MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
Should Left-Handers Play Left-Handed or Regular Guitars?
Left-handed people who want to learn to play the guitar have to make a choice between whether they want to play a regular right-handed guitar or a left-handed guitar. There is no simple answer to this question and in contrast to devices like scissors that clearly have left and right-handed versions, there are legitimate questions as to whether a left-handed guitar is better for a left-handed player.
Roughly 10% of the population are left-handed, 3% strongly left-handed and 7% with some degree of mixed-handedness otherwise known as being ambidextrous. The other roughly 90% are right handed with 60% being strongly right-handed and 30% having some degree of mixed-handedness. Strong-handed people will prefer to do all tasks with their preferred hand while mixed-handed people have some tasks they prefer to perform with one hand and others tasks they prefer to perform with the other hand. Mixed-handedness is more common in left-handed people than in right-handed likely due to them having to deal with many things designed for right-handed people. Fully ambidextrous people who use both hands equally are rare (below 1% of the population) and even they usually have one hand they favour. With single hand tasks the preferred hand is usually quite clear though mixed handed people do not prefer the same hand for all tasks. When it comes to two handed tasks, the preferences are more complicated. It is quite common in two handed tasks to have people favouring opposite stances to what their handedness would suggest such as the direction they hold a hockey stick, baseball bat or golf club. In comparison to those tasks, guitar is much more complicated with both hands performing difficult and complex movements.
Why the Guitar is Played Pointing Leftward
The standard right-handed guitar is held with the neck pointing to the left. This tradition of the guitar being held to the left like many of the traditions in guitar comes from the classical guitar which was the dominant guitar style when the guitar was being developed. Until the 20th century the guitar, both classical and popular, was mostly played by finger-picking instead of with a pick. In finger-style guitar both hands are performing complex and difficult tasks but the finger-picking right hand is the one performing the more complicated tasks. For this reason the right-hand was given the finger-picking task and the left-hand the fretting task resulting in the guitar pointing in the leftward direction.
In the last century, playing the guitar with a pick has become much more popular and widespread to the point where there are far more players who can play with a pick than with their fingers. Playing with a pick is a much simpler procedure than finger-picking yet the direction of the guitar has remained true to tradition. One could argue that theoretically for right-handed guitarists who have no intention of finger-picking, it may actually make more sense to play a left-handed guitar since the stronger right hand would be the one doing the fretting which is more complex than picking with the pick. On the other hand some people think the strong hand is better suited at keeping the rhythm than the weak hand and the picking hand performs this function whether it is using the fingers or a pick.
Regardless of whether one is playing with a pick or finger-picking both hands are performing complicated and difficult tasks. Any advantage won by switching one task to the strong hand has its counterpart in that the task performed in the other hand suffers an equal disadvantage. To a large extent playing the guitar is in itself an ambidextrous task regardless of the handedness of a guitarist.
Practical Disadvantages of Playing a Left-Handed Guitar
For a long time it was very hard to find left-handed guitars and many left-handers felt they had no choice but to play right-handed or they converted a right-handed guitar to play left or sometimes didn’t convert it at all and played it to the left and upside down. There was also a lot of stigma against being and playing left-handed. Fortunately this is not the case any more but unfortunately there are still a number of practical disadvantages to playing left-handed.
While left-handed guitars are readily available now they are still harder to get and usually more expensive than their right-handed counterparts. Many companies do not even make left-handed instruments and those that do often only produce a limited number of their models in left-handed versions. If you play left-handed you have to accept that you may not be able to buy the exact guitar you want and even if you are able to buy it you will probably have to pay more for it. While this may seem unfair it does cost guitar manufacturers a significant amount of money to change their machinery to produce left-handed guitars. Considering that only 10% of the population is left-handed and many left-handed guitar players play right-handed guitars, the market for these guitars is limited. This is unfortunate but on the other hand the guitar is one of the few instruments in which a left-handed version is available. Left-handed violins and cellos are very rare. Even rarer still are left-handed pianos despite left-handed pianists being at more of a disadvantage playing right-handed instruments than left-handed guitarists (the important melody notes are in their weaker right hand).
However, the main disadvantage to playing a left-handed guitar is not the lack of instrument selection and cost but the fact that you will not be able to play a standard guitar. Every time you are at a party and someone hands you a right-handed guitar you will not be able to play it. If you want to play guitar you will almost always have to have your own guitar around while if you played a right-handed guitar you would be able to borrow other people’s guitars or use whatever guitar is lying around. This is a major inconvenience for left-handed guitarists and something that will never change as long as 90% of people are right-handed.
My Personal Observations
I am not left-handed myself but have taught a large number of left-handed students of which about 50% played left-handed and 50% right-handed. I have seen no difference in ability between the two groups, ie. the left-handed guitarists who played right-handed played in general at the same level as those who played left-handed. Right-handers playing left-handed is more rare due to the practical disadvantages of playing left but they do exist. I have had one student who was right-handed but had an injury to his left-hand pinky so we decided it made more sense for him to play left-handed. He was able to learn playing the “wrong way” and progressed at the same speed that I would have expected had he played right-handed. One of my teachers was a left-hander who played right and he was known in particular for the precision of his finger-picking which he did with his weaker hand. When looking at famous left-handed guitarists there are equally impressive lists of those who played left-handed and those who played right-handed. And to confuse things even further, the most famous left-handed guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, seems to have been ambidextrous and wrote and ate using his right-hand though he threw and smoked with his left. The hard thing in analyzing these observations is that the guitarists are not simultaneously learning the instrument in both directions so one can not determine if they would have played better or worse in the other direction. Additionally the guitarists may have naturally inclined to left or right depending on their degree of mixed-handedness with the strong left-handers playing left and the more mixed-handers playing right. I have also heard of left-handed guitarists who have tried to and failed to play right and found it much easier when they switched to playing left. I have not had that experience with any of my students but that may indeed be the case for certain people.
My personal opinion, however, is that the guitar is an ambidextrous instrument and that most people also have some ambidextrous ability. That is not to say that the direction that it is played in is immaterial for every person or even most people. Most of us may be capable of learning in either direction but may still have a direction that is preferable. Also the statistics and tendencies of the general population can not be applied directly to a specific case. In other words while the tendencies of the general population are informative, each individual person is a special case who may or may not fit the standard practice. The brain is such a complicated organ that most of its functions including handedness are difficult to research and poorly understood. Thus, there is no standard answer for which way any individual left-handed person should play and the decision must be made on a case by case basis by each individual for themselves.
How to Decide Which Way to Play
The biggest difficulty for beginners in deciding which direction to play guitar is their inability to play the guitar. However, even if you are not able to play you should be able to try and hold a guitar and imitate as best you can what each hand is doing and try to see which way you feel more comfortable. Try both right-handed and left-handed guitars and see if there is a big difference between your comfort in playing one way or the other or if they are similar. If a store does not have a left-handed guitar try a right-handed one pointed in the other direction and upside down to get an impression of which you prefer.
What I think is important is that each individual person has an open mind and tries both ways of playing. I would even recommend that a right-hander buying his first guitar try playing in the other direction just to see how it feels. For the most part the practical disadvantages of playing left would dissuade most right-handers from playing left but it costs nothing to try and if for some reason playing left feels a lot more comfortable then they should consider playing this way. A left-hander should definitely try both ways of playing before making a decision and not assume either playing left or right is better. One should not think that since you are left-handed and there is a guitar called a left-handed guitar that you must play this way in the same way you would use left-handed scissors. Equally wrong would be to say there are too many practical disadvantages to playing left so you should play right because the majority of other people do. For someone who tries both guitars and does not find much of a difference either way, the practical issues might be a factor in your decision. If you have a strong preference to play one way or the other that should overrule any practical considerations. The most important thing is that you are playing in the way most suitable and comfortable to you.