[Editors note: We'd like to thank Ken Cormier for taking the time to write such a wonderfully insightful article on what it's like to be a left handed guitarist. If you have a topic that you'd like to share with our readers please contact us for submission requirements.]
Living In the Right Side of the Brain
By: Ken Cormier
Being right on the inside and wrong on the outside is a lefty’s world. Lefties are primarily dominant by the right side of the brain controlling the left side of the body and statistically make up less than 10% of the population. Although lefties are considered more creative and we have seen such great musicians as: Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Tony Iommi, Billy Ray Cyrus and many more, they still make up a small percentage compared to their counterpart. Here is a more complete list of left-handed musicians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_musicians_who_play_left-handed
Comparatively speaking, there are not a lot of famous lefty musicians compared to right handed players but their contributions shaped the world of music and how we hear it today.
My first encounter being a minority occurred in 1976 when I started playing guitar. I was 9 years old. Left-handed guitars were rare (if not obsolete) but hardly ever seen in local music stores. Back then the internet was at best an idea and catalogs were the other option. Research came down to opening the phone book and calling music stores to only hear the same news over and over again. So, I did what every other lefty would do and bought a right-handed acoustic guitar and turned the strings around. The action was challenging because the higher strings buzzed due to laying across the nut where low E, A, D strings one resided. It became the norm for playing (high action on the low strings and buzzing on the high strings) this doesn’t include the fact that the instrument quality was far below and decent standard of an instrument along with the intonation being slightly off due to the bridge angled the wrong direction.
Jumping ahead to 1985, an amazing thing happened. Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine started publishing a new music notation called tablature. This was a fast way to interpret the guitar and cover things standard (piano) style sheet music couldn’t. This included: Slides, Whammy Dives (Eddie Van Halen was it in the early ‘80’s), Volume Swells, Hammer On, Pull Offs, Finger Tapping, Artificial Harmonics, bending strings behind the nut (such as the intro to Iron Man by Black Sabbath) and the list goes on. Wow, this was fantastic but again it had to be read upside down if you were a lefty. The notes weren’t as challenging for me but the chords would take a bit longer for the brain to reverse the fingers and get that on the fret board.
Moving ahead another 10 years to 1995, it was finally time for me to invest my years of playing into quality instruments. Most non-musicians & wives (sorry if I’m offending any female guitarists but you are more rare than a lefty ) don’t understand why just one guitar isn’t enough, so for those of you reading this and are trying to understand the reason for more than one instrument, let me explain.
When it comes to guitar, there 3 basic standard instruments: Classical, Acoustic and Electric but from there many instrumentalists will find interest in other sounds such as: 12 String Acoustic, Split the electric guitar into Dark and Light meaning a Gibson (dark) and a Strat. (Light) or some variance. Then there’s Pedal Steel, Mandolin and Banjo to list a few more. Each of these instruments are unique in their sound and take a completely different approach to playing.
Ok, back to what I was talking about. It was finally time for me to invest in quality instruments to match my playing ability which meant for a guitarist, there are lots of instruments to buy. I started out with a Guild F-47mce Acoustic which is an amazing instrument but started running into other issues. I started experimenting with strings from different thicknesses to brands and materials. This proved to be a long journey before settling down on something that felt right for that instrument.
Over the next 10 years I picked up an American Deluxe Stratocaster, Carvin CL 450 Classical Guitar, I customized my Kramer which seemed to be the only lefty guitar that appeared in every music store I walked into in the early ‘90’s; Then the holy grail, the Gibson Les Paul Custom. Every one of these instruments was ordered online and sometimes I had to wait up to 6-8 months for delivery. This could present a problem for professional musicians or your left handed band mate who decides to get overexcited and smash his instrument.
Out of my repertoire of guitars’ listed; there should be one that stands out from a lefty perspective more so than the others. It is the Carvin CL450 classical guitar. If you are looking for a quality left handed classical guitar with a cut away and electronics (this one has Fishman), then please let me know. I was unsuccessful in finding anything except from Carvin. I have gone as far as contacting Ovation and said I would pay for a custom made classical guitar, only to be turned away. I do remember Takamine having something but not a cutaway if I remember correctly. The Carvin is really amazing and I had my doubts on going that route because I didn’t know anyone who owned a Carvin. Of course they have a lot of famous sponsors which is hard to overlook but I can honestly say I was so impressed with the CL450, that when it came to buying a bass I had no issues going back to Carvin and getting the LB-70.
In summary, if you are a lefty guitarist, then you know what I’m talking about. For the other 90% of the world, I hope this brings a little more insight on the challenges a lefty has to overcome on learning the guitar and finding instruments. In my next article, I’ll cover effects and the challenges of setting them up in reverse order which is the correct way for a lefty. I can also briefly discuss Mandolins due to my recent purchase.
I found this article fascinating as I too am a lefty. Fortunately for me though, I tend to be fairly ambidextrous and learned to play the guitar right handed from a very young age. The pros to this is the much wider variety of guitars and other instruments available to me. The cons is that my right hand coordination sucks, making sweep picking, banjo rolls and general shredding much more difficult. The older I get, the more I realize that’s it’s all about the right hand! I remember reading a long time ago that Steve Morse would actually practice left handed as he felt it helped his overall playing, so I got a left handed guitar (a story for another day) and found that it wasn’t all that difficult to play “backwards.” It certainly didn’t help me as much as it helped Steve (a point made painfully obvious seeing him play at NAMM last weekend!), but it’s something I still do from time to time when I want to get my right hand working better. Thanks for the great article Ken, and let’s see if we can get some of you other lefty’s out there to post some pics of your favorite guitars. -Paul]