Since only about one out of ten people are left-handed, southpaw guitarists have always been a rarity in the music world. Yet despite the odds, many of the best guitar players in music history have played with their left hands, often learning on a right-handed model flipped upside down.
From Jimi Hendrix and Malina Moye to Kurt Cobain and Mdou Moctar, lefties have become innovators with their unorthodox way of playing, leading to remarkable revolutions that changed the world of music.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 17 of the most famous left-handed guitar players over the last 100 years. Let’s jump in.
1. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is one of the greatest and most innovative guitar players of all time, and he may have the unique way he used his hands to thank for that.
Although Hendrix mostly played a right-handed guitar upside down with his left hand, he also often used his right hand to write and would sometimes use both hands when playing the guitar.
Hendrix’s ambidextrous tendencies have led some to speculate that it’s what made his music so great. People who are ambidextrous use both sides of their brain, meaning they’re more capable of blending different ideas together and working within ambiguity.
2. Tony Iommi
The lead guitarist and co-founder of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, originally learned to play with a right-handed guitar held upside down.
Over the years, he searched for a left-handed model when he finally found, oddly enough, a right-handed man who was playing a left-handed guitar upside down.
The two met in a parking lot and exchanged guitars, and Iommi has preferred the feeling of left-handed guitars ever since.
Of course, left-handedness isn’t the only odd thing about Iommi’s guitar playing. He also lost the tips of his fingers on his right hand when working in a sheet metal factory.
He almost gave up the guitar until he met Django Reinhardt, who lost the use of two fingers in a campfire accident. Reinhardt convinced him to pick up the guitar again, and Iommi ended up playing with soft plastic tips attached to his fingers.
3. Dick Dale
Dick Dale became known as the king of the surf guitar with his heavy rapid-fire guitar playing, which he says was his attempt at emulating the sounds of the ocean that he surfed as a young man in southern California.
Dale, the guitarist for the Del-Tones, used a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that he flipped upside down and used extra thick strings to get his signature heavy sound.
Dale’s music became popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His music influenced artists as wide-ranging as Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, and Eddie Van Halen.
4. Malina Moye
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Malina Moye mixes R&B, blues, and hard rock to create her own style.
Moye came from a musical family. Her father is bassist George Moye, and both he and her mother have played with musicians such as Tina Turner.
When Moye was a little girl, her dad gave her a right-handed guitar even though she was naturally left-handed. She said she tried to play it right-handed, but it just didn’t feel right, so she flipped it upside down.
She’s played an upside-down right-handed Fender ever since with remarkable success. In 2021, Moye was featured in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Here and Now exhibit.
5. Paul McCartney
Although Paul McCartney is best known for playing the bass, he did start his career as a guitarist for the Quarrymen.
As a kid, his dad bought him a trumpet, since trumpets were really popular at the time, but once he decided he wanted to sing as well, he traded it for a guitar.
However, the Zenith he got was for a right-handed player, and McCartney was left-handed. So he started out playing with his right hand because he didn’t realize anyone played with their left.
Later on, he saw a picture of Slim Whitman with his guitar upside down and playing with his left-handed. So McCartney decided to try the guitar that way and switch the strings around.
He realized that he was a much better player when using his dominant hand and became one of the most famous left-handed musicians of all time.
6. Zacky Vengeance
Zachary James Baker, better known as Zacky Vengeance, is the rhythm guitarist for Avenged Sevenfold. Despite being left-handed, his first guitar was right-handed, which he learned to play upside down at the age of 13.
Baker now has his own line of left-handed Schecter guitars, which all have his signature 6661 under the bridge.
Zacky Vengeance was also one of the founding members of Avenged Sevenfold and came up with much of the band’s image, including the acronym that the band sometimes goes by: A7X.
7. Elizabeth Cotten
At only eight years old, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten learned to play her brother’s right-handed banjo while he was at work. She would do her fingering upside down.
After a few years, her brother moved away, so she got a babysitting and house cleaning job where her employer paid her 75 cents a month. After five months, she bought her first guitar for $3.75.
At just the age of 11, in 1904, Cotton wrote “Freight Train.” The folk song would go on to be recorded by the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
8. Kurt Cobain
The verdict is still out on whether Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s legendary frontman and lead guitarist, was completely left-handed. Although he called himself left-handed and usually played that way, he also wrote with his right hand and sometimes played with his right hand.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Cobain was at least partially ambidextrous, which may explain his fantastic creativity. Or his switching hands could have come from his lack of money when he was learning to play and the rarity of left-handed guitars at the time.
Whatever the reason, we all know Cobain was a legend on his guitar. Listen to Nirvana’s hit songs, like “Come as You Are,” “All Apologies,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and you’ll agree.
9. Albert King
Mississippi-native Albert King was the master and creator of his unique string-bending guitar style, influencing musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Like many left-handed guitarists, King learned to play on a right-handed guitar flipped upside down. He also tuned his guitar down one and a half steps and primarily used the top three strings.
His innovative style is almost impossible to play on a standard right-handed guitar in proper tune, leading many other blues guitar players who wanted to copy his style to improvise, which created even more transformations in the way people play guitar.
10. Barbara Lynn
R&B guitarist and singer-songwriter Barbara Lynn toured alongside other greats, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, and B.B. King in the ’60s.
She began her career performing in local clubs throughout her home state of Texas before she got signed to Jamie Record in the early 1960s.
Many people considered her extraordinary during her heyday since she was a female African American who wrote her own songs and played the lead instrument—in this case, left-handed on the guitar.
She took a break from music during the 1970s and early 1980s but made a comeback in 1984. She continues to perform at clubs in Los Angeles, sometimes alongside her son.
11. Mdou Moctar
Mdou Moctar (Mahamadou Souleymane) grew up in a small village in Niger where many people did not like secular music. Despite this, he built his first guitar himself out of four bicycle brake cables and a two-by-four. Once he got older, he finally got a real guitar, which he learned to play quickly.
The Tuareg-style singer-songwriter who mixes traditional West African music with synthesizers, drum machines, and the acoustic guitar first made a name for himself when his music appeared on an album called Music from Saharan Cellphones, Vol. 1, which became popular worldwide.
12. Elliot Easton
New Yorker Elliot Easton was the lead guitarist for the Cars for decades and has sold tens of millions of records worldwide.
Easton said that he got his first guitar at the age of three. As a small child in the late ’50s, he came to love the guitar from watching cowboys, Elvis Presley, and the Mickey Mouse Club show, where the lead Mousketeer played the instrument.
He began learning the guitar more seriously by the age of eight and played on a right-handed guitar that he flipped upside down. As a teenager, he saved up money to get his first left-handed guitar, a custom-ordered Fender Telecaster.
13. Otis Rush
Blues singer and musician Otis Rush’s love of music came from listening to records on his mother’s wind-up Victrola record player and blues albums on jukeboxes in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
He picked up the harmonica and sang in the choir as a child before borrowing his right-handed brother’s guitar to learn how to play.
Rush self-taught guitar playing, which he did with the instrument upside down, gave him his signature style that would end up dazzling audiences in Chicago in the 1950s.
14. Jimmy Cliff
Credited for popularizing reggae with the cover “I Could See Clearly Now” for the film Cool Runnings, next on our list is the Jamaican singer and guitarist Jimmy Cliff.
Unlike the other guitarist on our list who played on left-handed guitars, Cliff instead preferred to play on a standard guitar, but upside down, mostly because that’s how he taught himself to play when he was younger.
Aside from the song mentioned earlier, Cliff is known for many other hit songs, like “Many Rivers to Cross,” “The Harder They Come,” and “Hakuna Matata” of the Disney animated movie The Lion King.
His contribution to music has given the singer one of the high honors of Jamaica, the Order of Merit. In 2010, Cliff was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
15. Slim Whitman
Even though right-handed, country music singer-songwriter and musician Slim Whitman played the guitar on the left. After losing a finger on his right hand to a work accident, it was the only choice for him other than stop playing.
Thankfully, Whitman did not quit and instead went on to become one of the greatest guitarists to ever live. He even influenced another great lefty guitarist, Paul McCartney. The latter artist was unsure how to play a standard guitar until he saw a photo of Whitman playing left-handed.
Also a notable singer, many of Whitman’s hit songs have been featured in film, like “Indian Love Call” in Mars Attacks! and “I Remember You” in House of 1000 Corpses.
16. Tim Armstrong
Punk rock icon Tim Armstrong is best known as the singer and guitarist for the band Rancid. Before this, he was also a member of several well-known music groups, like Operation Ivy and Transplants.
With Rancid, Armstrong has dropped several charting albums, including the classic certified-Platinum …And Out Come the Wolves in 1995. The album produced the hits “Time Bomb,” “Roots Radicals,” and “Ruby Soho.”
Two signature guitar models have been released in honor of this great left-handed guitarist. One is the Gretsch Tim Armstrong Electromatic guitar, which is based on the guitarist’s 1971 Gretsch guitar he flipped upside down to play.
The other model is the Fender Hellcat, named after Armstrong’s record label company. This one is an acoustic guitar modeled after his favorite 1960s Fender guitar.
17. Paul Gray
Nicknamed the Pig, we have last for our last entry Paul Dedrick Gray, one of the founding members of heavy metal band Slipknot. He is the second musician on this list known to play the bass guitar left-handed.
Prior to Slipknot, Gray had played in a number of bands, like Vex, Body Pit, and Inveigh Catharsis. In 1995, he formed Slipknot together with Shawn Crahan and Joey Jordison. They were known for their aggressive music and energetic shows. They also always wore masks during performances.
The group was able to release three top-five studio albums and the hit song “Psychosocial” before Gray’s death in 2010 due to overdose. Gray was only 38 years old.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Left-Handed Guitarists
Left-handed guitarists have had their share of struggles trying to make it in a right-hand dominated world, yet for many of them, learning to play the guitar upside down made them better musicians.
Their innovations changed the entire popular music scene for decades after them, leading to new playing techniques and even guitar models that many enjoy to this day.