Cage Match: Learning Right-Handed or Left-Handed

01-ball-joint-wired-design-660x438
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?

This is about the ratio of right- vs left-handed guitars in a typical store.
This is about the ratio of right- vs left-handed guitars in a typical store.

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.

He doesn't always wear black, you know. But his Patrick Eggle guitars in the 90s featured Duncans.
He doesn’t always wear black, you know.

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…

This Quarter Pound Flat can be used in right- or left-handed guitars.
This Quarter Pound Flat can be used in right- or left-handed guitars.

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.

Cobain's signature Mustang features a JB.
Kurt Cobain’s signature Mustang features a JB.

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.

My Story

Does this look weird to you?
Does this look weird to you?

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

Paul & John could share a microphone because Paul was a lefty.
Paul & John could share a microphone because Paul was a lefty.

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?

Join the Conversation

19 Comments

  1. Simple: I learned left-handed because my right hand isn’t stable enough to pick, but I can fret with it since it’s anchored somewhere, essentially.

  2. I’m a lefty but I play righty. I started on my dad’s guitar (he was righty). Maybe my left hand work has been easier/better, but I think the flip side it I’ve had to work my right hand twice as hard to make up for it.

  3. Didn’t Hendrix have to play both..? He wasn’t allowed to play left handed when his dad was at his shows. His dad thought left handedness was a sign of the devil! lol

  4. I’m a lefty, when I first started out I tried playing left-handed, but it didn’t seem right. so I learned to play right-hand.

  5. I’m a lefty but I constantly find myself doing things right handed or either way. I learned to play right handed and it felt pretty awkward at first, but I got used to it and at least am glad that there are so many choices when it comes to being a “righty” guitarist.

  6. I am a lefty. My dad bought me my first guitar for Christmas when i was 18. It was right handed. I struggled and gave up. I once read where Eric Clapton almost gave up because playing guitar was hard. Could you imagine if we never had Clapton? I eventually picked it up and finally got it right. Now 20 years later i couldn’t imagine playing left handed

  7. Thereabouts ambidextrous, but confused as to why a right handed guitar favours a right hander, one requires far greater more from the fretting hand than the picking hand unless picking really intricate patterns over infrequent chord changes. I think perhaps the first few minutes of learning to get a sound out of a guitar might be easier strumming with a dominant hand, but beyond that it’s becomes a lesson in off-hand coordination.

  8. I am mostly right-hand dominant (writing, eating, firearms, etc…) However, due to a wood working accident to my left hand when I was 14, I play lefty. All of my guitars were purchased (or 1 is modified) as lefties. For the most part, I can walk into a guitar store and be back out in less than 15 minutes. (I just look for the ones that are “backwards”. LOL!). There are MORE companies that are producing lefty guitars than what there have been in the past. SOME companies do levy an up-charge for a lefty model so watch out for that as some are rather steep ( in my opinion).
    Keep in mind though…It matter not WHAT you play, just that you DO PLAY! 🙂

  9. To the lefties playing right-handed and to the righties playing left, do you find yourselves leaning more on legatos rather than speed picking fast runs? Do you focus more on the melody and harmony rather than rhythm when writing?

    1. Oh, I’m a lefty that plays right-handed. I decided to play right-handed guitars simply because it’s easier to find right-handed stuff.

  10. I am lefty playing right-handed. So are Chris Rea, Mark Knopfler, Danny Gatton, Gary Moore, Shawn Lane… I’ve learned to play basic chords on my buddy’s righty guitar. When my parents finally bought me one, I didn’t want learn it all over again, so I just continued playing right-handed. 20 years later, I still play guitar for living. I definitely had some trouble with fast picking, but thought very deep about that and practiced a Iot, and I learned how to relax my right hand and ”feel” it more. On the other side, better connection with fretting hand allows me to learn stuff faster and vibrato & bending are ”organic”. Also, the look on people’s faces when I grab a pen with my left hand after a gig – unbeatable. But I think that this lefty-righty discussion is futile in a way. I mean, how many lefty piano players are there? What choice do they have?

  11. I’m convinced that the majority of players actually play left-handed. I know they say it’s right-handed, but I disagree. I think the majority of people being right-handed is the only reason it became know as playing right-handed when actuality the standard guitar is designed to be played left-handed.
    I’m naturally right-handed, if by that you mean which arm is stronger or which arm I throw with. However, I do most things left-handed–I think probably because I’m left-eyed. Given that and the fact that I’ve played guitar since I was a tween over 30 years ago, if I had to choose one to keep and lose the other, I’d choose my left.

  12. I’m left handed and play right handed guitar. I’ve been playing for about 13 years and I can say that playing right handed just felt right. No pun intended. My left hand was able to form chords a lot better and I also noticed I had better hand and eye coordination going on when I played right handed. I do notice that I struggle with shredding. I don’t know if it has to do with my picking or my finger work but it has proven to be a little difficult for me to achieve. Anyone else have this issue with being left handed playing right handed and having issues doing metal genre sweeps and shreds?

  13. I am right handed! I write with my right hand, throw with my right, bat with my right, play hockey with my left. I would have to shoot a rifle with my right if have too because when I aim with my left my eyes get crossed. However, when I play the guitar I play it left handed. I tried play it right handed and it did not agree with me. My father tried to teach me when I was 6 years old. It was very very frustrating no matter how I try to finger it, it was very unsuccessful. So I gave it up. Mind you that my brothers and my sister plays guitar and plays it right handed. The funny thing is I was still interested in playing the guitar, because I love music, especially rock and country music. Later on in the years I looked at my brother’s guitar and decided to flip it over to left handed and felt comfortable and fretting with my right hand and strumming with my left agreed with me so a friend of my mother had a guitar and gave it to me, and had it set up as a left handed guitar. Before I know it I was starting on my and now it has been exactly 34 year that I am playing the guitar now. I do not regret it!!! I love to play it. Left handed that is.

  14. Im a lefty and it never felt natural to strum with my right hand so I never thought I could actually learn to play guitar. I could attempt to practice right handed a few days in a row then when I would randomly air guitar lefty. One day I pulled my cheap guitar out of storage and restrung it upside down and flipped it over. Turning my right handed acoustic into a lefty was best decision I made. Now I have been playing daily for a couple of years now and having fun with it. Finding a selection of left handed guitars is a pain. Literally walked into 10 huge guitar stores and only found 3 lefties… 2 were the same and 1 I already had (same color too). But for me if I had not started playing left handed I wouldn’t be playing at all. My advice is to put on your favorite guitar solo and air guitar along with – then you will know which guitar to choose. 🙂

  15. Right handed player for 14 years here, had to start learning left handed guitar because of a thoracic outlet syndrome that basically killed my ulnar nerve. Had 2 surgeries but no results… just bought some lefty fender american standard and you know what? 2 months and I can play quite a few easy strum song with chords and already started improvising pentatonic solos. Strumming and riffs seem to be the hardest so far for me.

Leave a comment

Archives

Your Cart