Happy left handers day! Now, be warned: I am not a lefty myself. But, I have two notable and incredibly important contributions to the rare breed of lefties. One, my brother is left-handed, so I have first-hand (ba-dum-tss) experiences with the lefty scissors and such. Two, I bat left-handed when playing baseball, which I was taught to do as a kid due to my stout physique and lack of speed on the base paths.
I’m hoping this list will be my third, and most significant, to the greater oeuvre of left-handed related art. Are silly listicles really art? That’s not what’s important right now. What’s important is for us to chronicle some of the best, most talented, and influential left-handed musicians in all of music history, from the salad days of rock and roll all the way up to now.
So get ready to restring that righty guitar because we’re diving into the ten best left-handed musicians of all time.
10 greatest left-handed musicians:
Perhaps the most famous lefty in all of pop music, and perhaps of contemporary culture as a whole, Paul McCartney’s technical ability on multiple instruments, plus his unmatchable status as a songwriting genius, is unquestioned and legendary.
Being a lefty has actually had a noticeable impact on McCartney’s musical career. His nimble bass runs while playing the piano, best heard on tracks like ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘Martha My Dear’, are aided by his strong hand being south of middle C. Just as well, he chose the Hofner due to its symmetrical look while being “upside-down”, giving him a signature bass tone in the first half of the band’s career and an iconic instrument to boot.
McCartney wasn’t the only lefty in The Beatles. Despite playing on a right-handed drum kit, Ringo adapted to be able to play some of the greatest drum parts in all of rock and roll on a standard set-up.
Just like McCartney, Starr’s left-handedness actually aided in his unique style as a musician. Due to leading with his left hand around the drum kit, Starr’s quirky fills on tracks like ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, ‘The End’, ‘Rain’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ are actually incredibly difficult to replicate accurately. Anyone who clowns on Mr. Starkey’s ability behind a drum kit is full of nonsense: the man is a legendary drummer, not just a lucky guy.
The guitar hero to end all guitar heroes. There’s not much to say about Hendrix that hasn’t been explained and overexplained before. Just look at the songs and solos: ‘Machine Gun’, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Fire’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Red House’, ‘Crosstown Traffic’. The man was a marvel and continues to be perhaps the most influential lead player of all time.
Hendrix famously favoured the Fender Stratocaster as his guitar of choice, but he somewhat strangely played right-handed guitars upside-down and restrung. This allowed his bass notes to have a greater resonance and his high notes to take on a darker quality due to the pickup placement. But really, it was all in his fingers and personality, and it’s why he’s so unmistakable fifty years after his passing.
The sounds of the darkest depths of hell were conjured thanks to a Gibson SG and a metal cutting accident. You know the story: how it was supposed to be Iommi’s day off, how he became depressed and was revived by seeing Django Reinhardt play, how the plastic tips meant he had to press down harder on the strings.
Iommi took it all in style by turning his lousy luck around and creating some of the greatest riffs of all time. ‘Iron Man’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘War Pigs’, ‘Children of the Grace’, and on and on and on. Truly the man who made heavy metal what it is today, Iommi is a major inspiration for lefties looking to pick up a guitar.
Nobody could translate the blues of Albert King, the top tier Velvet Bulldozer from Mississippi, because of the way he played. Taking a right-handed guitar and flipping it over without restringing, the bends that King produced on tunes like ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ and ‘You Threw Your Love on Me Too Strong’ were pulled down with almost inhuman power.
King was also a pioneer in the use of open tunings, reaching low notes that puzzled his fellow guitarists. It all added up to a singular and uncopyable sound, which, when added with his smooth voice and pure distilling of heartbreaking emotion, put King in a realm all his own.
The thunderous rhythm beast that made Deep Purple one of the loudest and heaviest bands of all time, plus the band’s only constant member, Ian Paice is the heart and soul of the band behind ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Space Truckin’.
The power that Paice collects with his bass drum and lightning-fast rolls would be worthy of praise on their own, but it’s his ability to play at both frantic tempos and more languid grooves that truly sets Paice apart from any challengers to his drum throne.
Surrounded by power-pop that leaned heavily on keyboards, Elliot Easton nevertheless carved out a unique niche within The Cars sonic palate. By integrating influences from country and rockabilly, Easton was able to cut incredibly memorable solos featuring wild bends and note pairings, and place them tastefully within The Cars’ three-minute blasts of energy.
Criminally underrated, Easton’s solos in ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’, ‘Just What I Needed’, ‘Shake It Up’, and ‘It’s All I Can’ were always the secret ingredient to The Cars’ powerful drive, and without him, they would be just another synth-heavy new wave band.
Say what you will about the man’s singing, or songwriting, or entire career after the year 1981. Say what you will about his part in driving Genesis away from the audacious prog-rock epics and into the middle ground of pop. Have your opinions on those, but keep them to yourselves, because Phil Collins is an insane drummer.
His ability to hold together epic Peter Gabriel-era song cycles like ‘Supper’s Ready’ and the entirety of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway while still producing flashy fills and thunderous solos is unmatched. Prog rock, after all, required extreme technical proficiency, and Collins had the chops to hang with the best.
Nobody really reinvents the guitar. It’s too popular, too thoroughly experimented on, and too well-trod to bring anything new to the table. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, however, proves that notion wrong. Furthermore, he reiterates the idea that groundbreaking guitar gods are still coming out well after their peak in the late ’60s.
Utilising extreme amounts of dissonance and distortion in his works with At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, Rodriguez-Lopez pairs the manic wildman energy of punk rock with the technical flash of progressive rock and jazz. Nobody can play with Rodriguez-Lopez plays, which means he’s fully reinvented the guitar. Go figure.
Barnett’s skills as a guitarist are extremely underrated. The thorny fuzz of songs like ‘Pedestrian at Best’, the folky resonance of tunes like ‘Sunday Roast’, and her collaborations with Kurt Vile are all evidence of a highly versatile artist with a broad palate and insatiable desire for change.
Barnett can conjure tornadoes of notes or play heartbreaking emotions with just a few notes. Whether it’s by producing fireworks or purposefully bringing the sound back to her punk rock ethos, Barnett pairs her wide-ranging guitar abilities with the songwriting talent of an erudite mind.
Honourable Mention: Kurt Cobain
Was Kurt Cobain a great guitar player? No, I would argue he wasn’t. He was a serviceable guitar player who had a completely unique style and approach to the six-string instrument. He could create memorable riffs and solos for days, but when it came to technical ability, Cobain wasn’t going to blow anybody out of the water.
Cobain’s real gift was in his ear for melody and his ability to create memorable chord changes that completely flaunted the traditional rules of music composition while still being incredibly catchy. ‘About a Girl’, ‘Lithium’, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Rape Me’ all have sections or foundations that are antithetical to traditional pop songwriting, and yet all can be hummed or sung from memory by anyone who’s heard those songs a single time. It’s a remarkable talent, one that transcended his rudimentary guitar skills.
Double Honourable Mention: John Flansburgh
Allow me to indulge my extreme and devoted fandom to They Might Be Giants for a minute. The greatest alt-rock band of the ’80s and ’90s (R.E.M.? Never heard of them. Pearl Jam? Hacks. The Replacements? Degenerates. Nirvana? Chumps.) was a duo of nerdy, book smart music nerds who were able to craft indelible indie-pop tunes a full three decades before that term came into widespread usage.
Flansburgh’s guitar ability is top-notch, and check the solos for ‘Twisting’, ‘Doctor Worm’, and ‘Sleeping in the Flowers’ if you don’t believe me. His arranging and songwriting abilities were also impressive, whether it was on long-form pieces like ‘Fingertips’ and the back half of Nanobots or punchy power-pop songs like ‘We Live In a Dump’ or ‘Boss of Me’. Flansburgh is truly an unsung hero of the lefty community.