Lefty Williams Not just a great one-armed guitar player, a great guitar player.
A skilled guitarist with over two decades of experience, Lefty Williams holds songcraft and musicianship at a premium. By emphasizing each equally on his ironically titled sophomore album Snake Oil, he engages and enlightens the listener. In turn, we fall for Williams’ powerful guitar licks and candid songs, often long before the origin of his nickname—he was born without a right hand—is clear. And by then, it’s just another dimension to his talent.
“I definitely don’t wanna shy away from my arm,” says the Atlanta born-and-bred songwriter/musician, who’s been playing guitar since age 4. He started out strumming with the end of his “nubb,” and fashioned his first prosthetic pick at 6. “I was just using the skin on my arm—the same way a fingerstyle player would use his thumb. Then I wanted to play faster.” On his grandfather’s hunch, Lefty approached his prosthetician who devised a sock-like leather wrap. “It didn’t work at all,” he laughs, saying he finally “tore apart my prosthetic arm,” using the strap and part of the harness to fashion something that worked.
Henceforth a self-taught musician, Lefty refined his skills by listening. “After my dad taught me basic chords, he showed me how to figure it out on my own. I remember we were listening to the guitar solo part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and my dad pointing out all the guitar parts that were going on in the background and saying, ‘That’s the kinda stuff you gotta listen for. If you can figure all those out and how to play ‘em at the same time, you can make it sound like the record.’”
Soon Lefty was transcribing songs by Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin and Yes before moving on to more difficult material. By 11, he was playing in bands. “Death metal!” he laughs. While playing upright bass in the school orchestra he learned how to read music, and in 1998 he made his way to the Atlanta Institute of Music to hone his guitar skills. There he found that his condition put him on equal—if not higher—footing than his peers and instructors at the Atlanta Institute of Music, who envied his “perfect” picking technique. “A lot of guitar players change between moving their wrists and their elbow and their fingers,” he says. “Mine never really changes.”
After graduating with honors, Lefty was offered a teaching position at AIM. During that time, he gravitated from metal to grunge bands learning valuable lessons from each. “I can shred if I want to,” he says, “but I get really bored with that. The one thing I took from grunge music was not soloing, just taking your time and making your songs as good as you can possibly make them.”
This knowledge served him well as he grew into the bluesy, jazzy style he plays today, which nods to Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughn and early Led Zeppelin—all artists that understand the importance of a great song. Lefty also heeded their performances, and worked to construct a combustible live show with the Lefty Williams Band, which quickly became a big draw at local and regional clubs like Smith’s Olde Bar (Atlanta), Murphy’s (Boone, North Carolina) and The Dunedin Brewery (Dunedin, Florida). The LWB has also opened for the likes of Gov’t Mule, Tim Reynolds, Little Feat, Jimbo Mathus, Col. Bruce and the Quark Alliance and the Chris Duarte Group.
In 2006, Lefty recorded his debut album, Big Plans, produced by John Keane (REM, Widespread Panic). It brought a dynamic range of music to the table, from high energy like “Shine Begins to Fade” to soulful tracks like “Sunny,” in which Lefty's innate sense of groove and melody, coupled with an expressive, visceral guitar sound, coalesce. Big Plans received raves from Relix, Hittin’ the Note, and Jambase.com, and Williams toured for 18 months behind it, all the while writing like a fiend. By the end of 2007, he got the itch to return to the studio.
Once again teaming with Keane, who says "Lefty's sound is a compelling combination of honest, heartfelt lyrics and masterful rhythm and blues muscle," Lefty reaches deep into personal experience on Snake Oil. “There’s a lot more honesty in these songs,” Lefty says. The dirty, groovin’ title track refers to two-faced industry types, specifically “a guy who promised me the world and then kinda hosed me.” His divorce fuels the funky “Thank You,” where he acknowledges the silver lining, and thanks his ex for kicking him out. “We’re both better off now.” And the sweet, tender “A Little Bit of Faith” (featured on the Relix CD sampler for June 2008) is written for “my current wife. It’s just a promise to her that I’m not gonna goof around on her.”
Musically, Lefty soars on Snake Oil, ratcheting up the earthy yet sophisticated sound of Big Plans. He achieves a coolly smoldering burn—merging King’s world with Davis’s—with “On the Prowl;” suffers through his slide guitar on the gospel-tinged “In the Valley;” channels playful lust on the jumpin’ “Hey Mama;” and creates a taut, stinging three-minute guitar feast with “Salt Stained Moment.” The LWB’s taut grooves are augmented by two guests: Todd Smallie (The Derek Trucks Band) plays bass on “Why Didn’t You Call,” and “On the Prowl” and “Hey Mama” feature blues luminary and fellow Atlanta resident Tinsley Ellis.
Says Ellis, “I was knocked out by Lefty the first time I heard his music on MySpace. I just knew that I had to seek him out and hear more of his stuff. He is a veritable triple threat on certainly guitar but also as a soulful vocalist and clever songwriter. The fact that he is out there winning over fans one at a time with his nonstop touring schedule is definitely something that I can relate to. I was thrilled when he asked me to guest on his new album.”
Having already given many of the songs on Snake Oil a live test drive, Lefty looks forward to presenting them fully realized on another lengthy tour in 2008. Mostly, though, he’s chomping at the bit to play live, electrifying audiences with his musical virtuosity and heartworn songs. “Let’s just make some cool music,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever really cared about.”