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Beginners: Left- or Right-Handed?

Any left-handed player who has ever stepped into a guitar store will have discovered a distinct lack of left-handed instruments. The situation is even worse when we are looking for quality 3/4 or 1/2 size instruments for children. Consequently I’m often asked if it’s really necessary for left-handed beginners to learn to play left-handed guitar. I don’t think it is, and this is why…

First, let me introduce you to two arguments that commonly appear in this kind of discussion.

For most right-handed folk/pop/rock/blues/jazz guitar players their fretting hand does most of the work, i.e. their left hand. Right-handed players are actually using their ‘weak’ hand in the most important position. Their ‘dominant’ hand, the right hand, often does little more than strum. It’s not logical for right-handed players to do this and it should be easier for left-handed musicians to play right-handed guitars.

However, many guitarists (particularly classical, country, and jazz players) pluck the strings with the fingers of their strumming hand in complex patterns that require a considerable degree of speed and coordination. The argument here is that players should pluck the string with their dominant hand, i.e. a left-handed player should use their left hand hand to to pluck the strings, just as right-handers do with their right hand.

We seem to have two opposing arguments. Which one is correct? The answer is in fact neither.

Learning the guitar involves developing complex new motor skills with our hands and fingers and we must learn these new skills from ‘scratch’. Those skills don’t yet exist with either hand and that means that beginning to play the guitar is equally awkward and uncomfortable no matter which way we play the instrument. Our dominant hand has no advantage over the weaker hand. When we look at other musicians and instruments it becomes clear that this is indeed the case and that both hands are equally capable of all the skills required to become an excellent musician.

Pianos and keyboards are made just one way. We don’t see left-handed pianists playing reversed pianos with the low notes on the right and the high notes on the left. The same is true of organs, xylophones, marimbas, and glockenspiels and a great many other instruments. Equal levels of dexterity are required of both hands. Indeed, there are scientific studies that show no difference in playing ability between right- and left-handed classical pianists, for either hand, in terms of timing, accuracy, or speed. This means that both hands are equally capable of all the skills necessary to play music at the highest levels. It also means that the handedness of the musician relative to the instrument is of no consequence.

Similarly, saxophones, clarinets, and oboes are generally made just one way (keys arranged for left hand on top, right hand below). Again, the same levels of dexterity are demanded of both hands and both hands are perfectly capable of doing what is demanded of them. And switching the hands from up to down will offer no advantage either. In this case there is simply no benefit to making these instruments ‘the other way around’.

With string instruments (violin/viola/cello/double bass) nearly all classical players learn what guitar players would think of as ‘right-handed’ and fingering is done with the left hand, i.e. their weaker hand. But in the classical world this is generally regarded as standard technique, and not right- or left-handed. Again, there is no physical disadvantage to left-handed or right-handed musicians in learning the standard technique.

So, we see that it simply does not matter if you are right- or left-handed. Anyone can learn to play equally well no matter which instrument they play or ‘which way round’ it is. However, there are two disadvantages to playing left-handed guitars that I think should be given some consideration. They are not insurmountable and you may think of them as relatively minor but they should be given some consideration.

First, as mentioned above, there is the problem when buying left-handed instruments. As many guitar players will eventually make an investment in an instrument that best suits their preferred playing style, taste, and personality, this a problem for left-handers. But most manufacturers produce only a limited selection of their range in left-hand versions and most of what is available will not usually be stocked by guitar stores and must be specially ordered.

Second, in a world dominated by right-handed guitars, those who play left-handed are rarely able to pick up the nearest guitar (at a party, for instance), and play any time they like. And that’s important because music is a cultural activity with such a strong social component…

“Emily is a fantastic guitar player! Emily, come play something for us!”
“Oh, I’d love to but I can’t play a right-handed guitar! Sorry!”

Left-handed people do get a raw deal sometimes, and I am sympathetic to that. I do not believe that everybody should be forced to learn everything right-handed or to constantly suffer right-handed implements. (To right handed people don’t understand this – try using a regular scissors or can opener ‘left handed’). But I also do not believe that left-handed people should use their right hand for fretting the guitar simply because it’s the opposite of what right-handed people do. Centuries of experience with other instruments has shown us how unnecessary that is.

As a guitar teacher I am always happy to teach anyone, be they left-handed or right-handed. And I will never encourage someone who has already begun playing left-handed to switch (because having already begun playing one way, switching to the other will be time-consuming and very frustrating). But there is no evidence that handedness of the musician poses any advantage or disadvantage to the playing of their chosen instrument.

As learning to play ‘right-handed’ guitars poses no physical disadvantage to beginning left-handed students but offers the advantages of choice and convenience, I think that left-handers beginning their guitar journey should give serious consideration to buying right-handed instruments.