Summer greetings to everyone. I had a really crazy realization hit me when I was playing a particularly good-sounding Gibson Flying V recently. You know how a certain guitar can bring an entirely new set of tones to a player’s sonic paintbrush? Well, this Flying V did exactly that.
Riding with the Other King
When I began thinking about which players
were associated with this notorious Gibson,
the visual images came to me in waves. But
there was more than those images among the
surprises in those waves. As I pondered the
vision of Albert King playing his famed late-’50s korina Flying V it, dawned on me that
his tone was also influenced by something
else. I’ve discussed King’s use of his thumb
in another column, but that’s not what I’m
talking about. That “something else” was
coming from an angle that I hadn’t thought
of until now. It’s common knowledge that
King played left-handed but kept the guitar
strung for a right-handed player—literally and
figuratively upside down to us right-handed
players. While the seminal King album I’ll
Play the Blues for You was blasting through
my stereo monitors, I tried an experiment
on a whim because of what I noticed and
observed: I flipped one of my right-handed
instruments around to play it in this righty/lefty, southpaw-strung-northpaw manner—fretting with my right hand and using my left
thumb as a pick, like King did.
So what did I notice? There was a really
different character to the sound! One side of
the equation is that, using only your thumb or
bare flesh really changes up your sound (that’s
part of Jeff Beck’s magic). But then a moment
of discovery hit me like a ton of lead. You
see, Albert King not only played left-handed
and upside down, but he was also picking
backward as a result of this unorthodox
playing approach. Technically, his downstrokes
are upstrokes (relative to standard guitar
stringing), which really altered the attack
characteristics and tone produced from
the note hit. Furthermore, this would have
created another pending challenge as well,
because if he were to play rhythm patterns,
he would have to use either an upstroke or
grab at the cluster of notes with his fingers to
achieve the correct note order and/or chordal
voicing that wouldn’t sound weird to listeners.
Just so you know, there are some real
pioneers of the electric guitar who also
played this way: The obvious three are
King, fellow blues great Otis Rush, and surf
guitar originator Dick Dale. Others include
Doyle Bramhall II (Arc Angels, Eric Clapton),
Coco Montoya (John Mayall and the
Bluesbreakers), and Eric Gales.
How Exactly Does the Tone Differ?
The sound of an upstroke is more delicate as
a right-handed player working against gravity.
But, this changes quite a bit when you’re
attacking a note from the opposite side
and able to do most of your bending with
gravity instead. In fact, Stevie Ray Vaughan
was known for hitting the strings with quick,
repetitive (and very percussive) upstrokes to
get closer to Albert King’s sound. If you try
doing this technique using only downstrokes,
you’ll discover that it just doesn’t get you
that same sound at all. When you pick it
properly—and with enough force—from
this “wrong side” of the string, you’ll hear a
brighter, more biting attack. It seems to have
a rawer attitude, too.
Since the chord shapes are so upside down
themselves, this lends itself to a different
sound as well. Here I want to suggest
something a bit off the cuff: I thought it
might be really cool to hear how this would
sound as a right-handed player, so it seemed
that the best way to really pull this off would
be to take a random guitar and reverse the
direction of the nut and the bridge saddles.
So, voila—I did it! And I found out that you
can discover all these tonal surprises and
more as you play the fretboard in a totally
new orientation. Who knows, you might
even find a completely different voice and/
or style(s) in the process. I’m betting those
of you out there who are more adventurous
might find something of value here. I mean,
talk about totally turning the tables! It’s most
definitely a new game of musical chairs when
you explore the fretboard from this viewpoint.
Creating Some New Calluses
But there are a couple of things to take into
account as you proceed. First off, if you
do a decent amount of fingerstyle playing,
you might imagine that the calluses on your
picking hand will aid you in this exercise.
However, you have to keep in mind that King
played most of this stuff with his thumb, so it
might take a while to develop a thick enough
callus to get through this adventure pain-free.
If you want to make things a little easier on
yourself, use a pick—Dick Dale and Otis Rush
didn’t have a problem doing so. Speaking
of Dale, please do yourself a favor and listen
to the sound he developed. Especially his
brutally consistent tremolo picking. Then
compare what you heard there to other surf
bands from the golden age. Lastly, I have
to bring up Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895-
1987), who pioneered her own brand of
alternating-bass-note “Cotten picking” style
on her acoustic guitar. Yes, she was also guilty
of playing in the manner described here and
she may have been the first famous player
to turn the guitar around and play it left-handed.
I really believe that Cotten could’ve
been an influence—directly or indirectly—on
quite a few lefties. You never know.
Have fun and we’ll see you next month.
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings"
(sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence
on the trends in the strings of today.
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