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An Interview With Author John Engel

What do Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and soul legend Bobby Womack all have in common? All played guitar left-handed. They are only a handful of the hundreds of brilliant musicians who have turned their guitars around, restrung them bottom to top, or learned some other technique to play brilliantly in a right-handed world. Now music writer John Engel profiles hundreds of these players in the luscious new book - Uncommon Lore: Left-Handed Guitar Players Who Changed Music. At over 900 pages and with 1,500 photos, it is an exhaustive compilation of musicians from all around the world, and in almost every conceivable musical genre. I asked Engel for a little lefty lore.

John Engel - Uncommon Sound How does a left-handed musicians learn to play a right-handed instrument?
Probably the majority of left-handers who play guitar have learned to play right-handed. Either they were told to do so, or it seemed logical to them to apply their strongest hand to what seemed like the hardest work (the fretting), or it wasn't an issue and they simply went at it like "everybody else" - i.e., the overwhelming right-handed majority.

There are guitars made for left-handed players; in fact,you showcase hundreds of them in your book. Why don't they use these?
Left-handed guitars are hard to come by for many people. They are also often more expensive and out of reach for beginners. They often must be ordered (meaning a long, daunting wait) and bought sight unseen, unplayed, and untested. These are strong deterrents, which equate "forget it" for many youngsters who pick up a right-handed guitar and just start playing.

Did you learn anything in the course of your interviews that you really didn't expect? A moment when you heard a story and thought - whoa,I really didn't see that one coming?
I was not ready for the fact that left-handed guitar players included right-handed people who willingly chose to play that way. It never occurred to me that this would be possible! (Not only that, but some of those right-handers play guitar left-handed upside down!) It comes from a feeling that it makes more sense to use their most dexterous, priority hand on the fingerboard. Without teachers and nay-sayers to tell them otherwise, they simply went at the guitar the way that felt most natural, or logical, to them! Of course, there are also some right-handers who play left-handed because an injury or some physical disability forced them to take up (or re-learn) the instrument the other way, like Slim Whitman, Wesley Tuttle, Steele Croswhite, and others.

You spoke to so many musicians for this work. How did you manage it?
What is wonderful is how enthusiastic and generous every one of these artists was. They were tremendously hospitable and encouraging. You have to be persistent - without a doubt, one of my traits. Being forthright in my approach, being a musician too, and not being connected to any company with dollar signs written all over it: all that helped, I think. I have to say that the concept of the book consistently opened doors. If I got a chance to let an artist known what it was all about, the answer was always yes!
- Kelly Boler

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