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To Be a Southpaw

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Me, playing a left-handed fender jaguar on stage at TEDxWarsaw
My Kurt Cobain signature Fender Jaguar – well, it had to be a lefty, didn’t it?

It starts early, at school. Back in the dark days of the mid-eighties, when teachers were less – let’s say – enlightened as they may be today. Those were the days of jumpers for goalposts, chalk on blackboards, and ‘right to write’. Being Left-handed, even then, was a source of considerable trouble.

Left-handed – sinistral, southpaw, cack-handed, dolly-pawed, mańkut, corrie-fisted – a ‘sinister’ affliction that affects approximately 11% of the world’s population, and one that is often attributed as correlating with higher creativity or intelligence, though I’m possibly not an efficacious example of this.

True, we left-handed folk feel that we are special – and, let’s be honest here, we are. It was only after picking the guitar as my musical instrument of choice, however, that I realised rather than a blessing, it may have been a curse.

Though those days are, largely, behind me, here are a few reasons why being a left-handed guitarist can be, well, troublesome.

Enough Wonderwall, how about some Velvets

Ever been to a party in some flat in some student centre of some city? There’s an acoustic guitar. There’s always an acoustic guitar. The front room you’ve invaded is being involuntarily serenaded with the 7th rendition of an Oasis dirge and you think, right, enough is enough… time for some Velvet Underground. A crack of the knuckles, and you’re on your way except… well, of course, the guitar is right handed. The guitar is always right handed. The guitar is never left-handed. Sure, you can have a crack at an upside-down play-through of Nirvana’s About a Girl, but no-one’s leaving the party tonight hailing you as the next great guitar hero. Foiled.

Is the customer always right?

A new music store is opening on the high street. Signage has been up for weeks. Billboards proclaim an opening-day sale. There’s a buzz among the kids in town – patiently, if excitedly, waiting for the grand opening to get their hands on a new Fender Tele, or a Gibson 335, and start unerringly riffing ad nauseam Seven Nation Army. The day arrives. The doors are thrown open. It’s beautiful. Guitars of all shapes, sizes, and colours are hanging from the walls, or nestling on stands. There’s something missing, of course. Not a lefty among them. Sure, you can have a crack at an upside-down version of Nirvana’s About a Girl, but no-one’s leaving the shop today hailing you as the next great guitar hero. Foiled again.

“Availability: Discontinued”

With no opportunity to try before you buy, you’ve decided to take the leap and find a guitar online. There’s no shortage of great places to search through – Thomann, Guitar Guitar, Reverb, and many others. You want a Rickenbacker 360. No wait, a Player series Fender Jaguar. No no no, a Gretsch Country Gent. All popular guitars, it shouldn’t be difficult to find one at a decent price, right? Ah, but lefties, even popular lefties, are often short-run productions. The only way you’re getting your hands on that Gretsch is by waiting weeks, months, years, until a lefty appears on the market.

Cost of doing business

In the meantime, you’ve decided to opt for a classic; a Mexican-built Fender Telecaster – a lefty. At least they’re out there. Ever present. Ever dependable. You hit up your local price-comparison website. You do a search. And do it again. And again. It must be a bug. Surely. Yesterday, you noticed a righty for a fraction of the price. The guitars can’t possibly be this expensive! Ah, but they can. And when that lefty Gretsch finally rears its head in amongst the bargains and right-handed gems to be found on Reverb, you can be sure you’ll pay a premium for that too. It’s going to be painful in the wallet.

Heading in the same direction

Your prize Tele arrives by courier and the excitement is palpable. You open up the box, ceremoniously unclasp and open the hard-case. You take the guitar in your hands like a newborn baby. Success. It sounds lovely through your practice amplifier. Your righty songwriting partner comes over to hang out and play together and he discovers a rare advantage in your left-handedness. Just as McCartney and Lennon discovered back in Forthlin Road in Liverpool, there’s some benefit to sitting opposite your partner, your guitars mirroring one another. All the better for picking out those riffs together in harmony.

Mind your head!

Alas, that good cheer doesn’t last past your very first live performance. Tonight, you’ve left the womb-like comfort of your rehearsal room to perform to 10 people at the Nobody Inn. It’s only after load-in and set-up that you realise you and your righty partner may have chosen poorly. You are positioned stage-left with your lovely new Tele pointing to the centre of the stage. Righty? We’ll he’s stage-right with his Gibson Les Paul pointing right back at you. Except the stage is the size of a table-tennis table. Drums, amps, musicians, microphones, monitors, all scrunched up together; and you and Righty are going to be smashing headstocks all night long.

I often wonder if that tyrant of a primary school teacher, demanding that I focus on writing in my exercise books with my right hand, knew something I didn’t. I suspect she probably did.


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