Top 10 Left Handed Rock Stars
There’s nothing sinister about it: we’re honoring the greatest southpaws in classic rock with a list of the Top 10 Left Handed Rock Stars. In ancient Latin “left” actually meant “sinister,” and folklore in many cultures suggested that left handed people had the mark of Satan. Perhaps that’s why so many of these supposed ne’er-do-wells gravitated to the devil’s music (well, it at least explains Tony Iommi). Interesting fact: although 10 to 15 percent of the world’s population is said to be left-handed, a greater proportion are often found among musicians. But before we take a left turn and end up out in left field, let’s start handing out some left-handed compliments.
The Beach Boys skinsman favored his left hand when playing (though he kicked the bass drum with his right foot), which made him one of the few early proponents of open-handed drumming. A typical right-hander would hit the hi-hat with his right hand and the snare drum with his left and end up crossing his arms while keeping the beat. But lefties like Dennis switched hands, leaving their arms in an open position (hence the name). Some righties will occasionally switch to the open-handed method, but most dislike it because it limits their ability to hit crash cymbals.
While some left-handers were able to learn to play guitar right-handed, that wasn’t the case for young Elliot Easton – who grew up to co-found the Cars. Easton first tried to learn on a cheap plastic guitar, but realized he would have an easier time if he got someone to flip around the instrument’s nut and strings. As he got better, he scrounged and saved for the much more rare left-handed Telecasters and Les Pauls. By the time the Cars had scored their first hit album, it was just a little bit easier for Elliot to get his left hand on just what he needed. “Companies usually only offer their two or three most popular guitars in left-handed models and that’s it,” Easton told Guitar Aficionado in 2012. “But now I had a little bit of clout, because I was in a band that was selling records…” In the days since, Easton has continued to collect new and vintage left-handed axes.
For decades, Deep Purple has served as a revolving door – with the notable exception of Ian Paice, who has manned the drums for every single incarnation of the hard rock titans. Through it all, Paice has sat behind a left-handed drum kit. That means it’s the reverse of the typical set-up, with Ian’s snare and hi-hat on the right and the kick placed near his left foot. “I never even thought about it until I went to set up my first decent drum kit and saw that it was built for a right-handed player,” Paice recalled years later. “The tom mounting was in the wrong place. When you watch yourself in the mirror, you look right-handed, so you think you look just like everybody else.”
Although this member of the Top 10 Left Handed Rock Stars club writes with his left hand, when it comes to guitar, it’s the same old song and dance. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry learned to play righty, which is why many fans have never realized that he’s left-handed. He’s in good company. Other left-handed guitarists who forced themselves to play right-handed include Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, Glenn Frey, David Byrne and Paul Simon. Yet, sharp-eyed Aerosmith fanatics may have noticed something a little wonky about some of Perry’s Stratocasters, left-handed models that he restrung and held backwards (in something we’ll call the “reverse Jimi Hendrix”). Perry still breaks out this oddity when his band performs ‘Sweet Emotion.’
As with Ian Paice, the Genesis drummer and solo star placed his kit backward so that the snare and kick drum would be where they felt natural to him. However, Phil Collins worked his left hand and arm so hard that he suffered neurological damage to that limb a few years ago and underwent surgery. For a while, he said he’d never drum again, but recently there’s been talk of Collins coming out of retirement for a solo tour and/or a full-blown Genesis reunion.
The punk progenitor is rarely glimpsed holding an instrument (or wearing a shirt, for that matter), but when Iggy Pop plays guitar, he plays it left-handed. When fronting the Stooges, the real wild child’s left-handedness isn’t something you would notice. Yet, if you’ve ever witnessed footage of the infamous “peanut butter incident,” you might notice that Iggy is smearing the stuff on his chest with, you guessed it, his left hand.
Most people know about Paul McCartney (see below), but there are actually two left-handed Beatles. Ringo Starr was born left-handed but was forced by his grandmother to write with his other hand. So by the time he became a musician, he was comfortable with a right-handed drum kit, but had more control over his left hand than most other drummers. As such, he would play fills on songs like ‘Rain’ and ‘Day Tripper’ “backward.” This means he would lead with his left hand and move right-to-left across the toms instead of the usual way of going left-to-right. The unique method was just one more special aspect that made the Beatles different, and confounded righty drummers when they first tried to replicate Ringo’s patterns.
You couldn’t do a list of the Top 10 Left Handed Rock Stars without the Black Sabbath riff-meister, whose left-handed playing sounded as sinister as the old wives believed it would. Of course, dealing with the stigma of being a left-handed guitarist was nothing compared to overcoming a serious injury Iommi suffered at a sheet metal factory, resulting in the loss of part of the fingers on his right hand (the ones he used to form notes on the neck of his guitar, as a lefty). The Gibson SG-wielding metal legend worked around the disability to create a snarling, sludgy roar that has been inspiring guitarists ever since.
The story goes that when Paul was first handed a guitar (a right-handed model, naturally), he couldn’t manage to make much noise with it. But, once he flipped it around, Macca noticed his aptitude was getting better. Although McCartney can write with his right hand and drums like a righty, he has almost always played bass, guitar, mandolin and any other stringed instrument he comes across like a lefty. McCartney has a nice collection of rare left-handed guitars, including an exceptional 1960 sunburst Les Paul, one of only a few lefty models made that year. The guys at the factory didn’t even reverse the “Les Paul Model” logo on the headstock, so it’s upside down when Paul plays it.
There’s not a more famous left-handed rock star than Jimi. Hendrix wrote with his right hand, but when it came to playing guitar, he found that he was more naturally inclined to play it backward. His father, Al, would have none of this (again that whole “sinister,” “devil” thing), so Jimi secretly restrung his right-handed axe so that the strings went the other way. He would play it lefty when his dad wasn’t there and righty when he was. It turns out that once you learn to play a guitar either way, strumming it behind your head or plucking it with your teeth isn’t too difficult.