Ramblin' Round: Jimi Hendrix — When left is right

Jimi Hendrix at the amusement park Gröna Lund in Stockholm, Sweden, May 24, 1967.

It’s an issue that many right-handed players of stringed instruments such as guitars and basses, ukuleles and banjos never consider — but one that’s had a huge impact on southpaws.

What do you do when you’re a left-handed musician, but almost all the instruments are made for someone who is right-handed?

These days, it’s not difficult for left-handed musicians to go to a well-stocked guitar store or order an instrument online made specifically for left-handers. But it hadn’t always been so easy.

In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, country, blues, jazz and even popular folk music, most left-handed players of stringed instruments who were unable to find an instrument made for left-handers did about the only thing they could. They simply got a right-handed instrument and flipped it upside down.

That usually meant they had to restring the instrument. For example, the thick, low-sounding E string at the top of a right-handed instrument would now be at the bottom of the instrument when it was flipped over for a left-handed played.

Most left-handed musicians solved that problem easily enough. They simply restrung the instrument — removing the thick E String from the bottom of the upside down right-handed instrument and replacing it at the top, then repeating the procedure until the upside down instrument to be used by the left-hander had the strings now reset in the same order as for right-handed players.

I said most left-handed guitarists reversed the strings so they would have the strings in the same order as a right-handed instrument — because there were a few that didn’t. Instead, they learned to play the instrument with the strings remaining in the upside down position! Because that’s the way they learned to play, some of them never played a factory-made left-handed model. They simply continued playing a flipped-over right-handed guitar in their upside down-style for the rest of their careers.

Two of the electric guitar’s greatest stylists, bluesman Albert King and surf guitarist Dick Dale were left-handed guitar players who continued to play right-handed instruments in the upside down style, long after they had become acclaimed, professional musicians.

Both are considered to have developed their own unique style. Check out King’s piercing blues notes on his song “Born Under a Bad Sign” for a representative sample of his style.

Dale, a pioneering guitarist, is likely best-known for his instrumental recording of “Misirlou.” First released in 1962, it became a hit associated with surfing— especially in southern California. Like other surf music at the time, it was an instrumental and featured Dale’s powerful guitar playing. It provided the inspiration for the group that became The Beach Boys, when Dennis Wilson suggested to his brother Brian Wilson that he should write some surf music with lyrics. We all know how that turned out.

Still, most left-handed guitarists who turned the instrument upside down went ahead and restrung their instruments in the right-handed style.

You can spot a left-handed guitarist using a right-handed guitar, since the pickguard — the piece of plastic or some other laminated material designed to protect the guitar’s finish from being damaged by a players using a guitar pick  — on an upside down guitar is at the top of the instrument, instead of where it should be, at the bottom.

Also, if it’s an electric guitar, the control knobs will be at the top of the guitar, not at the bottom where they’re typically located.

I used to think many lefties had to use the right-handed instruments until they became established enough to search out and buy a left-handed one — but some must have become so attached to their instruments and that way of playing, that they never made the change.

A photo of a teenaged Jimi Hendrix shows the left-handed musician holding an upside down right-handed guitar outside his Seattle home.

A few nights ago I watched a video of an early performance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in England, before he reached mass fame. Although Hendrix had already played guitar professionally behind Little Richard and others, he still played an upside down Fender Stratocaster.

So what about after he reached the pinnacle of his career? Film of Hendrix playing at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 shows him playing a white, upside down, Fender Strat — long after he could have afforded a truckload of factory-made left-handed instruments.

I remember reading an interview with Paul McCartney about a year ago when he talked about how he initially struggled to learn to plan guitar as a left-handed musician. That’s because almost all guitars in those days were made for right-handed players — especially in England.

When McCartney first teamed up with John Lennon in the pre-Beatles group known as The Quarrymen, he played a regular six-string acoustic guitar, not yet moving to bass. Lennon’s friend, Stu Sutcliffe had bass covered at the time.

When I looked at some early pictures of the Quarrymen, I realized I had never noticed the upside down pickguard that would have given away the fact that the left-handed McCartney was playing a right-handed guitar.

In all of those early photos, the pick guard is at the top. Surely though, McCartney moved on to regular left-handed instruments after he became rich and world famous. Nope — at least not all the time.

A few nights ago I saw a video of The Beatles in the studio recording part of the “Let It Be” album — which would be the last studio album released by the band.

McCartney, by then already one of the richest musicians in the world who could have easily purchased all sorts of guitars specifically made for left-handers, is playing an upside-down right-handed acoustic guitar, with the black pickguard at the top of the instrument as the group records “Two of Us.”

Some musicians really love their instruments!

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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