Roughly 11 percent of us are left-handed, though that percentage seems to swell when reviewing a list of top guitarists. Look to supernatural virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Dick Dale, and you might just come to believe that lefties actually have the, ahem, upper hand.
That’s exactly what author John Engel asserts in his two definitive anthologies, Uncommon Sound: The Left-Handed Guitarists Who Changed Music, published in 2006. In an interview with NPR, Engel said, “Left-handed people have since birth the obligation to deal with the right-handed world, which in some ways makes them more adaptable and more flexible and therefore more inventive.”
Whether a southpaw learns to reverse the strings on his guitar, chooses to play a right-handed guitar, or buys a guitar specifically designed for lefties, it takes more effort and determination to develop playing skills as a lefty. Here are 10 guitarists who turned their genetic trait into a technical advantage.
The late Nirvana frontman learned to play guitar during high school, picking out covers of songs like “Louie Louie” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” In 1985, he and guitarist/classmate Krist Novoselic formed Nirvana in Aberdeen, Washington, and together with drummer Dave Grohl would go on to sell more than 50 million records worldwide. Cobain played mostly left-handed guitars, though he sometimes used right-handed guitars that were restrung and played upside down.
This North Carolina-born blues and folk guitarist, who died in 1987 at age 92, is fêted for her distinctive style. Originally a banjo player, Cotten learned to play a right-handed guitar, which she held upside down but didn’t restring to suit her left-handedness. Because of this, she cultivated an alternating bass style known as “Cotten picking,” whereby she played the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb.
The King of the Surf Guitar, now age 73, has always taken an interest in distinguishing himself from other guitarists – experimenting heavily with reverberation and playing through custom amplifiers. This southpaw guitarist actually learned to play a right-handed guitar with his right hand as the active hand.
The Cars’ Elliot Easton, who released a signature Gibson SG in 2006, told Gibson.com, “I grew up and I live in a right-handed world, so as a kid anytime a friend would get a cool new guitar, I couldn’t really play it or I’d have to flip it over and play it with the strings upside down. There’s no real disadvantage technically, but especially when I was younger [it was tough] getting quality instruments.”
Arguably the finest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix dazzled on a number of levels – as a performer, a musician and an innovator. Engel explains that Hendrix had a unique approach even to working around his left-handedness: “Jimi Hendrix strung his guitars left-handed; however most people who aren’t really closely familiar with his work think that he plays upside down because he uses right-handed guitars for the most part. But he took a right-handed instrument and had them restrung left-handed.”
Judas Priest’s Rob Halford once introduced Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi as “the man who invented the heavy metal riff.” With an SG perennially in hand, the English-born guitarist, now 63, overcame not only the hardship of being a left-handed guitarist in a right-handed world, but he also learned to operate a guitar having had the tips of two of his fingers sliced off in an factory accident.
This Mississippi blues guitarist flipped his right-handed Flying Vs upside down so that he could play them more easily. “Albert King makes extremely strong vibratos and bends, which means that he takes a string and bends it several tones, and this is something that’s typical of his way of playing and you can do that much easier when you’re playing upside down then when you’re playing in the conventional way,” said Engel.
The Dire Straits guitarist first learned to play violin and then moved on to guitar, which he plays right-handed despite being a lefty.
The world’s most famous left-handed bassist, McCartney realized early on that he could restring a right-handed guitar to work for his lefthandedness when he came across a poster of country singer Slim Whitman holding a guitar backwards. He soon graduated to playing left-handed bass.
Blues guitarist Otis Rush, now 75, developed his serious chops by playing a left-handed instrument strung upside down (with the Low E string on the bottom), just like Dick Dale, Albert King and Doyle Bramhall II.
Other notable southpaw guitarists:
Duane Allman*, Tim Armstrong, Babyface, Eddy Clearwater, Billy Corgan*, Elvis Costello*, Lefty Frizzell*, Noel Gallagher*, Danny Gatton*, Al McKay, Gary Moore*, Johnny Winter* and Bobby Womack.
*Left-handed but played guitar with right hand