“Do you know where I can find a good left-handed bass that won’t cost me $6,000?” asks Patrick Klein, with hints of both sarcasm and sincerity. Such is the plight of the left-handed musician. When looking for a good instrument, left-handed musicians face more challenges than right-handed musicians. And when it comes to simply fitting in, things can be even more complex.
Left-handed people negotiate a predominantly right-handed world on a daily basis: from scissors to the stick shift, the world has been designed and manufactured towards the righty. And musical instruments are no exception. Klein has become a touring and recording veteran over the years, playing guitar in bands like The Lizards, Cactus, Vanilla Fudge, and French Lick, but it obviously hasn’t made finding a decent left-handed instrument any easier. Perhaps the bias stems from the fact that the word “left” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lyft,” meaning “weak” or “broken.”
Lefties are, however, part of a prolific tribe. Some of the most unique talents in the history of music have been left-handed. In the modern era, The Beatles’ Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and Deep Purple’s Ian Paice are a left-handed bass, guitar, and drum triumvirate that quickly comes to mind. There are talented left-handed musicians who play right-handed, like Ritchie Blackmore and Joe Perry, but we’re talking about musicians who play left-handed, who are, by their very nature, pioneers. All one needs to do is consider Jimi Hendrix to understand whom we’re talking about. To be left-handed is one thing; to play left-handed requires a willingness to defy established norms and embrace individuality. Hendrix embodied both.
Making Music pulled a few left-handed musicians aside and got the skinny about what it’s like on the left-hand path.
Drummer Bobby Marks (Dokken, Eddie Money, and Flavor Flav) played right-handed until he was 16 years old. A skateboarding accident forced him to re-evaluate his technique. “I could never figure out why I struggled so much,” he says. “After breaking my arm I flipped my kit around and my coordination and balance improved immediately.” Marks does, however, attribute some of those immediate results to playing right-handed all those years. “I played open-handed technique and it really built up the weak side of my body,” he says. Though Marks says the switch inevitably enabled his “style to flourish,” he admits there is one challenge that continues to haunt him on a regular basis: “I can’t just spontaneously sit in with anyone or go to open mike nights.” Sadly, the kit would have to be completely rearranged.
Impromptu jamming seems to be the biggest challenge faced by most lefties. Pat Harrington, a veteran guitarist from New York City with bands like Slunt, Gaggle of Cocks, and Killcode agrees. “Here’s when it sucks,” he says. “I was at a friend’s wedding in London. As a gift to his wife, he was gonna have Macy Gray sing a song for them. I was asked to accompany her, but they only had a right-handed guitar. So I had to pass the duties off to someone else…total drag.” But, Harrington notes that this can also be an advantage in similar situations. “When I’m at a random party and someone busts out their rusty old acoustic and says, ‘You play guitar, show me how to play [enter cliché song title here]!’ I can say, ‘Sorry dude, I’m lefty, I can’t play that upside down.’”
Long Island-based guitarist Guitar Pete (Axe Attack, Gypsy Rose, and Snakeyed Su) found a way around his “limitation” by adopting the unorthodox playing style for which he’s known. “Being a lefty, there weren’t any guitar teachers who could teach me, so I had to learn on a guitar that was strung for a righty,” he says on his website. That means he plays left-handed and upside down. Unlike Harrington, Pete’s style allows him to play on the majority of guitars in the world. “Some guitar enthusiasts freak out over the way I play, but it’s as normal as anything else I do.”
Both Harrington and Klein agree that the Internet has vastly increased the chances of finding a good left-handed instrument. “There seem to be a lot more lefty guitars and basses than when I was starting out,” says Klein. “But it’s still not easy walking into a music store and finding a great left-handed guitar or bass.” So what was the result of his initial question? Ironically, he found and bought an $89 SX bass, revealing that things are indeed changing.
Perhaps most telling about all of this commentary is that right-handed players never have to think about these things. And though lefties do seem to face more challenges than righties, they’ve arguably evolved into a pretty elite group as a result. “No one has written as many killer riffs as Iommi,” says Harrington. “Hendrix reinvented the guitar. Kurt Cobain reinvented rock ‘n’ roll. My point is, there may not be a lot of us, but lefties are game changers!”
This article originally appeared in our July-August 2011 issue. Order today!