Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How I Became A Left Handed Guitar Player Playing Upside Down

I am a self taught left handed guitar player. I play a right handed guitar upside down. I don't play left handed guitar in the general term. I was born left handed but am somewhat ambidextrous. I write strictly left handed but can write right handed on a blackboard where my wrist is free to move and I don't have to pull the letters. I can form letters on paper with my right hand but cannot pull them to the right. I am used to pushing the pencil to the right.

When I was learning to write, I had a couple of teachers who tried to convince me to write right handed, but never went to any extreme to make me conform and they eventually gave up. I won.

Sports were different. I was and still am stronger in my right arm but more coordinated with my left. I throw a baseball with my left arm but hit a baseball right handed. I can't catch a baseball with my right hand like most left handed people do, so a left handed baseball glove never did me any good. I used a right handed baseball glove and after catching the ball, I threw the glove off and threw the ball with my left hand. Talk about being conflicted! No wonder I never joined Little League. I couldn't be left, right, or both. I was stuck in the middle.

I used to arm wrestle and was pretty good at it. I used my right arm because it was stronger. My opponents were an easy mark because they all knew that I was left handed and thought that they had an advantage. I would even ask them ahead of time if they wanted to arm wrestle left or right handed. They always chose right handed which was the wrong decision because I could always beat them.

My parents had six kids and put us all through some type of music lessons when we were old enough. They bought me a violin when I was nine years old. I don't think that they make left handed violins, at least the one that I got was right handed. I learned to play the violin right handed which was a little rough but I was able to bow with the right hand and finger with the left. I only took lessons for two years before I was forced to stop because my school grades were bad and my elementary school teacher had me dropped from the school sponsored lessons. This was in the 60's. I have a violin now that I fool around with and still play it right handed.

The first time that I was exposed to a real guitar was when my father brought home an old guitar that a friend had loaned him. It only had four or five strings on it and he intended for my older brother to learn how to play it. My brother wasn't interested, but I picked it up right away. I forgot everything that I had learned from the violin and started holding the guitar left handed. This is where I began learning how to play left handed with a right handed guitar. I knew nothing about tuning the guitar but began picking out melodies of popular songs on a single string. People would sit around and listen to me. They were impressed.

A couple of years went by and my parents bought me a cheap department store guitar with all six strings. Imagine that! Now I can learn chords. I still didn't know how to tune the guitar. I restrung the guitar so that I could play like a real left handed guitarist and got a music book with directions for how to tune the guitar. We had several music books around the house because the other kids were playing band instruments. Some of them had guitar chord diagrams but no guitar chords for left handed players. I taught myself how to chord to some melodies to songs that I already knew, so I knew how the melody should sound. I knew how to tune the strings together but not how to properly tune in key so I had a hard time playing along with other instruments. I eventually learned how to tune by ear, but that was years later.By the time I was twelve years old my parents bought me an electric guitar. It was another department store guitar but I didn't mind. The only problem was that they didn't get an amp to go with it. They didn't know that it needed an amp. I switched the strings around again so that I could play left handed guitar. I had a couple of friends who had guitar amps, so I would ride my bicycle to their house with my electric guitar in hand and use theirs. I loved the sound that the amps made but learned very little more than I already knew because I spent so much time playing with the effects and distortion on the amp.

I stopped playing the guitar and was learning clarinet in school. I later went on to alto sax. I played baritone sax for a short time. I didn't have a hard time learning these instruments because both hands are used equally to some extent.

I didn't play the guitar at all during high school but did play the alto sax in the high school band. In the mean time my younger brother was learning the guitar. A few years after high school my brother bought a Sigma acoustic guitar and a couple of vintage electric guitars. He let me play them but they were right handed guitars. We had several song books with chord diagrams and I taught myself how to make the chords upside down. It worked out great. I could play a right handed guitar without changing the strings around. After I knew that this was the way that I was going to play from now on I bought myself a right handed Takamine guitar and an electronic guitar tuner. I was actually playing real songs in the right key. I was playing a lot of Neil Young, Jimmy Buffett etc., easy three chord songs. I taught myself all of the major chords. I didn't really have any trouble with them being lefty upside down. In fact, they seemed easier than when the strings were switched. I learned a little harp, got a harp rack like Dylan and started playing troubadour at parties. I could sing, strum chords and blow the harp, but I wanted more.

I met a friend who I hadn't seen in a few years who learned that I was playing the guitar. He told me that he also played. He was into bluegrass music, something that I knew nothing about. He invited me over to his house to "pick" with him and that's when things began to change. He taught me guitar rhythm parts to a few fiddle tunes while he played lead. He called the lead part "flat picking". I wanted to learn how to flat pick. I started listening to Doc Watson, Clarence White, Norman Blake and any other flat picking record that I could find. I started going to bluegrass festivals and learning one on one from veteran guitar pickers. I brought a tape recorder and recorded people playing the lead guitar parts slow, then go home and learn it myself. I taught myself how to read guitar tabulator and bought several music books to learn more. Soon I was figuring out songs by ear without the books.

I'm not the only left handed upside down guitar player in the world. I've heard of many, some famous people who play in this manner. There may be hundreds or thousands. I don't know. I do know that I get quite a few responses from this blog from people who either play or want to learn how to play the left handed guitar on a right handed instrument. I began writing my own music six years ago and have a completed CD of original music which can be purchased by clicking the button on the side bar. If you have any questions or comments please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

9 comments:

  1. Nice Work:

    Where to you get your guitars from?

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  2. Hi Shaun, After my first Takamine, I traded it in for a new Martin D-28 at a local music store where I had credit. Some people need credit for a Martin.
    I had to sell it 10 years later and got a cheaper Sigma. I traded the Sigma in for a five year old Martin DM a few years ago and have been playing it ever since. Ben

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  3. Hi Ben,

    Nice blog, I am a lefty guitarist but could not adapt to playing a right handed guitar lol!

    I have just started a blog of my own and wondered if you would like to take a look at it for me plz?

    here is the link http://lefthandedguitarist.blogspot.com/ many thanks.

    Bronkim

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  4. Hi Bronkim, That's a good start. I agree that the Internet does the lefty a favor by providing an outlet, and some of the prices aren't that bad which shoots down the belief that left handed guitars are more expensive. You may also find lefty guitars at a local vintage guitar store. Depending on make and model, sometimes used is better.
    The name of my blog may be decieving because my forte' is actually the right handed guitar being played by a left handed person, but given the fact that I am left handed and playing in a left handed fashion I am a left handed guitar player. Now go out and build your blog up and write some more articles. Ben

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  5. Hi Ben,
    Occasionally I browse the net for upside down lefties and came across your site. Our childhoods are quite similar. I'm the youngest of six boys - and the only lefty, so I also have ambidextrous traits. Played trumpet and drums early on, but didn't pick up the guitar until I was 20. Like most beginners, I "borrowed" my friends guitar and naturally held it as a lefty. That was 35 years ago.
    I played bluegrass also, but didn't play much lead, and finally settled into jazz and swing. It just feels more comfortable for my "up stumming" technique. It's a little ugly to watch, but it gets the job done.
    Won't bore you any longer, just to let you know of another lefty comming from the bottom up. Thanks for the website.
    Kenny Weiland

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  6. Thanks for the comment Kenny. If you have a web site, E-mail me and maybe we can exchange links. Ben

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  7. Ben-Zion Van SickelApril 20, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    Ben: Awesome site. I am in my 50s and have played guitar, bass, and mandolin for decades, variously righty (futile), regular lefty, and upside down lefty. At this late stage in life, and because my kids play righty, I've pretty much settled on "upside down." The availability of instruments finally did it for me. Got tired of forever going into a guitar shop and seeing two lefties among the hundreds of guitars. So, I've accepted my fate. It's not pretty to look at - unless you're Otis Rush or Albert King or Elizabeth Cotten - but I'm happy that I can at least noodle on EVERYONE'S guitars. Best.

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  8. Thanks for the comment Ben-Zion. You can be left handed and still play a right handed guitar without compromising your style of playing. Ben

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  9. Hey Ben. I'm left handed and have been playing a right handed guitar up-side down ever since I started 18 years ago. I was a counselor at a summer camp when I was 19 and music was a big part of the program there. All the guys played guitar and I felt left out. The only problem was...NO LEFT HANDED GUITARS!! The camp director, a guitar traditionalist, had a fit when he saw me playing up-side down and even strung an old right handed guitar for a left hander. However, It just didn't feel right and I quickly abandoned it, and have never looked back! It's quite a conversation piece and it sure does perplex most "normal" players. I'm actully proud of the way I play and have never regreted it.

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Ben Willis demonstrating the "left handed upside down guitar method".


A chord

B Chord

C Chord

D Chord

E Chord

F Chord

G Chord

B Barre Chord

D Barre Chord

Contact Info

E-mail Ben Willis at
bwillismusic@gmail.com