News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Someone recently asked me what was one of the more difficult vintage guitar requests that I had received. I had also been asked to write about the dilemma faced by left-handed guitarists trying to find guitars to play, being as how there are not that many left-handed guitars produced. I thought I might tie these two things together and tell about one of the requests I once received for a vintage left-handed guitar. So, Sherman, set the wayback machine to the year 1975.

I believe it was in the summertime when I received a phone call from Nashville, TN. It was from someone (I don't remember exactly who it was) who was working with Paul McCartney. (Yes, that Paul, the Beatle, one of the most famous people of our time.) Anyway, McCartney and his band were in Nashville to do some recording. I believe this was the session that produced the Top 40 hits, "Sally G," and "Silly Love Songs."

Paul McCartney was looking to buy an original Gibson Les Paul, specifically, one of the late '50s cherry sunburst models, the ones that were so famous and popular. They had gotten in touch with me because they had tried Gruhn Guitars there in Nashville, and since Gruhn's did not have one, they referred McCartney to me at Guitar Emporium here in Louisville.

In order to give you a better understanding of all this, let me take a moment to clarify. The late '50s sunburst Les Paul is one of the most sought after - if not the most sought after - vintage electric guitars. There were approximately 1200 produced between 1958 and 1960, a fairly scarce guitar by today's standards. Not that you couldn't get one in 1975 if you wanted one. At that time, the going price was around $2000-$3000. Not cheap, but they could be had, and you did not have to be rich to acquire one.

Let's take into consideration the particular customer putting in the request for one. Not only did he write the most recorded song ever, I believe ("Yesterday"), but he was a member of perhaps the most popular group of modern times. Besides all of this, the guy was rich. I mean really rich. Loaded. You get the picture. A very wealthy and talented songwriter seeking good guitar to use in recording session. Price is no object. Wow! I wish I received more of those requests. Right? Well, I am here to tell you I never filled the request, because in this instance, it wasn't about money. Left-handed 1959 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul guitars just aren't out there, even if you are Paul McCartney.

Man, oh, man. Here was my chance not only to meet a Beatle, but actually do a little business. Make his day. (and mine.) Be a part of the process. Oh, well. It just wasn't meant to be.

I couldn't find one.

This little story helps to illustrate one of the dilemmas that go with being left-handed. For the most part, it's a right-handed world we live in. You will not see any left-handed pianos. Or left-handed violins. If you did, they would have to reconstruct how they set up orchestras, or else we would see a lot of poking by violin bows. Guitars, on the other hand, are perhaps the most popular solo musical instrument, so they have impacted manufacturing to some extent. Guitar companies decided to build some left-handed guitars, but not a lot of them. It follows the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Fairly small demand, fairly small supply. That in itself has kept the price of lefty guitars fairly close with the going price of a similar right-handed guitar. But, as we guitarists know, we rarely, if ever, buy one guitar and keep it forever. No, guitarists are always switching around, or wanting to have several guitars, and this makes it that much more difficult for the left-handed guitar player. There just isn't enough to choose from. For the southpaw, it is more a matter of "take it or leave it."

I know of many people who write left-handed, throw a ball left-handed, etc., who nevertheless learned to play the guitar right-handed. Though it may feel very unorthodox at first, in the long run it pays off. On the other hand, I have some friends who could not grasp this and learned to play left-handed. This was just how it had to be for them. It just means fewer choices when it comes to finding your guitar.

There are certain instances where serendipity came into play. Albert King, the great blues guitarist, was left-handed. He simply took a right-handed guitar and turned it upside down. Talk about a change in how to play the instrument! But what this did was help Albert King to create a whole new sound, or at least a variance in the sound and the intangible emotion that comes from the person playing that guitar. For in playing left-handed and upside down, Albert King was plucking the strings in a "backwards" manner - he hit the skinny string first. This slight difference really helped shape his sound. This in turn had a lasting and more profound effect, as he was a major influence on Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, two great blues players who went on to achieve much greater recognition and influence countless more guitarists.

Another example of how playing in an unorthodox way can have a lasting impact is that of one of the greats, Jimi Hendrix, played left-handed, and used right-handed guitars. Like Albert King, he played a Gibson Flying V, a fairly symmetrical guitar that lends itself well to flipping around. But Hendrix also flipped a Fender Stratocaster over. Because of the peculiar set up of the pickups and vibrato tailpiece of the Stratocaster, flipping it over created a new set of tones and nuances that would not come from the more conventional way of playing that guitar.

So there you have two examples of how fighting the odds helped in more ways than either Albert King or Jimi could have imagined from the outset.

Back to Paul McCartney. When it comes to playing left-handed, guitars like the Stratocaster, Gibson SG and Flying V lend themselves well to being flipped over, due to the physical design of the instrument. But one guitar that doesn't do so well with this idea is the Gibson Les Paul. Sure, Paul could have found a '59 'burst without much problem. There are always a few on the market for sale. But a left-handed one? That's a different story. Out of 1200 total that were produced, I would venture to guess that only a handful were made left-handed, and after nearly 20 years since their manufacture, how many would be left?

I do know that Paul eventually found an original left-handed '58 or '59 cherry sunburst Les Paul. He has since toured with it, and there have been many photos of him playing this very rare and highly regarded vintage guitar. Chances are, whoever sold it to him probably got the fair market value for it, even though Paul McCartney could have easily afforded to pay an over-inflated price.

I have found that with left-handed guitars, they are generally more of a liability than an asset. Even if they are scarce, we usually charge the same for a left-handed guitar as we do a right-handed guitar. The supply and demand theory of simple economics pretty much dictates this. I suppose on occasion, given just the right situation, a particular left-handed guitar, such as an original '59 sunburst Les Paul, or some other highly regarded vintage guitar, might command a somewhat higher price than its right-handed counterpart - but not that much higher.

There you have it. Some requests are just too danged hard to fulfill. I sure would have enjoyed meeting Paul McCartney. Maybe he would have let me thumped a few notes on his Hofner Beatle Bass. Oh, but then again, dag gone it, I'm right-handed!

So that's all for now. Until next time, keep rockin'.

Jimmy