It was the 15th July during the long, hot summer of 1976, the day before my 16th birthday, that my father took me into a music shop in the Newport town centre to buy me my first guitar. It was 41 years ago almost to the day as I write this. The guitar was a bottom-of-the-range classical guitar costing (I think) £15. Being left-handed, the staff at the shop had re-strung it for me in preparation, with the strings the other way round. I had been advised by a musician that if I naturally mime guitar-playing the left-handed way, I should learn to play guitar left-handed. “It’ll be much easier,” he told me. This was the beginning of an irreversible curse.
Classical guitars can generally be reversed effectively with no detrimental effect, but once you move on to other styles of guitar, it becomes tricky to the extent that you may as well buy specially made left-handed models. This is where the problem begins. I’m not bothered by the fact that left-handed guitars are about 10-15% more expensive than their right-handed counterparts. I can live with that. The first problem is that when you walk into a guitar shop, more than 90% of the guitars are right-handed. If you’re a lefty, you can’t just walk in and try out any guitar. The left-handed selection is very limited, wherever you go.
So, why is it necessary for a lefty to learn on a left-handed guitar? After all, you don’t get left-handed pianos, yet lefties are just as capable of playing a piano as right-handers. For those who naturally pick up and hold a guitar back to front, the initial obstacles of learning to play the instrument are further hindered by the fact that you can’t hold it as comfortably the right way round. So it’s an easy way to start. But once you have learned this way and your left-handed technique becomes consolidated, there is no real way back to learn right-handed. In theory, yes there is – but in reality, the prospect of starting all over again is usually a step too far. You will always be afflicted with the left-handed curse every time you enter a guitar shop. Certainly, after 41 years of playing and at the age of very nearly 57, there is no way back for me. The mountain I’d have to climb to re-learn right-handed would be just be too big.
Its not that I’m not in good company. Jimi Hendrix, Sir Paul McCartney and Justin Bieber have all had huge success while playing guitar left-handed. There are always exceptions, but I doubt very much that it helped them especially. They would surely have all encountered similar problems at some point.
If, during the initial days of learning guitar, I’d persevered with the less comfortable right-handed position, I’d have overcome this hurdle in a very short space of time – maybe a week or two, or at most a month. I could then have continued learning at the same rate and become a natural right-handed guitarist with the pick of the whole range of guitars.
Another problem left-handed guitarists have is that if you are at a friend’s house who has a guitar, you cannot just pick it up and have an impromptu play and entertain people if you’re good enough – unless, of course, your friend plays left-handed.
So who was the bigger idiot? The musician who advised me to learn to play left-handed, or me, and the age of sixteen, for taking his advice? To be honest, I don’t really care about the answer. It is what it is. It is now irrelevant. I have still had many thousands of hours of pleasure from playing guitar, made a few quid and entertained many people (even my wife, Sarah, complains when I don’t play it often enough) along the way. I have composed many pieces of music – one of which was the music to which she walked down the aisle six years ago when we married.
However, I have one piece of advice to any left-hander who is about to embark on the amazing journey of learning to play guitar:
DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES LEARN TO PLAY LEFT-HANDED. Persevere with the right-handed way or you will find yourself handicapped in the long run, just like me.
Here are some of my offerings (played, of course, left-handed). Apart from You’ve Got a Friend In Me, they are all my own original compositions. There are stories behind each of these recordings. Some relate to our amazing story of survival after I suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2009, followed by Sarah’s successful battle against breast cancer four years later. Our illnesses prompted us to become American road trippers and 1950s-style dancers.
Why not check out my book I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…) which tells our story? Details can be found on my website www.markdpritchard.com