright hostility and persecution at worst. This prejudice against left-handers can be traced back to ancient Egyptian tomb writings and is documented in the Bible - following the Devil is to take the 'left hand path'. Although left-handedness has been associated with neurosis and rebellion, it has also been associated with creativity, genius, sports proficiency and musical ability. Research over the last twenty years suggests that rather than being of minor importance, "left-handedness has social, educational and psychological implications and affects many aspects of health, well-being, and even life span [1]."

The human brain is divided into two halves or hemispheres. It is generally thought that the left side of the brain controls the right half of the body and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, although many respected scientists working in this field deny that there is a distinct left-handed/right brained mode of thinking as opposed to a right-handed/left brained mode of thinking. Generally speaking, the left hemisphere deals with language and language related functions whereas the right hemisphere deals with non-lingual skills such as spatial recognition. However, the brain is an immensely complex organ with constant communication between the two hemispheres and the functions of right and left hemispheres are not as neatly differentiated as is often thought.

Musical ability is sometimes thought to be a right hemisphere skill, the two most often quoted examples being Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney. Indeed, many studies do show more left-handers and mixed-handers among professional and amateur musicians than among non-musicians. But when musicians are tested in using the Seashore Test of Musical Talents there appears to be no difference between left- and mixed handers than right handers apart from in pitch recognition where left-handers seem to show an advantage. Similar systematic tests of creativity have shown that there is no significant difference between left- and right-handed people. Sweeping generalisations that left-handers are more musical or more creative than right-handers often have more more to do with the oversimplifications and distortions of the populist mass media than they do with scientific fact.

Prompted by the observation that the proportion of left-handed people appeared to grow smaller as the age of the general population increased, American psychology professor Stanley Coren collected data regarding a person's age at the time of death and their handedness. After analysing the data Coren concluded that according to his statistics left-handers have an average life span of nine years shorter than a right-handed person - an even bigger difference than the well-documented six year gap in the life expectancies for males and females.

A potentially controversial and emotive finding (especially if one is left-handed!), Coren suggested there could be several reasons for this finding having already known from his research that left-handedness was related to a number of factors that could be associated with 'reduced survival ability'. Such factors include birth or pregnancy complications, slower growth patterns, higher susceptibility to a number of diseases such as diabetes and epilepsy and a tendency to certain potentially hazardous behaviour patterns such as alcoholism and increased criminality - left-handers are more common in groups of individuals with a history of alcoholism and criminality than they are in the general population. An possible external reason for the difference was the difficulties and increased health risks experienced by left-handers living and working in environments designed for right-handers.

Although few people are totally left-handed or totally right-handed, many children are pushed into using their right hand when they would normally use their left, either at home by their parents or at school by their teachers. Jimi Hendrix's younger brother Leon recalled: "When Jimi would play left-handed my dad would holler at him and tell him only devils and what-not would [play like that]. So when my dad would arrive home Jimi would turn the guitar over - that was how he learnt to play... Jimi would turn the guitar over and keep playing, then when dad left the room he'd turn it back over this way... [2]."

Although Jimi played guitar left-handed, he would do a number of other things right-handed, possibly because he was forced to either by his father or by his teachers. Jimi would write lyrics or sign autographs with his right hand and would also hold a desert spoon with his right hand [as can be seen in the Moebius print "Food For Thought", based on Jean Noel Coghe's print entitled "Food"]. When greeting someone with a handshake he would use his right hand (Robert Fripp claimed that Jimi once told him at a party in London, "Shake my left hand man, it's closest to my heart") and when speaking on the phone he would hold the receiver in his right hand. However, Jimi would use his left hand for pitching the ball when playing baseball, for combing his hair and for holding a cigarette.

One theory of left-handed brain structure is that there are three different types. The first and least common is a right-handed brain structure but 'flipped over', although this has all the disadvantages of being left-handed and none of the potential advantages. The second brain structure is characterised by greater interconnection between the hemispheres which enables greater free-associative ability. The third structure is one which favours ambidexterity. Although Jimi was not totally left-handed which might suggest the third type of brain structure, his astounding imagination and creative ability would suggest the second type of brain structure. As Alan Douglas commented in "Q" magazine:

"... You have to understand that his head was always filled with music. You could be in a conversation and all of a sudden his eyes would glaze over and you're talking to yourself. He was gone, completely possessed by the ideas that were flowing through him all the time. It might happen to him while he was eating dinner. He'd be poised with his silverware in his hand for five minutes. After a while, when you knew him well enough, when that happened you'd just learn to walk away and leave him alone until he came back. The flow was enormous and constant. This could happen 10 times in a three or four-hour period [3]."

Jimi Hendrix almost always played a right-handed guitar with the strings re-strung for a left-hander, mainly because there were very few left-handed models available. Jimi recalled that after he got his first guitar, a right-handed model, "I didn't know that I would have to put the strings the other way [around] because I was left-handed, but it just didn't feel right. I can remember thinking to myself, 'There's something wrong here [4].'"

Jimi's father Al encouraged Jimi to play the 'normal' way, but when his father's back was turned Jimi would revert to playing left-handed. "I changed the strings [a]round, but it was way out of tune when I'd finished. I didn't know a thing about tuning so I went down to the store and ran my fingers across the strings on a guitar they had there. After that I was able to tune my own [5]."

Changing the strings around on an acoustic or electric guitar normally means the nut has to be reversed to accommodate the different string thicknesses. On a guitar with a one-sided headstock such as a Fender Stratocaster this increases the string length of the low "E" between the nut and the machine head which means this string is more liable to jump out of its nut slot - Jimi sometimes partially cured this by wrapping the low "E" the opposite way round the machine head. Alternatively, Jimi might file the nut of a right-handed guitar to enable left-handed stringing, as he did with his right-handed 1969 Gibson Flying V sold by auction at Bonhams, London, in 1994.

Playing a right-handed Stratocaster model upside down means the volume and two tone controls are on the top half of the guitar, as is the vibrato arm and pickup selector, making them accessible whilst playing. Jimi's manipulation of volume, tone and pitch whilst playing can be heard in "Third Stone From the Sun" from Are You Experienced? and can be seen on video during the intro of "Wild Thing" from the 'Jimi Plays Monterey' video. Jimi depresses and releases the vibrato arm with his right hand after adjusting the volume control with his left hand for a howling siren-like effect. Although this effect is not impossible for a right-hander playing a right handed guitar, it is arguably easier with Jimi's stringing. In the middle unaccompanied section of "I Don't Live Today" from the 'Jimi Plays Berkeley' video, Jimi again manipulates the vibrato arm with his right hand and can clearly be seen changing the pickup selector switch with his left hand. Jimi then turns up the volume control of the guitar with his left hand resulting in a tone verging on feedback before going into the song's closing riff.

A disadvantage of reversing the strings on a single cutaway or offset guitar, such as a Stratocaster, is that access to the the top of the fretboard is hampered. Jimi surmounted this problem with his unusually long fingers - the left horn of Jimi's 1968 black Strat is partly worn away due to Jimi striking the guitar with his rings as he played in the upper reaches of the fretboard.

The pickups on a Stratocaster guitar are "placed in optimum positions for maximum tonal variation... [6]" with the bridge/treble pickup angled so that the bottom string is 'picked up' from further away from the bridge than the top string for increased bass response on the lower strings. On Jimi's reversed guitars, this arrangement would have been the other way round, although one can hardly say that this adversely effected the tone from Jimi's bridge pickup. Nevertheless, this fact must have effected Jimi's sound to a certain extent when using the bridge/treble pickup.

Other left-handers adopt a different approach to playing the guitar. Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler: "I'm left-handed but I play right-handed. They tried to teach me violin at school for two or three years - right-handed - so by the time I was 15 I was into the habit of playing that way round. It has some advantages - it obviously means my strong hand is on the neck for a good vibrato. I can pull or bend three strings all at the same time quite easily [7]."

Another left-hander, Steve Morse shares a similar point of view and even claims this way round is the 'best' way to play: "But I play left-handed: my left-hand is fingering the guitar. I think that's the best way to play [8]."

Some left-handed guitarists play right-handed guitars without restring so the bottom string is nearest the ground such as deceased blueswoman Elizabeth Cotten and up-and-coming blues rocker Eric Gales. Gales picked up this way of playing from his brother, guitarist Manuel Gales (aka Little Jimmy King), a former member of Albert King's band and now a solo artist. Eric Gales other brother Eugene, who plays bass in the Eric Gales Band, also plays a right handed bass left-handed and without restringing. Session guitarist Guy Isidore's favourite guitar is a right-handed Strat which he plays left-handed - his credits include Marc Bolan, Phil Lynott, Peter Green, and more recently Seal.

Jimi was similarly able to play a right-handed guitar without restringing the instrument. In his formative years Jimi would often jam with bands, Leon Hendrix recalling one such instance when the only guitar available to Jimi was a right-handed one. "At the place ["Birdland"] where Jimi used to gig sometimes, well, he got his guitar stolen. He needed a guitar so the group that was playing that night, he asked to, like, borrow one and so they were gonna let him play on the last number. And the guy says, 'I'm not gonna let him play my guitar' cause he's left-handed. Jimi says, 'OK, I'll play it right-handed.' The guy says 'Okay.' So Jimi gets up on the stand, the band start pushing him, doing a slow blues. There's Jimi playing away, note-for-note, upside-down [for him], plucking away...[9].'

Much to the chagrin and surprise of the band's guitarist, Jimi was able to play fluently with his left hand on the fretboard whilst plucking with his right hand.

Although this obviously wasn't Jimi's preferred way of playing, former Free guitarist the late Paul Kossoff recalled a similar incident. Kossoff was working in a British music shop when Jimi entered the shop with Chas Chandler. Kossoff: "There weren't any guitars strung left-handed, so he took this right-handed Strat and turned it over so that the low E was on the bottom. He started playing some chord stuff like in "Little Wing" and the salesmen looked at him and couldn't believe it [10]."

Former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt recalled how Jimi offered his musical services on a right-handed bass when Wyatt was recording a demo of "Slow Walkin' Talk" (released on Calling Long Distance... ). "[Jimi to Robert] 'I could try the bass line on that, you wouldn't have to use it...' And he got Noel's bass, and you have to remember he [Jimi] is left-handed, so he's playing bass the wrong way around... He heard it once including the changes, the breaks and all that, and it was staggering [11]."

Other left-handed guitarists play left-handed instruments but restrung as if for a right-handed person so that the bottom string is nearest the ground but the guitar's controls are on the lower half of the guitar. These include the late Albert King who played a restrung left-handed custom Flying V and fellow bluesman Otis Rush who now plays a restrung left-handed Strat having previously played right-handed instruments without restringing. Dick 'King of the Surf Guitar' Dale played a right-handed Strat left-handed without restringing but unlike Jimi he didn't find having the controls on the top of the guitar to be an advantage: "the knobs kept hitting me; I'd accidentally turn them [12]."

Dale asked Leo Fender to build him a left-handed Strat which he restrung so the bottom string was nearest the ground. In yet another variation on these permutations of left- and right-handed instruments, the Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster has a left-handed vibrato system on an otherwise 'normal' guitar. Designed after Vaughan's 1959 Fender Stratocaster which had a left-handed vibrato system, Vaughan's choice of vibrato system was influenced by Otis Rush and Jimi Hendrix. Vaughan would make particular use of the left-handed vibrato system in his version of Jimi's "Third Stone From The Sun" as can be seen in the 'Live at El Mocabo' video. Ironically, the Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature guitar is not available as a left-handed model!

Of course, some left-handed players simply opt for left-handed instruments played in the standard fashion such as Paul McCartney with his two Hofner 500/1 basses as used with the Beatles in their early years and his Rickenbacker 4001S bass as used on post-1965 Beatles recordings and with Wings. The late Kurt Cobain played a left-handed Fender Mustang, commenting on the difficulty of finding reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars. Fender have always made left-handed models of some of their guitars but this was initially only in response to special orders direct to the factory. The situation has improved since then but not by a great deal with many guitar manufactures producing only a small percentage of their range as left-handed guitars. The main reason is economic - producing a left-handed guitar usually means making new instrument templates or altering the production system, both options being less cost-effective than producing a constant stream of right-handed guitars.

Jimi mainly used restrung right-handed guitars, but he did own a black, maple neck 1968 left-handed Stratocaster. This instrument was sold at Sotheby's in 1988. Jimi also owned a left-handed, black Gibson Flying V and can be seen playing this guitar in the Jimi Hendrix At The Isle of Wight' video for the songs "Freedom", "Dolly Dagger" and "Red House". Jimi can also be seen playing this guitar for the second of two versions of "Hey Baby (The Land Of The New Rising Sun)" in the video "Rainbow Bridge".

Besides the practical considerations of Jimi's left-handedness, there's also the cosmetic aspect which set Jimi apart from other guitarists and became part of the Hendrix legend. It is strangely appropriate that this innovator who sang "I'm gonna wave my freak flag high" should have been left-handed. "Weak?" "Broken?" Certainly not - but definitely different!

QUOTATIONS

[1] "Left Hander", Stanley Coren, John Murray 1992, page ix.

[2] and [9] Leon Hendrix interview by Caesar Glebbeek, January 1989, Seattle.

[3] Q , June 1992, page 76.

[4] and [5] Beat Instrumental, March 1967, page 38.

[6] The Ultimate Guitar Book , page 72.

[7] The Guitar Magazine , vol 2 no 11, page 22.

[8] Guitar Player , Aug 1982, page 60.

[10] Rock Guitarists Vol II , Guitar Player Books, 1977, page 107.

[11] Robert Wyatt interview by Caesar Glebbeek, March 1989, Louth.

[12] Guitar Player , July 1991, page 44.

NB With thanks to Robert Dick, Michael Fairchild and Patrick O'Donovan.


This article was originally published in 'UniVibes' issue 17, February 1995.

Copyright UniVibes 1995 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Coppeen, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland

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