I’m teaching my left-handed kids to play right-handed guitar

Marsh Guitar 2

Two of my three children were born left-handed – we don’t know what hand their baby sister will favour. What this means is that they tend to prefer doing most manual tasks with their left hand, more so than their right. They write, for instance, with their left hand, drink with their left hand, play sports favouring their left hand and foot, and punch much much harder with their left hand.

About 10% of the world is left-handed, although many can do a lot with both hands. This number is said to be increasing, and lefties as a group historically have produced an above-average number of high achievers. Many scientists agree, however, that there is little evidence that there is a difference in intelligence between right and left-handed people in general.

I’m teaching my left-handed kids to play right-handed guitar. In fact, you could say I’m flat out forcing them to play right-handed guitar. Why? Economics, for the most part.

Being a professional (right-handed) guitarist in the band Sloan, I have amassed a collection (12-14) of guitars. So I have enough, and don’t see the point in starting a whole new collection of left-handed guitars, which are generally harder to find and more expensive.

Now, before you go pointing fingers calling me a me “sidist,” consider that guitars are one of the only instruments made specifically for either lefties or righties. Nearly every other instrument is made in one style, and not necessarily because 90% of the world is right-handed. For instance, it is possible to buy a left-handed piano, but I’ve never seen one.

The guitar was historically made with the neck pointing to the left because the guitar was picked by the fingers on the right hand, and fretted by the fingers on the left. Much like a piano, both hands were put to work almost equally. By the 20th century, strumming had become popular, so the dominant rhythmic hand was the one strumming. That meant that, if you were right-handed, you would strum with your right hand.

Jimi Hendrix is perhaps the most famous left-handed guitarist, taking a regular right-handed guitar and simply turning it upside down and restringing it to suit. Other notable left-handed players are Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, and Justin Bieber.

You might think that I have left off (get it?) one of the most famous left-handed guitarists, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Cobain was an interesting player because he was actually right-handed, but played left-handed guitar. When he was growing up, the only guitar in his home was left-handed, and so that’s what he learned on. He wrote and played drums with his right hand. In fact Hendrix was also right-handed, and could actually play both right and left, but playing lefty certainly helped him to stand out.

To back me up I compiled a list for my kids of lefties who play right-handed: B.B. King, David Bowie, Noel Gallagher, Joan Jett, Joe Perry, Paul Simon, Billy Corgan, and Mark Knopfler. They claim to have never heard of any of them.

So, for the most part, I’m being frugal, more than cruel. I have some pretty nice guitars, and although my kids aren’t allowed to touch any of those, I also have some work-horse guitars that I don’t mind getting a few greasy chip finger prints on every now and again. They mix well with the beer stains and cigarette burns (not from me – I quit that habit many years ago).

I have even bought them a “short-scale” Squire stratocaster, which is basically a smaller version of a regular electric guitar, and fully functional. It sounds great, especially through my Marshall micro-stack, which is – you guessed it – a small version of a regular Marshall stack. It’s all kid-sized, and conducive to small hands (8 and 11-years-old respectively) making big noises.

So far, protests have been minimal, although constantly showing them how to hold, strum, fret, and pick the damn thing has been a challenge. As for their “playing,” that has been limited to wildly strumming all the strings at the same time, with very little attention played to melody. Or neighbours.

Marshall Guitar

Help! My kids hate punk rock!!

Convulsions circa 1987

(That’s me on the far left)

Help! My kids hate punk rock…

To be fair, this statement could apply to anything from my youth that my kids blatantly refuse to appreciate.

A little background: When I was in late high school, say 16-years-old (1985-6), I discovered punk rock.

I had been an avid music listener since I was young. My father had played in rock and R&B bands (think James Brown, not Whitney Houston) in the 60s and early 70s, so music had always been in my life.

When I was in my mid-teens, I started playing guitar, abandoned it, and then went back to it again. I fell in love with hard rock music, fashionable at the time, because it was generally guitar-based, and that was what I was all about.

After a brief stint in a metal cover band with some friends, I started to branch out, playing with other people from my high school who turned me on to bands I had heard of, but never heard. While punk rock wasn’t new to the world, it was a brave new sound to me, and I embraced its aggression, speed, and volume. Plus it was really easy to play and write, and you could have messed up hair and clothes.

So it became a part of my aesthetic, and would stay with me in one form or other my whole life. Sure, as I got older I eschewed the hair or the clothes a bit, depending on my mood at the time, but the idea of doing what you really wanted to do, even if that wasn’t necessarily the safe route, and you had to create it all yourself to be who you wanted to be, stayed with me. Maybe that’s born of Western middle-class entitlement, but I wouldn’t have joined Sloan, gone on tour, and be who I am today without punk rock.

Now, given that a form of music would have such a positive impact on my life, you would think that I might want to show my kids that. They might be curious as to why or how I came to be who I am. Maybe there is something that would attract them, a message or an energy in the music that would exhilarate them. Maybe they would want to pick up a guitar and start their own punk rock band. So I decided to sit them down and play them some songs that were important to me, and catalogue their reactions.

I thought I’d start with Washington D.C.’s seminal hardcore band Minor Threat. Touting a straight-edge aesthetic (no booze, no drugs, no casual sex), I figured they were the most kid-appropriate band to play.

“Out of Step”

The fact that singer Ian MacKaye uses the word fuck twice in the first 10 seconds (admittedly I forgot about that) didn’t go unnoticed.

Marshall (10): “Weird. Really loud, and heavy metal music with people yelling.”

Me: “But it’s punk rock music.”

Marshall: “Ok, but it sounds like those heavy metal bands.” Which heavy metal bands he was referring to I don’t know, but…

Ivy (7): “Yeah, it sounds like heavy metal.”

Me: “But it’s not heavy metal, it’s punk rock.”

Ivy: “Yeah, but heavy metal.”

Ok. Moving on, I decided to go with more “classic” punk, The Ramones. I had a bit of an issue with The Ramones when I was a teenager. Since they were from mid-’70s New York, and lumped in with other “punks” like Blondie and Talking Heads (neither being remotely punk), I often ignored them. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I fully grasped their importance.

“Blitzkrieg Bop”

Marshall: “Sounds really cheerful, until they start singing.”

Ivy: “I think that it was better than the other one. But it’s still really loud.”

Me: “And you don’t like the loud?”

Ivy (ignoring me): “But it’s good music, but it’s really like…BOOM!!” She then erupts into laughter claiming that the Taylor Swift video on the muted TV goes perfectly with “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I don’t agree, but keep it to myself.

The Clash were next, but only because there was a Clash tape, London Calling, in my son’s room when he was a baby, and I used to play it when trying to get him to nap. Such is my opinion of The Clash: music so boring, kids might nap to it. Not a fan, but they might like it…

“London Calling”

Marshall: “It doesn’t sound like punk rock, it sounds like the radio music you and Laurel (step-mom) always try to listen to.”

Me: “You mean before you guys whine so much we eventually put on the station you want?”

Marshall: “Yeah. Like that.”

I was going to play a Sex Pistols song, but the name of the band itself elicited such a chorus of snickers and elbowing back and forth that I gave up before I even cued a song up. Keep in mind, these are two kids who can’t keep a straight face when I tell them I’m going to Regina. This also meant that Circle Jerks, Millions of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Dayglo Abortions, Suicidal Tendencies, and our neighbours Fucked Up were off the (turn) table as well.

Eventually I played them a bunch of hardcore punk songs that Sloan has released, some original, some covers, which they were more into, although mainly because they could have a good laugh at their dear old dad screaming his head off at someone other than themselves.

Ivy (laughing hysterically): “It sounds like Daddy’s angry!” Not sure why me being angry is something to laugh so hard at, although it would explain why I have very little control over anything that goes on in my own home.

Finally, because of the name of my blog, I played them a tune by the Rastafarian punk legends Bad Brains. Did not go over well.

“I Against I”

Ivy: “It sounds like heavy metal.”

Head firmly in my hands, I almost start weeping in frustration. Of course, she’s kind of right; there is a fine line at times between metal and punk, as there can be between many types of music. Genres blend, and that’s how music moves forward, for better or worse. I’m not sure if this means she has a better grasp on different styles of music than I thought, or a better grasp on how to drive me crazy.

What am I to glean from this experiment? Am I doomed to be the uncool dad, despite the fact that I’m pretty much the coolest dad there could be? Is it natural for kids to even think their parents are cool? Perhaps it’s dangerous. How do we move forward as a species unless we rebel against what came before us? Actually, that sounds like a lyric I would have written in one of my punk bands in 1987.