As far back as his U.S. tours with the Fred Karno company in 1911/12, Chaplin brought along his cello and violin. But Chaplin’s violin was unique.
On the Karno tour, Chaplin’s roommate, Stan Laurel (yes, that Stan Laurel!), said Chaplin “carried his violin wherever he could. Had the strings reversed so he could play left handed, and he would practise for hours. He bought a cello once and used to carry it around with him. At these times he would always dress like a musician, a long fawn coloured overcoat with green velvet cuffs and collar and a slouch hat. And he’d let his hair grow long at the back. We never knew what he was going to do next.”
As Eric James, Chaplin’s musical associate the last 20 years of his life, further explained in his 2000 memoir Making Music with Charlie Chaplin,”For some reason [Charlie] felt he had greater dexterity in the fingers of the right hand and the he would thus have a better chance of succeeding if he used it instead of the left as all other violinists do. He decided to have a special violin made with the fingerboard reversed and for a while he achieved some limited amateur success.”
On two memorable occasions, Chaplin showcased his reversed violin playing on film. In the 1916 Mutual short THE VAGABOND, Charlie serenades Edna Purviance. And, of course, in 1952 Chaplin teamed with Buster Keaton on piano for their legendary onstage performance at the Empire Theatre benefit in LIMELIGHT. Look closely at those two films and you’ll notice that the violin in both cases is tucked under Chaplin’s right chin so his right hand can access the fingerboard.