The Plight of the Left
When is Left Right?
Sinister Tony Reed takes the side of the left-handed musician
When is left right? Not very often it seems. The plight of the left handed musician can be long, unrewarding and quite frequently cost a fortune.
In the Middle Ages, we were burned as witches. In the Middle East, we still aren't popular dinner guests. Even the proper name for us had unfortunate overtones. Yes I'm talking about sinistrals — lefties, southpaws, or, less flatteringly, cack-handers.
If you are a left-handed musician, you are in good company. Of course everybody knows about Jimi Hendrix's sinister Strat, but let's not forget CPE Bach, or Cole Porter. Mind you, as a contemporary player, you might be forgiven for thinking that our historical persecution has passed from the hands of the inquisition to the hearts of today's instrument manufacturers. There are an estimated 200 million left-handers in the world (a higher proportion of which are more likely to play an instrument than their dullard dextral equivalents — yes, we are more artistic — ask Leonardo!) Despite this stunning statistic, the odds are that if you're after a left-handed instrument, it'll be dearer, scarcer, and you'll be choosing from a more restricted range. As Graham at Andy's Guitar Workshop explained to me, in these days of mass-produced, cheap instruments, it's a matter of economics: "Left-handed instruments represent a very small proportion of our business — not because we don't get asked for them, but because we can't get hold of enough of them! At the moment, out of our whole stock, we've only got three lefthanders in — a John Birch Flying V, a Flying V Gibson, and a left-handed Les Paul. Generally, we have to order them — Tokai are quite good, and Westone — but not everybody makes a left-handed model of all the guitars in their range, anyway."
Fortunately, there is an alternative — conversion. Andy's Guitar Workshop do about three or four a month. What precisely does that involve?
"A basic conversion on an electric simply means swapping the strings over, and the bridge saddles. The nut also needs to be turned round, or remade. We can, if people want, go further and move the knobs and switches over, fill in and spray over the old holes — even put a new cutaway in if you want it. A converted guitar will still sound as good afterwards as it did before."
What about acoustics?
"They're obviously a bit harder. The saddle on an acoustic is slanted — the wrong way, after a conversion — so that has to be re-made. The cross-bracing pattern inside the guitar is different — two struts might have to be swapped over — but in my experience, it usually doesn't make any difference. Even on an asymmetrically braced acoustic, like the Martin used by Paul McCartney — he uses it 'upside down', and it shouldn't work. But it does."
Graham can only recall one guitar which he has heard used as a right-hand, then a left hand, and back again to right hand: "...An Epiphone Texan — a great recording guitar — and it still is!"
So if you want your revered, right hand Rickenbacker converted, no need to worry that it'll come back sounding like a strangled cat. Prices at Andy's start at a very reasonable £15-25, for either acoustics or electrics, though obviously more outré additions to the basic job'll bump up the price.
Alternatively, you could do what despairing leftie Mark Knopfler did — and learn to play right-handed anyway. It's not an uncommon solution — despite the fact that educationalists now agree that left-handers should be allowed to learn new skills their own way in most things, the teaching of music still seems to be special case. I was only able to track down two tutor books specifically aimed at left-handed players: Guitar Chords For Lefties (pbk £1.95), and Left Handed Guitar (pbk £4.50) — both on import only, but available from the very wonderful Anything Lefthanded, in Beak Street, W1. (A good shop to visit in any case, if you're left handed — they stock everything from can openers to boomerangs).
Unsurprisingly, bass players face the same problem. Barry, at the Bass Centre in Wapping High Street says that he always tries to persuade left-handed beginners to try the majority approach: "...After all, if you think about it, all the tricky stuff is played with the wrong hand anyway! Left-handed players on right-handed instruments ought really to have an advantage there."
Perhaps there is something to that theory. The list of successful bass players is surely topped by Paul McCartney, an unrepentant leftie: "When I was a kid, I seemed to do everything back to front... I do everything with my left hand, I can't alter the habit. A doctor once told me I shouldn't try to, because being left-handed is something to do with the brain."
Paul's pre-eminence in the field of music, if not psychology, is something all left-handed bass players should have call to be grateful for, if only for Hofner's 'Paul McCartney' violin bass. John Wilson, another sinister success story, and currently bassist with Heaven 17, has a particular reason to be thankful for Paul's predisposition: "A little while back we were working on some material in a studio next door to Paul McCartney, and he heard me mention that Marc Bolan had always been one of my heroes. It turned out that he had bought Marc's guitar — so he let me play it! If I'd been right-handed, I'd've missed my chance..."
John's success means that he now plays an instrument he feels equally happy about, a left-handed Wal, but he admits that he found it difficult finding the right instrument in the early days. Even at the Bass Centre, with over 200 guitars on display drawn from an even larger stock, Barry admits only 10 are left-handed: "Aria, Hofner, Yamaha, Westone, Rickenbacker... a better selection than you usually find. Even so, I'd say that left-hand instruments still represent only a small single percentage of my total trade — and it's because of that situation that a lot of the manufacturers of the most popular models don't bother with left-handed versions. To the best of my knowledge, for instance, Squier have never produced a left-handed bass... Funnily enough, you hit the same problem right at the other end of the market, too. Of course, you can get custom Overwaters and Wals, but with a lot of the new graphite moulded instruments, you've got a problem. Steinberger did make a left-hand mold, but these cost quite a few thousand pounds, and for the number of guitars you're going to sell, it usually isn't worth it. That's why you can't get a left-hand Status."
Keyboard players get short shrift too. A couple of pieces have been written especially for the left hand — Ravel's Piano Concerto in D major is probably the most famous, and Britten also wrote a left-handed concerto, for his friend Harriet Cohen. Unfortunately, in both these cases, the player's sinistrality was merely honorary — Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his piece, on account of having his right hand blown off in the First World War, and Harriet Cohen while her dexter hand recovered from severe lacerations.
Arguably, where two hands are concerned, there is no other option anyway. (Instruments like the Fairlight or Synclavier could be re-scaled in reverse, but it's doubtful if any could — or would want to — play them.) But today, in an era of remote keyboards and over-the-shoulder models, most of which cannot be played with both hands anyway, the question is pertinent. And how many left-handed keyboard players have cursed the inevitable positioning of performance controls over on the wrong side?
The message from manufacturers in general seems to be "Tough!". Most that I contacted seemed completely unaware — or uninterested — in the problems involved, quoting the usual "no demand — uneconomic" arguments. A spokesman for Roland could remember being asked on occasion about left-handed modulation grips for their popular SH101 over-the-shoulder synth, and, to the company's credit, promised to take note of any further enquiries. (Hint, hint.) Roland also made a left-hand GR500 guitar synth for that man Paul McCartney and Elliot Easton of The Cars was glimpsed recently on the Live Aid marathon jigging about with a left-hand GR707, which can be made to order. So one way to get out front if you're an ivory-tickler might be to learn guitar! Aside from that, it looks like your hopes of prancing around the stage a lâ Nik Kershaw are likely to remain unfulfilled.
On the face of it, left-handed drummers face only an aesthetic problem — all the nice shiny badges on your drums will be facing the wrong way. In fact, a number of manufacturers, in a rare burst of sinistral awareness, have taken to putting badges on both sides of the drum — Pearl and Premier amongst them. Failing that, and if it's really bugging you that much. Supreme Drums of Walthamstow have a small stock of drum badges available at £1 each, which you can stick on yourself. (If Supreme can't help, try your local drum shop — if they do repairs, they're quite likely to have a few knocking about.) Another minor problem occasionally crops up on cheaper kits: some feature a cymbal boom alongside a single tom holder on the bassdrum — which will of course be in the wrong position when you mount the tom. A bit of judicious bending of the boom should soon set matters straight, though.
When it actually comes to gigging, being a left-handed drummer can be both a blessing and a curse: a curse, if you have to fool around with somebody else's kit — and a blessing, because it strengthens your argument for using your own, familiar kit on a crowded bill. (Though this will also have the usually undesirable side-effect of putting you on first, so they can get your cack-handed kit out of it as fast as possible!) Drumming is again one area where lefties can take the lead. As the result of growing up left-handed in a right-handed world, most of us are ambidextrous, to a greater or lesser extent, and thus immediately have an advantage independence-wise when it comes to the drums. Ask Ian Paice, Simon Philips, or Billy Cobham.
Ian Paice in particular has argued that the left-handed players' natural tendency to play the snare with the dominant hand, and the hi hat with the subordinate right, thus avoiding the 'cross-hand' style of most right-handed players, aids fluency and precision in playing. I, for one, am not going to argue.
One final thought, speaking as a leftie drummer. The Romany gypsies have a word for our orientation. It is bongo.
Andy's Guitar Workshop, (Contact Details).
Anything Left Handed, (Contact Details) Catalogue available. Send three second-class stamps.
Supreme Drums, (Contact Details).
The Bass Centre, (Contact Details).
Feature by Tony Reed
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