Mixed handedness explains virtuosity

He argues that Jimi Hendrix’s mixed handedness allowed him greater integration between left and right brain hemisphere, wich can explain his creativity, vocal delivery and certain aspects of his lyrics.

Jimi is commonly regarded a left-hander, mainly because of the iconic picture of Jimi with an upside down stratocaster. But the fact is that he was mixed handed, he wrote with his right, but combed his hair with his left etc.

Guitar playing is integration of the left end right hand roles

A hallmark of Jimi’s guitar style involved his ability to integrate the actions of his two hands in terms of simultaneously using his right hand to fret the strings and his left hand to pluck the strings and manipulate the pickup selector and the tone, volume, and tremolo (i.e., whammy bar) controls on the body of the instrument. It is important to note that the fact that Hendrix played a right-handed guitar upside-down (as opposed to simply playing a left-handed guitar) meant that these controls were located above the strings instead of below, making it easier for him to manipulate them with his right and left hands while playing.

Although manipulation of the control knobs and switches is obviously possible on normally played right-hand guitars, the knobs are generally intended to be adjusted in between songs as opposed to while playing (indeed, the control knobs are normally placed below the strings precisely to make them harder to access, thereby avoiding inadvertent contact with the controls while playing).

About the only disadvantage that Hendrix faced with his unusual guitar set-up was the fact that the cutaway in the guitar body where the neck joins the body hampered access to the top reaches of the fretboard. However, Jimi was able to overcome this problem thanks to his unusually long fingers and his double-jointed thumb, which he used as a fifth fretting finger. Nonetheless, the left horns of Hendrix’s guitars were often partially worn away as a result of his repeatedly striking the guitar with his ring as he played on the upper frets.

Thus Hendrix’s ability to coordinate the actions and timing of his left and right hands was enhanced both by the mechanical set-up of his guitar and by the increased bimanual coordination allowed by his mixed-hander’s brain and its increased interhemispheric interaction. Hendrix regularly employed techniques such as striking a sustained note or chord, then using his right hand to operate the tremolo arm (i.e., whammy bar) while his left hand manipulated the volume control and pick-up selector, allowing him to generate otherworldly howls, shrieks, and siren-like sounds on the guitar.

Hendrix’s version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, recorded at Woodstock, features perhaps the most dramatic examples of his ability to tweak the controls of his guitar to create amazing sounds. Other examples of Hendrix’s sonic inventiveness can be found on his album Electric Ladyland. ‘Voodoo Chile’ features some nicely understated use of the tremolo bar towards the end of the guitar solo preceding the organ solo, continuing on through the guitar accompaniment of the organ. The final measures of this song also feature an example of Hendrix striking a sustained note and using the tremolo bar to go back and forth between a B and a D, while simultaneously twiddling the tone control to modulate the tone of the guitar. An example of Hendrix’s flicking back and forth between different pickups (which both alters the sound of ongoing sustained notes and creates a percussive click) is found during the final 16 measures of ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’.

Perhaps the most impressive and representative example of his bimanual coordination on Electric Ladyland is found in the opening bars of ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’, where Hendrix uses his right hand to play an intricate series of bends and slides, while his left hand, in between plucking the strings, uses the pickup selector to switch back and forth between the treble and bass pickups. On top of all this, Hendrix also uses his left foot to manipulate a wah-wah pedal in tight synchronisation with the guitar playing. The result is one of the more impressive evocations of a human voice produced on a guitar.

Guitar playing: right- versus left-handed guitars

The second key implication of Hendrix’s right-handedness for his guitar-playing style lies in his unorthodox decision to play guitar left-handed. Evidence suggests that Hendrix chose to play the guitar left-handed because he simply found it easier. Indeed, Hendrix wrote and ate with his right hand, and the case can be made that Hendrix may have had better basic hand skill and dexterity with his right than left hand.

The story of how the ostensibly “right-handed” Hendrix came to play a guitar left-handed is worth recounting. Hendrix’s father, Al Hendrix, described in his autobiography how Jimi first started playing guitar. Jimi spent his early childhood transforming cigar boxes into guitars, trying to get music out of a one-string ukelele, and using a broom to play air guitar. He finally convinced his father to buy him an old right-handed acoustic guitar from a neighbour for $5. Jimi played this guitar in the traditional manner at first, but then one day his father saw Jimi changing the strings and starting to play left-handed. His father asked why he was playing the guitar left-handed and Jimi responded, “I find I can play left-handed easier than I can right-handed.”

Evidently, when Hendrix first picked up a right-handed guitar and noticed that “it just didn’t feel right”, he intuitively realised that he might be better off using his presumably more dextrous right hand on the fretboard and his presumably less agile left hand to strum the strings. Consequently, part of Hendrix’s superlative guitar style reflected the fact that he was able to use his agile right hand for difficult fretting patterns (such as his masterful use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and string bending), while his left hand handled the more basic and less demanding activities of plucking, strumming, and manipulating the whammy bar and volume knob. At the same time, his mixed-handedness meant that the two sides of his brain could easily coordinate and integrate his left and right hand actions. Moreover, his extensive use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and trills meant that his right hand could produce notes on its own, freeing his left hand to manipulate the guitar’s controls.

Song writing

With regard to song writing, Hendrix’s mixed-handedness again provides two important influences. First, given (i) the evidence reviewed above for greater interaction between the left and right sides of the brain in mixed-handers, and (ii) the fact that language and rhythm processing are lateralised to the left side of brain while the processing of melody and harmony is lateralised to the right side, the possibility is raised that mixed-handers may have an advantage in integrating the lyrics and melody in song writing; that is, mixed-handers may be better able to put the “right” words with the “right” melody such that the syntactic and emotional aspects of the lyrics are tightly integrated with the phrasing and contour of the melody line.

It may be no coincidence that ‘All Along The Watchtower’, the hit single from Electric Ladyland, was written by Bob Dylan, another mixed-handed songwriter. It should be acknowledged that specific details about Dylan’s handedness are as murky and hard to come by as other details of his personal life. On the one hand, there are literally hundreds of websites devoted to left-handedness that confidently proclaim Dylan is left-handed (although few provide any supporting documentation). On the other hand, photographic evidence clearly shows that Dylan writes with his right hand. For example, a book-length collection of pictures of Dylan in his early years shows him writing lyrics and signing autographs with his right hand. However, the same book depicts Dylan in other one-handed activities, such as making unilateral gestures and smoking cigarettes, and these activities seem to be evenly split between his left and right hands. Also, when Dylan plays harmonica without using the holder around his neck, he holds the harmonica with his left hand. Accordingly, the current paper is willing to cautiously assume that Dylan is mixed-handed.

Hendrix’s song-writing style is very free and natural, his lyrics sung with an ease and spontaneity reminiscent of ordinary speech. While Hendrix often complained about the inferior nature of his singing voice, there is no doubt that his vocal delivery more than made up in rhythmic and emotional expressiveness what it lacked in purely tonal qualities. This characteristic of his singing may have arisen in part due to the increased interaction between the left and right sides of his brain. While talking is under the control of the left side of the brain, singing is controlled by the right hemisphere (Gordon & Bogen, 1974).

Since the two hemispheres operate in a more integrated manner in mixed-handers, this suggests that the singing style of mixed-handers may be prone to comprise a mixture of spoken and sung vocalisations, akin to a technique developed in classical music by Arnold Schoenberg and called “Sprechstimme” in which the lyrics are spoken at approximate pitches instead of being sung at exact pitches (in musical notation, Sprechstimme vocals are denoted by the use of xs on the musical stave, in place of the traditional elliptical note markings). Thus Hendrix’s vocal style is neither purely melodic, like in most pop singers, nor is it primarily spoken, as in much of today’s rap music. Rather, his style is characterised by a fluid integration of left-hemisphere-based speaking and right-hemisphere-based singing.

Certainly, Hendrix’s vocals on Electric Ladyland features an abundance of Sprechstimme-like stylings. One of the most prominent examples is found on ‘Burning Of The Midnight Lamp’, in which over a third of all the words are spoken/sung in the Sprechstimme style. Other notable examples are found in ‘1983 …’, in which portions of the first and second verses and the entire third verse are half spoken, half sung, and in ‘House Burning Down’, in which conversational lines from the first (“He just coughed and changed the subject and said, ‘Er, ah, I think it might snow some’”) and second verses (“He shouts retired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky”) are delivered in the Sprechstimme style.

The second influence Hendrix’s mixed-handedness on his song writing involves magical and ambiguous aspects of his lyrics and melodies. Research has shown that mixed-handers have higher levels of magical thinking. Magical thinking refers to beliefs in paranormal forms of causation, such as belief in UFOs, ESP, and astrology. Hendrix’s propensity towards magical thinking is illustrated by his lifelong belief in voodoo that he evidently picked up during childhood visits with relatives in Georgia. As he put it, “Voodoo stuff! You think that sort of thing is rubbish ’till it happens to you, then it’s scary. There’s different things they can do, they can put something in your food, or put some little hair in your shoe. I saw it. If I see it happen or if I feel it happen, then I believe it” (Fairchild, 1994). Hendrix’s voodoo beliefs, of course, formed the foundation for lyrics to the song ‘Voodoo Chile’. Hendrix also felt that UFOs followed him around, and that his life was once saved by a UFO in Woodstock, New York in 1965.

The higher levels of magical thinking in mixed-handers arise from the fact that the left side of the brain is responsible for maintaining our current “status quo” beliefs about the world, while the right side acts as a sort of “devil’s advocate”, looking for inconsistencies in left hemisphere belief systems, and forcing an updating of those beliefs when necessary. Thus, because of their increased amount of interaction between the two sides of the brain which allows the right side to more efficiently act on and update left hemisphere-based beliefs, mixed-handers are more flexible in their thinking, are more likely to engage in divergent and lateral thinking (i.e., “thinking outside the box”), are more open to persuasion, and are more likely to readily update their beliefs, for better or worse. Hendrix’s lyrics reflected the general openness to new ideas, from science fiction to psychedelic utopianism, that arose in the 1960s.

The songs on Electric Ladyland explore an often bizarre and fantastic world populated by references to “electric love penetrat[-ing] the sky” [‘Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)’], trips “on a eagle’s wing” beyond “the outskirts of infinity” where he receives “a venus witch’s ring”, and “arrows made of desire from far away as Jupiter’s sulphur mines” [‘Voodoo Chile’], a road that “rambles on for a million miles” [‘Gypsy Eyes’], “giant pencil and lipstick tube shaped things”, and a machine that makes it possible “to live and breathe under water, forever” [‘1983 … (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’], “Neptune champion games”, smiling mermaids, and “Atlantis full of cheer” [‘Moon Turn The Tides … Gently, Gently Away’], “a giant boat from space land[-ing] with eerie grace” to take “all the dead away” [‘House Burning Down’], and standing “up next to a mountain” and chopping “it down with the edge of my hand” [‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’].

It should be noted here that many songwriters during the 1960s were similarly focused on mystical and science fiction themes, so Hendrix was by no means unique in this regard. However, given that roughly half the population is mixed-handed, it is possible that mixed-handed songwriters like Hendrix were responsible for the lion’s share of mystical lyrics.

Mixed-handedness is also associated with an increased tolerance of ambiguity, which characterises much of the lyrical and musical content of Electric Ladyland. Examples of ambiguity in the lyrics include the reference to floating “in liquid gardens way down in Arizona red sand” and being “a million miles away at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame” [‘Voodoo Chile’], and “everybody’s on fire but I’m snowin’ in a cold blizzard” [‘Long Hot Summer Night’]. The title of Hendrix’s song “If 6 was 9” is another nice example of ambiguity.

Electric Ladyland also features prominent examples of musical ambiguity. The most prevalent is Hendrix’s use of the tonally ambiguous Dominant 7#9 chord (often referred to in rock circles as the “”). The 7#9 chord consists of a tonic root, major third, perfect fifth, minor seventh, and an augmented ninth.

The ambiguity of this chord derives from the fact that it contains both a major third interval (E – G#) and a minor third interval in the form of the augmented ninth (E – G). Thus, it is not clear to the ear whether this chord should be heard as a major chord or as a minor chord. Furthermore, altered dominant seventh chords like this are typically used to resolve to a tonic minor. However, Hendrix often uses this chord as a tonic chord itself, leading to a chronic state of tonal ambiguity as the chord simultaneously relieves musical tension by returning to the tonic key and increases tension by its implicit pointing to an unplayed alternative tonic chord. Notable appearances of the “Hendrix chord” on Electric Ladlyland include ‘Crosstown Traffic’, where it appears behind the “do do dos” of the chorus and during the second verse, the final chorus of ‘Voodoo Chile’, the chorus of ‘Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)’, and at the end of each verse quatrain in ‘House Burning Down’. For a nice discussion of the roots and history of this chord’s use in popular music, see Everett (2002).

Hendrix was also fond of suspended chords, especially the sus2. The sus2 chord is characterised by a tonal ambiguity arising from the fact that the sus2 interval introduces two competing fifth intervals, one based on the tonic and the other based on the dominant. Finally, Hendrix’s guitar playing on the song ‘Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)’ by New Orleans bluesman Earl King is at times based on using the cycle of fifths, which has a jazz-like effect of introducing transient uncertainties about the tonal centre of the song.

It is worth noting a few other general ambiguities associated with Jimi Hendrix. He cut his musical chops playing African-based rhythm and blues styles, yet found his largest audience playing rock’n’roll for European whites. His biggest hit, ‘All Along The Watchtower’, was a heavy metal-like treatment of Dylan’s sparse, acoustic original—Zak (2005) has written an ambitious essay comparing the evolution and nature of Dylan’s versus Hendrix’s versions of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ that the interested reader is recommended to consult. There was a dramatic contrast between Hendrix’s flamboyant persona onstage and the more thoughtful and introspective musician in the recording studio. His public persona was often characterised by a touch of sexually ambiguous androgyny. Even the spelling of his name, Jimi Hendrix, is an ambiguous play on the more conventional spelling “Jimmy Hendricks”.

One final aspect of Hendrix’s musicianship bears mention. One of the implications of the increased interhemispheric interaction in mixed-handers is that it may give such individuals enhanced conscious access to right-hemisphere-based processing. It is well established that the right hemisphere is superior at processing nonverbal environmental sounds. This may help to account for the wide variety of nonverbal environmental sounds that permeate Electric Ladyland, from the sound collages of ‘… And The Gods Made Love’ and ‘Moon, Turn The Tides … Gently Gently Away’, through the use of a home-made comb-and-waxed-paper kazoo to augment the opening guitar of ‘Crosstown Traffic’, and the frequent presence of guitar and microphone feedback in songs like ‘Voodoo Chile’, to the mysterious underwater chime-like sounds during the guitar solo and bird-like sounds at the very end of ‘1983 … (A Merman I Should Be)’.

Summary /Slight return)

Jimi Hendrix’s mixed-handedness, and the ensuing enhancement of interaction between the left and right sides of his brain, resulted in a synergetic confluence of factors that led to both his groundbreaking style of guitar playing and the engaging and provocative nature of his songs and lyrics. Perhaps the most important aspect of the current paper, from the perspective of handedness researchers, is the argument that modern “right-handed” guitars are better viewed as left-handed guitars in terms of the relative motor demands on the two hands, and that Hendrix’s superlative guitar abilities arose from the fact that he played a “left-handed” guitar and was thus able to use his more dextrous right hand on the guitar’s fretboard.

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