A Brief History of Upside-Down Guitarists, With Malina Moye

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Malina Moye is a proud left-handed, upside-down player. That is, she flips a right-handed guitar and plays it without changing the position of the strings.

With her high E on top and low E on bottom, Moye blazes up and down the fretboard like a firebrand, each lick a topsy-turvy version of standard guitar-playing.

While she has a sound all her own, Moye is part of a tradition of upside-down guitarists, dating back to folk blues and continuing through the present day.

In our video above, she talks through six other upside-down greats.

Visit Malina Moye's website to learn more about her and keep up to date with her work. Or grab a set of her brand-new Dean Markley Malina Moye Artist Series strings.

Elizabeth Cotten
Cotten demonstrates her upside-down technique.

Elizabeth Cotten, who was born in 1893, played music from an early age, fingerpicking with her left hand on right-handed banjos and guitars. By the age of 12, she had written "Freight Train," one of her most enduring songs. But the wider world wouldn't hear it until the roots music revival of the 1950s, when Cotten's recording and performing career began in full.

As a self-taught blues-folk musician, she approached her upside-down guitar-playing in her own unique way, using her fingers to pluck the bass strings while her thumb picked out the melody.

Albert King
Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan - "Born Under a Bad Sign"

When Albert King was still an up-and-coming bluesman in the '50s, he falsely told promoters and audiences that he was B.B. King's brother. While that may have helped land some early gigs, Albert's personal style definitely set him apart.

Albert was a heavy-handed player, using his thumb to pluck notes with a percussive pop and aggressively bending strings during his solos. At times, he'd bend and drag two notes at once or bend a single note two whole steps above its original position. And remember—by doing this on an upside-down guitar—he was usually bending strings down, in the opposite direction of a standard player.

Dick Dale
Dick Dale "Misirlou" on Guitar

Another king, "The King of the Surf Guitar," was another heavy-handed upside-down guitarist. Dick Dale's playing style—as heard on "Misirlou"—combined the Middle Eastern scales of his Lebanese heritage with the reverb-drenched, overdriven sound of cranked Fender amps (which he often blew up at gigs).

Dale's aggressive tremolo picking later influenced the quick attack of metal guitarists, and his over-the-neck fingering was a move later borrowed by Jimi Hendrix.

Unlike many upside-down players, Dale often used a left-handed guitar, so the angled bridge pickup of his Stratocaster gave his bass strings extra high-end bite.

Otis Rush
Otis Rush - "I Can't Quit You Baby"

Otis Rush introduced "I Can't Quit You Baby" to the world. Written by Willie Dixon, Rush first recorded the song in 1956 and made it an instant hit, more than a decade before Led Zeppelin super-charged it on their 1969 debut.

Rush's intense playing was often done on a Gibson ES-355 or 345—not particularly common choices for upside-down guitarists. And his slow, controlled vibrato is almost unmatched.

Rush credited he upside-down nature of his guitar with some of his signature tone, telling Vintage Guitar magazine: "It's a lot less stress to tear a house down than to build it up, right? Pulling down makes more sense, to me anyway, and I can work it stronger and get it to sustain better. 'Course, besides all that, I kinda like doing things backwards, anyway."

Doyle Bramhall II
Doyle Bramhall II on Building Blues Tones with Fuzz and Drive Pedals

Doyle Bramhall II may be one of the most-recognized upside-down guitarists playing today, having performed alongside Eric Clapton and Roger Waters for years. But along with his solo work, he's also played with the likes of Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Elton John & Leon Russell, and more heavyweights.

Like other upside-down players, Bramhall is self-taught. He has said he learned about 100 songs before his first proper lesson, so when the teacher told him he ought to restring his guitar correctly, it was already too late.

Eric Gales
Eric Gales - "Catfish Blues / Six Deep"

Rounding out our list is another incredible blues guitarist still making music today. Eric Gales' solos can have a cutting bite—bright, clear, and pointed. But he can also be sweet and nuanced.

Like so many other upside-down players, Gales got started on right-handed guitars because that's simply what was most available. But what's really interesting about Gales is that he kept it up long after he had the choice.

Gales, whose nickname is Raw Dawg, now has his own signature model: the Magneto Sonnet Raw Dawg. But in keeping with tradition, this Strat-style guitar is still built for right-handers, with Gale choosing to play his own signature guitar upside-down. As the saying goes, if it's not broke, why fix it?

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