Jimi Hendrix and Otis Rush flipped their right-handed guitars over and played them lefty. Steve Miller flipped a lefty over and played it righty. They all certainly helped to popularize the look of the upside down headstock, but none played a true “reverse headstock”, with the orientation of the headstock intentionally mismatched to the body. So who was the first player to do it? And which guitar company was the first to offer it as original spec?
The idea of situating the tuning machines along the treble side of an electric guitar headstock is probably older than you think. The Iolana lap-steel, manufactured by Valco in the 50’s, was a double-neck affair with a reverse-headstock on the lower of the two necks to improve tuner access. The first production 6-string electric guitar to feature a reverse headstock – on a neck-through design no less – was the Gibson Firebird®, which was released 1963. This model is now commonly referred to as the “Reverse Firebird®”, not because of its reverse headstock, but because of the unusual prominence of its lower bout. The tuning machines on those early models were “banjo-style” tuners, with the buttons situated behind the headstock, in-line with the gears.
The reverse headstock as we think of it today was certainly inspired by players like Otis Rush, Jimi Hendrix, and Steve Miller, all known for rotating the entire guitar 180 degrees and playing it upside down. While Otis and Jimi may have done it out of necessity (left-handed models being somewhat rare), Steve probably did it because he liked the look. However, flipping the guitar over in such a manner had an undesirable side-effect: it put the controls, tremolo bar, and output jack in an unusual and awkward position, and inhibited access to the upper frets.
Fender® instruments, however, had an important distinction from other manufacturers. Their modular, bolt-on design opened up the possibility of mixing and matching components. The first person to actually bolt a left-handed neck to a right-handed body was probably someone who, like Steve Miller, simply liked the look of the topsy-turvy headstock. Unlike Miller, however, this approach allowed them to keep the guitar’s controls, tremolo bar, and output jack in the traditional locations.
So, who was it?
It is tough to say with complete certainty, but there is a good chance it was Michael Hampton, guitarist for the world-renowned funk band Funkadelic. Hampton’s career with Funkadelic began around 1974. Photos and video footage of Parliament-Funkadelic concerts from that era show him playing a right-handed Fender Stratocaster® equipped with a left-handed neck. Hampton had long been a fan of customized cars, and enjoyed modifying things to suit his own personal taste. In addition to the left-handed neck, Hampton also tricked out the body with rhinestones, sparkles, and most interesting of all: three DiMarzio Super Distortion® humbucking pickups. This makes his guitar all the more noteworthy, as it predates Eddie Van Halen’s famous pairing of a humbucker and a Strat®-style body by several years! Hampton still owns the guitar today, and has considered bringing it back into rotation, but admits that after countless gigs the iconic neck needs a little TLC before that can happen.
One problem early-adopters faced when attaching lefty necks to righty bodies was the fact that the side-dot markers along the edge of the neck ended up facing the floor. However, as the 80’s approached and it became clear that upside-down headstocks were becoming part of a new “hot-rodded” guitar culture, manufacturers were eager to serve the market by designing guitars with intentionally flipped headstocks, which kept the side-dots facing the player. Brands like Kramer, Jackson, Charvel, and ESP soon became associated with the edgy look. In 1980 Fender® did an extremely limited run of “Hendrix Stratocasters®” with an oversized CBS-style reversed headstock. This was likely the first guitar ever produced by Fender® with an intentionally reversed headstock. Only about 25 were made.
As a pioneer in the replacement neck business during the 80’s, Warmoth was in a unique position to begin offering reverse-headstock necks that were a perfect retrofit on Fender® bodies, and was one of the first companies to do so. Today the “Right-Hand Reverse” option is still available on nearly every headstock style Warmoth offers, from traditional designs like the Strat® and CBS Strat® to 80’s inspired ones like the Arcarde and Slapshot.
Over the years there have been a handful of guitarists who have gone the extra mile to promote the reverse headstock look. To honor them, we humbly submit our list of the Top 5 Champions of the Reverse Headstock:
- Michael Hampton
- Kirk Hammett
- George Lynch
- Nuno Bettencourt
- Dick Dale