Left-Handed Blues

22 Apr

When it comes to the blues, that lonesome road takes a sharp left turn.

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In the animal kingdom, humans appear to be the only species with a significant predisposition for right-handedness. Even our closest biological relatives, the great apes, don’t exhibit motoric asymmetry unless they are raised in captivity. So how do we explain that approximately nine out of ten people are right-handed?

It’s actually a fascinating subject that begins with the question of why there is even such a thing as handedness? A popular theory is that the origins of handedness can be traced to when humans began to walk erect. This freed the hands for gesturing and was followed by facial gesturing and eventually speech. The theory makes the case that it is more efficient for speech to be processed in one hemisphere of the brain, and this specialization is basis for “handedness.”

So why is such a large majority right-handed? There are plausible theories, but no general agreement. If you’re interested in learning more, click on the links above.

Only one person in ten is left-handed, yet on Rolling Stones’ list of the 100 greatest guitarists, it’s telling that the 1st and 2nd place guitarists (Jimi Hendrix & Duane Allman) were left-handed. So here’s the question that has intrigued me for a while: Why are so many of my favorite blues guitarists left-handed?

I don’t want to overemphasize the impact of discrimination that left-handed people face, but they do live in a world set up for right-handed people. Our languages make it clear:

In many European languages, including English, the word for the direction “right” also means “correct” or “proper”. Throughout history, being left-handed was considered negative. The Latin word sinistra meant “left” as well as “unlucky” and this double meaning survives in European derivatives of Latin, and in the English word “sinister.’
There are many negative connotations associated with the phrase “left-handed”: clumsy, awkward, unlucky, insincere, sinister, malicious, and so on. A “left-handed compliment” is considered one that is unflattering or dismissive in meaning. In French, gauche means both “left” and “awkward” or “clumsy”, while droit(e) (cognate to English direct) means both “right” and “straight”, as well as “law” and the legal sense of “right”. The name “Dexter” derives from the Latin for “right”, as does the word “dexterity” meaning manual skill. As these are all very old words, they would tend to support theories indicating that the predominance of right-handedness is an extremely old phenomenon.
Black magic is sometimes referred to as the “left-hand path”. (Wikipedia)

The German language is no different, the word for awkward can actually be translated as “linkisch” from “links=left.”

If you’re right-handed, imagine being forced to write with your left hand, take notes, and take tests with your left hand (all the while competing against left-handed kids.) It isn’t too far fetched to imagine that lots of left-handed people, even if they aren’t forced to write with their right hand, experience more frustration than the 90 percent of people who are right-handed. It’s possible that this frustration could be the seed of a rebellious non-conformist personality – not a bad thing for a blues guitarist.

Beyond the disadvantages, I would imagine that left-handed people are generally far more adept at using their non-dominant hand. So perhaps left-handed guitarists have a natural advantage, even if they play right-handed (left-handed guitarist who played right-handed: Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Steve Cropper, Gary Moore.)  I’m sure about Allman and Bloomfield, the others (and many more) are taken from a list on lefthandedguitarists.

JIMI HENDRIX

According to Jimi Hendrix’s imdb bio his father considered left-handedness a sign of the devil and forced him to write with his right-hand. His bother also recounted that he played guitar right-handed when his father was around. He is reported to have retained the ability to play guitar right-handed, and also to play left-handed without restringing if he had to.

Jimi Hendrix

Buddy Guy and B.B. King talk about meeting Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix guitar lesson

Early Jimi Hendrix 1965 as “Jimi James”

Jimi with Cream

ALBERT KING

“I knew I was going to have to create my own style because I couldn’t make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound – more of a sustained note.”  Albert King

“And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer.”  Mike Bloomfield on Albert King

The blues is often raw, gritty, and unpretentious, with a straightforward foundation that’s easy to learn. Blues guitarists, at least the great ones, strive to emulate the human voice by bending strings or playing slide guitar. Because the vocal and emotive quality of the guitar is so fundamental to blues guitar, having a unique sound and voice is more important than formal technique and training. So even Albert King, a left-handed kid from the plantation who simply flipped a right-handed guitar and played it upside-down, managed to become one of the most popular and influential blues guitarists.

It’s been reported that Albert King was rather secretive about his tuning, tuning down even as low as C, which allowed extreme note bending. He created a truly distinctive sound, even though he didn’t play a lot of notes, his high energy sound and note bending would give the casual listener the impression that he was a shredder.

Albert King

Albert King guitar lesson

DUANE ALLMAN

Eric Clapton on working with Duane Allman:

I’d already heard Duane. I remember hearing “Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett where the guitarist  breaks loose at the end in a way very few people can. I’d called Ahmet Ertegun and asked who it was. He said it was a guy called “Skydog” Allman. And that’s all I knew about him. Then when we went to see them, they were fantastic. They all looked like vikings, and I sat on the grass in front of the stage, mesmerised. After the show, I asked Duane back to the studio to hear what we’d done. I took him straight away. He was tough and exciting and a real larger-than-life character. And I stole him to make the record. He took it from being an all-right record to being something completely extraordinary.” from the great site duaneallman.info

Jimmy Johnson staff guitarist for the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on Duane Allman:

“His playing was so fluid, and most of his solos were first takes or real early takes. He did have to go in occasionally and punch something, but you didn’t have to go long with Duane. Duane had it! It was there. With the exception of Pete Carr, who came out of the Duane Allman school, I never really knew anyone that had that magic like that…Duane’s slide playing was the best I’ve ever heard, and I think he brought in a whole new concept for bending strings. Some people go to different schools – there’s the puller, and then there’s the pusher. I think he pushed more, but he could pull, too. Watching him play was like seeing poetry in motion, especially the way he would shake a note. He had the smoothest way of bringing the pitch up and down. He would use his ring and middle finger, almost like they were perpendicular to the neck. His thumb would be going up and down, and his little finger would be extended. Sometimes he would do two strings at once that way, mainly pushing.”  Read more

Duane Allman — this clip demonstrates how he basically created a new instrument with his “horn-like” slide guitar.  Thanks to whoever uploaded this solo, it’s Duane Allman at his very best.

Duane Allman guitar lesson

MIKE BLOOMFIELD

“Michael Bernard Bloomfield was born July 28, 1943, in Chicago, Illinois. An indifferent student and self-described social outcast, Bloomfield immersed himself in the multi- cultural music world that existed in Chicago in the 1950s.

He got his first guitar at age 13. Initially attracted to the roots-rock sound of Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore, Bloomfield soon discovered the electrified big-city blues music indigenous to Chicago. At the age of 14 the exuberant guitar wunderkind began to visit the blues clubs on Chicago’s South Side with friend Roy Ruby in search of his new heroes: players such as Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Howling Wolf, and Magic Sam. Not content with viewing the scene from the audience, Bloomfield was known to leap onto the stage, asking if he could sit in as he simultaneously plugged in his guitar and began playing riffs.

Bloomfield was quickly accepted on the South Side, as much for his ability as for the audiences’ appreciation of the novelty of seeing a young white player in a part of town where few whites were seen.” Read the full bio here

Mike Bloomfield

“Well, I was left-handed and I couldn’t play well. I took lessons for about a year, a year or so. I learned rhythm. I learned dance band guitar, straight rhythm chops. When I was around fifteen I was a monster rock guitar player: I played Chuck Berry, and I played stuff like “I’ve Had It.” And I tried to play some Scotty Moore solos…Well, when I’m playing blues guitar real well — that’s when I’m not fooling around but I’m really into something — it’s a lot like B. B. King. But I don’t know, it’s my own thing when there are major notes and sweet runs. You know I like sweet blues. The English cats play very hard funky blues. Like Aretha sings is how they play guitar. I play sweet blues. I can’t explain it. I want to be singing. I want to be sweet.” Rolling Stone Interview with Mike Bloomfield

Johnny Winter

“He formed his first band, Johnny and the Jammers, in 1959 at the age of 15, with his 12-year-old brother Edgar on keyboards. Racial tensions in Beaumont were still high in those days. … Despite the brutal legacy, Johnny remembers never hesitating as a kid to venture into black neighborhoods to hear and play music. Looking back, he believes people in the black community knew that he was sincere, that he was genuinely possessed by the blues. “Nothing ever happened tome. I went to black clubs all the time, and nobody ever bothered me. I always felt welcome.”

He also became friends with Clarence Garlow, a deejay at the black radio station KJET in Beaumont. Who opened Winter’s eye’s and ears to rural blues and Cajun music. Clarence, who recorded for the swamp boogie specialty label Goldband, KRCO, Frolic, Diamond, Moon-Lite, Hall-Way and other regional labels.

There’s a famous story about a time in 1962 when Johnny and his brother went to see B.B. King at a Beaumont club called the Raven. The only whites in the crowd, they no doubt stood out. But Johnny already had his chops down and wanted to play with the revered B.B.”I was about 17,” Johnny remembers, “and B.B. didn’t want to let me on stage at first. He asked me for a union card, and I had one. Also, I kept sending people over to ask him to let me play. Finally, he decided that there enough people who wanted to hear me that, no matter if I was good or not, it would be worth it to let me on stage. He gave me his guitar and let me play. I got a standing ovation, and he took his guitar back!”  Read more @ johnnywinter.net

Johnny Winter

B.B. King and Johnny Winter (poor quality, but great video)

Johnny Winter guitar lesson

OTIS RUSH

“Breaking into the R&B Top Ten his very first time out in 1956 with the startlingly intense slow blues “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” southpaw guitarist Otis Rush subsequently established himself as one of the premier bluesmen on the Chicago circuit. He remains so today.

Rush is often credited with being one of the architects of the West side guitar style, along with Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. It’s a nebulous honor, since Otis Rush played clubs on Chicago’s South side just as frequently during the sound’s late-’50s incubation period. Nevertheless, his esteemed status as a prime Chicago innovator is eternally assured by the ringing, vibrato-enhanced guitar work that remains his stock-in-trade and a tortured, super-intense vocal delivery that can force the hairs on the back of your neck upwards in silent salute.

If talent alone were the formula for widespread success, Rush would currently be Chicago’s leading blues artist. But fate, luck, and the guitarist’s own idiosyncrasies have conspired to hold him back on several occasions when opportunity was virtually begging to be accepted.” Read the rest on AllMusic.com

Otis Rush

Otis Rush with Eric Clapton

STEVE CROPPER

“As a member of the stax records house band Booker T. and the MG’s, Steve Cropper, a white guy from Willow Springs, Missouri, was a prime inventor of black Southern-funk guitar — trebly, chicken-peck licks fired with stinging, dynamic efficiency. If Cropper had never played on another record after 1962′s “Green Onions,” his stabbing-dagger lines would have ensured him a place on this list. But he also played on — and often co-wrote and arranged — many of the biggest Stax hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Four decades after “Green Onions,” he continues to perform and record with his seminal, down-home touch.” Rolling Stone

Steve Cropper with Chuck Leavell

Steve Cropper with Bo Diddley

DOYLE BRAMHALL II

“Doyle Bramhall II was raised in a home filled with the blues and rock and roll sounds that are indigenous to his birthplace – Austin, Texas. His father, Doyle Bramhall Senior, was the drummer for blues legend Lightning Hopkins and a regular collaborator with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”  More

Doyle has gone on to become a successful solo artist and one of the most sought after sidemen and session player on the planet, watch the videos to learn more.

GARY MOORE

“Gary Moore was acknowledged as one of the finest musicians that the British Isles has ever produced. In a career that dated back to the 1960s, there are few musical genres that he had not turned his adroit musical hand to, and has graced the line-ups ever several notable rock bands, Thin Lizzy, Colosseum II and Skid Row to name but three.

Gary was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 4th 1952. Like many others, he was turned on to rock and roll first through hearing Elvis Presley, and then via The Beatles. Seeing the likes of Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in his hometown in the mid-60s opened up to him the rich world of The Blues. Hearing the art of the Blues guitar performed by such lauded exponents as Peter Green fired Moore’s nascent talent, and it wasn’t long before he was being hailed as a teen musical prodigy. Indeed, it was Green himself who helped foster Moore’s career, a debt that was repaid handsomely when Gary cut his warm and heartfelt tribute to his mentor, the ‘Blues For Greeny’ album, released in 1995.” More

Gary Moore with Albert King (you can close the ad @ the beginning)

JOHNNY JENKINS

Washington Post Obituary

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer

Johnny Jenkins, 67, a flashy left-handed blues guitarist who helped to propel the singing career of his former driver, Otis Redding, died June 26 … after a stroke.

Mr. Jenkins was a self-taught guitarist, a fixture on the Macon scene known for his Chuck Berry-like walks and behind-the-head guitar picking. He started out with a small blues band called the Pinetoppers that played the college circuit and first heard Redding at a talent show at a Macon theater.

“I heard Otis at the Douglass, and the group behind him just wasn’t making it,” Mr. Jenkins told pop music biographer Peter Guralnick. “So I went up to him and said, ‘Do you mind if I play behind you?’ Cause he didn’t know me. . . . Well, he sounded great with me playing behind him.”

Redding received a lot of airplay for the 1960 single “Shout Bamalama,” on which he was backed by the Pinetoppers. But he largely remained the band’s gofer, and when the Pinetoppers were asked in 1962 to record for Memphis’s Stax records, Redding drove the group to Tennessee.

The session was reportedly a disorganized disaster, with several musicians leaving early. Redding asked whether he could use the remaining time to sing. Among his selections was “These Arms of Mine,” a ballad on which Mr. Jenkins can be heard on guitar and Steve Cropper on piano.

“These Arms of Mine” became Redding’s breakthrough, selling 800,000 copies, and he alone won a recording contract. He went on to have hits with “Respect,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” before a fatal plane crash in 1967.

Mr. Jenkins had declined to join Redding’s band, citing a fear of flying, but there may have been other reasons for his refusal.

He told one interviewer, “People always want me to make him sound like a good guy, and, see, I know better. . . . [Redding] was a bully. He was hell to get along with.”

Back in Macon, Mr. Jenkins retained a loyal following and some noted admirers, including guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who had relatives in the area. The two performed together occasionally in the late 1960s.

Mr. Jenkins had an acclaimed solo album, “Ton-Ton Macoute!” (1970), which featured guitarist Duane Allman and other members of the Allman Brothers band. Among the songs singled out by critics was their rendition of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.”

But feeling cheated financially by many in the music business, Mr. Jenkins did not release another solo album until “Blessed Blues” (1996), made at the urging of Southern rock producer Phil Walden. On the recording, he worked with keyboardist Chuck Leavell and several sidemen from Muscle Shoals studios.

Critic Philip Martin wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Mr. Jenkins, “This reemergence shows him as a sturdy country bluesman with excellent taste and a remarkable electric touch.”

Johnny Edward Jenkins, the son of a day laborer, was born March 5, 1939, east of Macon in a rural area called Swift Creek. On the radio, he was drawn to hillbilly music and at age 9 built his own guitar from a cigar box and rubber bands.

He left school in seventh grade to take care of his ailing mother and by 16 had turned to music full time.

At one college event with the Pinetoppers, he met Walden, a white student at Macon’s Mercer University who was attracted to black rhythm-and-blues music. Besides working as Mr. Jenkins’s manager, Walden co-founded the legendary Southern rock label Capricorn Records, which produced “Ton-Ton Macoute!” and “Blessed Blues.”

Mr. Jenkins continued playing nightclubs in the Macon area and reemerged on record with “Blessed Blues,” followed by “Handle With Care” (2001) and “All in Good Time” (2005).

Personally my favorite song with Johnny Jenkins is a great cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Down Along the Cove” with Duane Allman’s great slide work.

PAUL BUTTERFIELD

“Paul Butterfield, a white singer and harmonica player who apprenticed with black bluesmen, helped spur the American blues revival of the ’60s. The teenage Butterfield ventured into Chicago’s South Side clubs, eventually working his way into onstage jams with Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Little Walter, Magic Sam, and other blues legends.

Butterfield played with University of Chicago classmate Elvin Bishop in bar bands named the Salt and Pepper Shakers and the South Side Olympic Blues Team. In 1963 he formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with two former members of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, later adding Bishop, Mark Naftalin, and lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield. The group built a strong local following, and its debut album was released in 1965. At that year’s Newport Folk Festival, after playing its own set, the Butterfield band backed Bob Dylan for his controversial premiere electric performance. East-West featured extended jams and showed the influences of jazz and Indian music. Bloomfield left to form Electric Flag; Bishop moved to lead guitar.” More @ Rolling Stone

Paul Butterfield was the most gifted harmonica player of his generation and played a huge role in the revival of the blues — he was also left-handed.  (The awesome guitarist in the clip is a very young Buzz Feiten.)

Paul Butterfield

BARBARA DENNERLEIN

A Hammond B3 specialist, she’s best know as a jazz musician, but most people who have seen her live know that she’s also a blues lover and kick-ass blues player.

The keyboard instruments are definately designed for right-handed players, indeed, other than Barbara Dennerlein, McCoy Tyner, Errol Garner, Issac Hayes, and Gregg Allman it’s hard to think of many other lefties.  On this particular clip she’s playing a rock venue and really puts the pedal down.  Learn more

Barbara Dennerlein

NOTE:  If anyone can confirm that Steve Cropper and Johnny Winter are left-handed that would be much appreciated.  There are also some Web postings that B.B. King is left-handed and plays right-handed (I seriously doubt this, watch the clip of him speaking about Jimi Hendrix, surely he would have mentioned his own left-handedness if that were true.)

Feel free to link to other clips of left-handed players in the comment section.

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6 Responses to “Left-Handed Blues”

  1. Salvatore Ponticelli May 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    She is great….

  2. boobie2shoes06Boobie Needham August 14, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Great Article & Video!…LUV’ IT!!!

  3. rick rosenfeld February 21, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    You fail to mention the most important point. Many of these blues guitarists, Allman, Moore, Winter, and Bloomfield, are left handed and play the guitar right handed, hence giving them a natural dexterity that a right handed player will never have.

    That’s why you like the way they sound.

    • alanbryson February 22, 2012 at 7:46 am #

      You make a good point, they would have an advantage with their neck hand in terms of dexterity. Perhaps right handed players should be taught to play using their right hand as the neck hand (a few do as a Google search will quickly show.)

      Although, when I see right handed players like Jimmy Herring or Allan Holdsworth, natural or not, they certainly don’t appear to be at a disadvantage with their neck hand.

      My point was this: “Beyond the disadvantages, I would imagine that left-handed people are generally far more adept at using their non-dominant hand. So perhaps left-handed guitarists have a natural advantage, even if they play right-handed.”

      i.e. Right handed: right hand 100% left hand 75%
      Left handed: right hand 85% left hand 100% just a wild guess ;-)

      Because they are living in a right-handed world, I suspect this also plays a role in their “blues” feel. I can only speak for myself, but it’s their expression of feeling that appeals to me, not their dexterity

  4. Bluejay February 12, 2014 at 10:43 am #

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