By my estimation, I am one of an elite group of just 1% of guitarists. We are a shadowy group, ignored by instrument manufacturers, derided by other guitarists, and laughed at in guitar shops.
What makes us different is that we play left-handed, with the strings upside-down (high E at the top, low E at the bottom). My assumptions are that 10% of guitarists play left-handed and of these, 10% string the guitar upside-down (as above). Hence, 1% - but it could be lower than that. I have yet to meet anyone else foolish enough to play like me, although a few better-known players are listed below.
Playing this way has caused me a lot of problems and is not recommended. If you’re a beginner and are playing like this, please stop. Now. This article will explain why.
Play in a Day: regret it for a lifetime
At the age of 13, I bought a cheap guitar. Next, I had to somehow learn to play it - cheese-grater strings, high action, and all. The most common method in the UK in those days was to buy an instruction book called Play in a Day, written by Bert Weedon, an English dance band guitarist who for some reason also appeared on children’s television.
First published in 1957 (and still in print today), Play in a Day was pretty much the only way for a whole generation to learn to play guitar. Ask Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Lennon, Hank Marvin, Brian May, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, and many others. It’s how they all learned.
There was no other way. Guitar wasn’t taught at schools. The internet and YouTube had yet to be invented, likewise CD and video tutorials. Apart from Bert Weedon, the only way to learn was from friends and painstaking hours in your bedroom trying to copy records.
According to my father, I was ‘cack-handed’, which meant that I was left-handed, in a right-handed world. At Junior School, Miss Mickey’s handwriting lessons were the catalyst for my forced conversion from left-handed to right-handed. There was no choice: in those days, to be left-handed was to be the spawn of Satan and actively discouraged. It was that or being burned at the stake. However, I can still write with either hand.
Despite my enforced right-handedness, my natural inclination was to hold the (right-handed) guitar left-handed, without even knowing that I was doing this. Sitting with my guitar in front of Bert’s book, I mirrored what I saw in his photos and diagrams. As I was holding the guitar left-handed, my guitar neck faced his, which made perfect sense at the time. It also made it easier to follow.
I only learned later that I was holding the guitar the ‘wrong way round’ and therefore playing upside down, when a friend pointed it out. By then, I’d learned four chords and there was no stopping me. Had I flipped the strings and re-learned those four chords, I would have been spared a lifetime of pain.
Having said that, there are some fringe benefits. My playing has consistently attracted more attention than it deserves; other guitarists find it almost impossible to work out what I’m playing; and it is possible to play a few things that would otherwise be impossible.
Who else plays like this?
Nearly all left-handed players string their guitar so that the lowest E string is at the top of the guitar, as it is for right-handers. It’s how God intended left-handed guitars to be. It’s how Paul McCartney and most lefties play.
At this point, people often reference Jimi Hendrix, who was left-handed and played right-handed guitars the wrong way round. However, he also flipped the strings, so the lowest string is at the top. Presumably, in those days left-handed electric guitars were in short supply, so playing a right-handed one was the only option. And Hendrix had such enormous hands and long fingers that having the control knobs at the top of the guitar was a benefit, not a problem, as it is for the rest of us. Some have said that he actually preferred this.
There are some reasonably well-known guitarists who play the same way as me (left-handed, strung right-handed). The ones I know of are: Doyle Bramhall (plays with Clapton and others), Glen Burtnick (Styx), Junior Campbell (Marmalade and solo), Jimmy Cliff, Dick Dale (legendary surf guitarist), Eric Gales (amazing contemporary blues player), Bob Geldof (known to strum a few chords) and Albert King (legendary blues player). Not to forget Coco Montoya, Otis Rush, Dan Seals, Seal, Karl Wallinger and Bobby Womack.
On bass, I have found a few ‘1%’ players. These include Gerald Johnson (Dave Mason, Steve Miller), Lee Pomeroy (top session man, ELO, Take That, later incarnations of Yes) and Paul Wilson (Snow Patrol).
Why do they do it? I haven’t asked (if you’re reading this, please let me know) but I would guess that in nearly every case, they are like me: they are lefthanded, self-taught and didn’t realise what they were doing until it was too late.
I’m guessing that we are a dying breed: in the information age, and with so many ways to learn the guitar, it just wouldn’t happen now.
But there may be other reasons that people are 1%-ers. For example, Eric Gales is naturally right-handed, but was apparently taught how to play by his left-handed brother, on a left-handed guitar (although he now seems to prefer to play right-handed guitars the wrong way round).
Some of the problems we face
You can play the guitar badly or well, however you string it: either way, it’s an unfair contest between ten fingers and six strings. The problems are mainly related to the limitations on the model of guitar (particularly electric) that you can play. Here’s a brief review of your options:
Just flip a right-handed guitar and start playing. No need to change the strings, it's ready to go. But…if you like dot markers down the side of the neck, you’ll have to add them yourself. And if the guitar has a scratch-plate, it will now be in the wrong place. Left-handed acoustic guitars are an absolute non-starter for the 1%-er, as the bridge will be angled to enable intonation for ‘normal’ players. Flip the strings and the intonation will be all over the place.
Electric guitars (right-handed)
Playing a right-handed guitar the wrong way round has one great advantage: the strings, intonation and balance of the guitar are all just how you want them.
But there are a few issues to address. If you like dot markers on the side of the neck, you will now have to add them; if there is a strap knob at the top of the guitar body, you’ll need to move it to the other side (and fill the old hole); and the tuners on some models (Fenders, for example) will now be facing in a more inconvenient direction. These are relatively minor issues, however.
There are more significant problems, however. If there is a cutaway, it’s on the wrong side of the guitar - so forget those high notes; if there is a tremelo arm, it’s also in the wrong place (but still useable); and most importantly, on most models, the control knobs will be located exactly where your left arm naturally falls.
This means that unless you have long, steady arms, you are likely to experience frequent and unexpected changes of volume, tone and pickup as your arm hits the controls. On hollow-body guitars, it is possible to re-locate the controls, although this is unlikely to improve re-sale values.
Electric guitars (left-handed)
This should be straightforward, right? Remove the strings, flip or replace the nut at the headstock end of the neck, and alter the bridge settings, to adjust the intonation (exact length of the string in play) and height of each string. So not that straightforward – plus, you’ll probably have to pay someone to do it.
However, only Fender electric guitars will allow you to do this, in my experience. Most electric guitars, Gibsons are the best example, have angled bridges, making correct intonation impossible once the strings have been flipped. Try as you may, you simply cannot make the lowest string long enough, or the shortest string short enough. This makes all other brands of guitar inaccessible to us 1%-ers.
For that reason alone, I would urge the younger me to start all over again, either as a leftie with the strings in the right place, or, even better, as a right-hander. Famous left-handers who chose to play right-handed include Duane Allman, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Noel Gallagher, Wilko Johnson, Mark Knopfler, Gary Moore, Steve Morse, Joe Perry and Johny Winter.
Forget the 1% - that’s an elite group I really would like to be part of.
Mark Beasley (e) firstname.lastname@example.org