It all starts somewhere. The first trip to the music store is either with the parents, or as an adult because ‘you always wanted to play.’ Most players fit into the above categories, and usually the first thing the salesperson asks is if you are left- or right-handed. They don’t ask new flute players this, and they don’t ask new piano students. They don’t even ask drummers. New guitarists and bassists are supposed to know what feels more ‘natural’ when everything, from holding a guitar or bass, to pressing on those tiny strings feels so unnatural. Let’s look at the difference between learning to play right-handed or left-handed, and why it makes (or doesn’t make) a difference.
Now I have to decide what hands to use? For what?
Well, playing guitar right-handed means that your right hand is picking, while your left hand is on the fretboard. Playing left-handed means the opposite: your left hand picks the strings while your right hand is on the fretboard. You generally can’t use the same guitar because the strings have to be reversed, among other things. Sure, there is the odd example of people learning ‘backwards’ because they didn’t know any better, much less care. And you know what? You can get really good at playing any way you want. Keeping on track with this article though, they will probably ask you which hand is more dominant. How you answer that question may change the course of your guitar-playing life, so research yourself before you get to the store. Most likely a friend has a guitar, or sneak into the store the week before you intend to buy something and spend some time with both left- and right-handed instruments.
If you are a lefty…
Tony Iommi, Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix. If there were never any more lefty guitarists in the world, people would still learn left-handed because of these four. Obviously, the decision here is that if you are naturally left-handed, you should go and play left handed guitar. This is the only way it will ever feel ‘right’ and, well, what if those four players above had gone against nature. Would we have no more Hendrix, Beatles, Sabbath or Nirvana? Who knows, but if you are going to learn to play left handed, there are just a few things to consider.
You will be unfairly discriminated against. There are way more righties than lefties. Walk into a well-stocked guitar store and if there are 200 guitars, 195 of them being right-handed. Beginner guitars (the inexpensive ones) will be available as long as you like red or black. Sure, with enough money you can get anyone to build the guitar of your dreams, but until then, righties have the advantage. Chord books and the like were written with righties in mind, so you have to constantly (mentally) flip the descriptions and chord boxes.
You will most likely be the only lefty around your friends, so a jam session or get-together with guitars around the campfire assures that you can’t just pick up up any guitar and play. Lefties, however, might think of this as a bonus, as no one with pick up their guitar and start playing…
Classic guitars like the Fender Stratocasters built in the 70s and before certainly came in left-handed variations, but the magnet stagger in the pickups was for a right-handed guitar. This might give you a cool new sound, or it could make certain strings louder than they should be. Fortunately, Seymour Duncan offers flat magnets, or even reverse stagger if you want it. Most beginner guitars today are offered with pickups suitable for both left- and right-handed players.
My left hand is useless. I am a righty.
Hold on there. Right handed players actually use their left hand for all that complicated fretting, dontchaknow. If you are right handed, congratulations! When going out and choosing a guitar (and then, MORE guitars!), you will have a much easier time. The world of guitardom bows to you, so you won’t have any problems finding the right instrument, in any color or style you want. Who are some famous right-handed guitarists? Um, all of them except the four above. Not really, but almost. That is how many righties there are. With the hassle of finding instruments out of the way, you can get on to your rock star poses. Funny thing is that you look like a lefty in the mirror.
I am considered left-handed, because I write left-handed. I throw right-handed, although darts and archery are left-handed. Kicking is right(footed?), and eating is with whatever hand the fork is closest to. I can play drums left- or right-handed (kind of, as I am not a drummer). So I am not truly ambidextrous, more of a misfit that doesn’t have all the wiring down just one side, I guess. I learned right-handed. As a professional, I am glad I did, just for reason that it is easier to find instruments. This might not be a concern for most lefties, though. Players can learn on all sorts of instruments, and if the drive is there, you can learn on anything you have available. If I was on a deserted island with a left-handed guitar, I’d learn how to play it.
But Wait, There’s More
Steve Morse, Robert Fripp, Joe Perry, Paul Simon. These are lefties that play righty. I am sure it felt weird at first, but hey, it makes sense. Their most dexterous hand is on the fretboard – and for exact speed demons like Morse and Fripp, that is important. But again, it could also mean that when they were young, the only guitars around were right-handed ones. I have a student that is right-handed, but owned a left-handed guitar, so she is learning left-handed. Just fine, too. Did Tony Iommi and Jimi Hendrix excel because of their handed-ness, or because they are artists who worked hard with whatever they had? More importantly, what kind of guitarist are you going to be?
For the lefties out there, why did you decide to play left handed? Who are your favorite left-handed guitarists?