The 'Uncommon Sound' of Left-Handed Guitarists From Jimi Hendrix to Dick Dale, southpaw strummers are celebrated in John Engel's two-volume book set, Uncommon Sound: The Left-Handed Guitar Players that Changed Music. Engel chats with Scott Simon about the legacy of left-handed players.
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The 'Uncommon Sound' of Left-Handed Guitarists

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The 'Uncommon Sound' of Left-Handed Guitarists

The 'Uncommon Sound' of Left-Handed Guitarists

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Coming up, remembering the dame who put the Bronx up and the battery down. But first, what do Dick Dale, Jimmy Cliff, Elizabeth Cotten and Baby Face have in common? Now, no, Mr. And Miss Smarty-Pants e-mailers, it's not that they just play guitar. They are all left-handed guitar players.

L: Mr. Engel, thanks very much for being with us.

JOHN ENGEL: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: And I hope you don't mind me remarking on the sheer size of the volumes, but...


SIMON: There, that's one on top of the other. These aren't coffee table, exactly. They're really cargo boat books.

ENGEL: Absolutely.


SIMON: First, educate us a bit. Left-handed guitar players fall into all kinds of different ways of addressing their desire to play the guitar, don't they? I mean some just flip it over. Some, in fact, learn how to play right-handed. Some do something different altogether.

ENGEL: But left-handed people have, since birth, the obligation to deal with a right-handed world, which in some ways makes them more adaptable and more flexible, and therefore more inventive.

SIMON: Mr. Engel, you've got a right-handed guitar with you there, right?

ENGEL: That's correct.

SIMON: Could you illustrate to us how somebody who's left-handed and wants to play left-handed would in a sense attack the guitar and revise it so that he or she could use it?

ENGEL: Well, the way a guitar sounds, if you use it from top to bottom, it will be like this.


ENGEL: Bass strings to treble strings. Now, if a left-hander takes the guitar of a right-handed person and flips it over, suddenly the guitar will sound like this, from top to bottom.


ENGEL: Now, that's what an upside down player has to deal with. The ergonomics of making chords becomes quite difficult, and so is fingerpicking. Fingerpicking is quite a challenge.

SIMON: Well, let's start counter-pointing and illustrating all this talk.

ENGEL: Sure.

SIMON: We mentioned Dick Dale in our introduction to you. And when you talk about innovators, let's play a little Dick Dale. This is the father of the surf guitar.


SIMON: I always wanted to sound like this on the radio. Dick Dale and the Deltones. Now, does that sound partially come out of the reconfiguring and innovation that left-handed players were sometimes forced to do?

ENGEL: Well, it's certain that the way he went about the instrument is indeed very typical of the fact that he's playing upside down. He's got the treble strings on the top of his guitar, and you can see that he's attacking the guitar from strings that are usually found at the top. For example, he plays very few chords. It's often, you know, licks and single-note melodies and so on that makes up the greatest part of his music.

SIMON: So Mr. Engel, could you listen to music like that and detect that's a lefty?

ENGEL: It's difficult to do. I mean, in certain cases you can tell. I mean, there are cases - I would say Dick Dale is not necessarily one of them. Albert King and Otis Rush would be closer to being more identifiable as upside down players, greatly because both of them - and especially Albert King - makes extremely strong vibratos and bends. Which means that he takes a string and bends it several tones. You know, when you have the brrraaang sort of effect. And this is something that's typical of his way of playing. And you can do that much easier when you're playing upside down than when you're playing in the conventional way.

SIMON: Let's listen, if we could.


SIMON: Perhaps the best known left-handed guitar player of all time--although, you know, Dick Dale and, I think, all the names we've rattled off have certainly been among them--I would say would probably have to be Jimi Hendrix. Now, what did he do? He strung his differently, didn't he?

ENGEL: Yes, exactly. Well, Jimi Hendrix strung his guitars left-handed. However most people who aren't really closely familiar with his work think that he plays upside down because he uses right-handed guitars for the most part. I mean he's most famously identified with the Fender Stratocaster. And he took the right-handed instrument, but he had those restrung left-handed.


ENGEL: When you hold, you know, a Stratocaster upside down then you're dealing with having the knobs, for example, under your forearm, but you have the bridge pickup will be angled the opposite way, which does have an influence on the tone. Another thing that influences the tone is the fact that the vibrato arm is going to be at the bass end as opposed to the treble end. And you know, Stevie Ray Vaughan, for example, who was a great guitarist and loved Jimi Hendrix, he installed a left-handed vibrato on his right-handed Stratocaster.


SIMON: I didn't know until picking up these volumes that the great Elizabeth Cotten was left-handed. First, let's hear her classic, "Freight Train."


ELIZABETH COTTEN: (Singing) Freight train, freight train runs so fast. Freight train, freight train runs so fast. Please don't tell what train I'm on. They won't know what route I'm gone.

SIMON: Now, the picking that Elizabeth Cotten does there is just such a signature and famous set of chords in American music. How did she do it? How did she string or play her instrument?

ENGEL: The peculiar thing about Elizabeth Cotten was that in fact she did play upside down. She hit the treble strings with the thumb and with her index and big finger she was doing the bass. So it's ironic. She influenced thousands of guitarists to pick up the guitar and play just like her, but of course they're playing with the proper stringing.

SIMON: I have perhaps completely ignored the best known left-handed guitar and banjo player, and that's Kermit the Frog.


ENGEL: Well done.

SIMON: Now, I'm going to try and take this seriously. All right, Mr. Engel?

ENGEL: All right.

SIMON: Okay. Now, when you hear Kermit's picking technique, do you think he's influenced by McCartney, by Jimi Hendrix, by Albert King?

ENGEL: There's no doubt. I think someone like Kermit must have the entire world of pop music in his massive brain.

SIMON: John Engel is the author of "Uncommon Sound: The Left-Handed Guitar Players That Changed Music," joining us from NPR West. And for more on leftie guitar players - by that we mean left-handed and not Noam Chomsky playing the guitar - you can come to our Web site, Mr. Engel, it's been a delight to talk to you. Thank you very much.

ENGEL: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.


JIM HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog, Singing) Who says that every wish would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star? Somebody thought of that and someone believed it. And look what it's done so far. What's so amazing that keeps us star gazing and what do we think we might see? Some day we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lover, the dreamer and me. All of us under its spell.

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