Was Jimi Hendrix‘s ambidexterity the secret to his talent? This is the question explored in a new paper by psychologist Stephen Christman (via TwentyFourBit), who argues that Hendrix’s versatility informed not just his guitar-playing – but his lyrics too.
According to Christman, who is based at the University of Toledo, Hendrix was not strictly left-handed. Although he played his right-handed guitar upside down, and used his left hand to throw, comb his hair and hold cigarettes, Hendrix wrote, ate and held the telephone with his right hand. He was, Christman argues, “mixed-right-handed”. And this “mixed”-ness, signaling better interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the guitarist’s brain, suffused every part of his music.
Hendrix’s special ability, Christman wrote, “enabled him to integrate the actions of his left and right hands while playing guitar, to integrate the lyrics and melodies of his songs, and perhaps even to integrate the older blues and R&B traditions with the emerging folk, rock, and psychedelic sounds of the 60s”. Certainly the guitarist’s technical virtuosity is clear. Christman points to Hendrix’s technique on songs like 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”.
Many guitarists are left-handed, including Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler and Kurt Cobain, and Christman argues that great guitarists tend to be relatively ambidextrous. Conversely, many piano and keyboard players are strongly right- or left-handed: they rely on the independence of their two hands, playing separate lines.
Hendrix’s mixed-handedness may have affected his songwriting too, bringing together lyrics and melody. “[Because] 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,” Christman suggested. “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.” Hendrix’s speak-singing vocal style may also be tied to his inter-hemispheral quirk: whereas talking is governed by the left brain, singing is linked to the right.
From there, things get even more fanciful. Mixed-handed people are “magical thinkers,” Christman argues, keen on mysticism and psychedelia. They apparently have “an increased tolerance of ambiguity”, demonstrated in Hendrix’s androgyny, his mixture of flamboyance and gravitas. And even Hendrix’s favourite chord reflects his neural set-up: Dominant 7#9 is neither clearly major nor clearly minor. It is, one might say, even-handed.
Then again, if mixed-handedness were the cause of Hendrix’s talent – and not, as Christman writes, just one contributing factor – the world would be a more virtuosic place. Half of humankind is reportedly mixed-handed, and most of us have never written a song as good as Voodoo Chile.