Left-Handedness and Musicianship

A look at the role lefties have had in the music community.

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Ultimate Guitar
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For today's article I would like to look into the relationship between handedness and musicianship.

The music community, although it is biased toward righties (like the rest of the world), talks a fair amount about left-handed guitarists. That's great, but there's a question that's been bothering me: we've talked about lefties playing guitar lefty and righties playing righty, but what about lefties playing righty and righties playing lefty?

It's hard to know if a musician fits into this category because we primarily base our perception of his hand-dominance on performances. By looking at offstage sources such as interviews and record signings, we can see that it is surprisingly common. Two of the most iconic left-handed musicians, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, are actually the opposite. This phenomenon is more common among lefties disguising themselves as righties. These offenders include Duane Allman, Billy Corgan, and Joe Perry. As a lefty who plays instruments right-handed, I believe this is the best way to learn guitar or bass.

Unlike a pianist, whose hands share the same function, a guitarist's left and right hands have completely different roles. While the fretting hand's job requires great dexterity and serves as the voice of the instrument, the picking hand simply helps out by keeping time and picking when needed. I know this is a very simplistic description: the picking hand can add creatively and the fretting can carry rhythm. Many advanced techniques involve one hand doing the other hand's job, such as tapping and picking a note with the left hand to perform a dive-bomb. Very often, however, this generalization holds true.

For this reason, I have always found it odd that most guitarists use their off hand as their fretting hand. Why use your weakest hand for the role that requires the most dexterity? Since I'm lefty but play righty, I am able to use my dominant hand to fret and use my weaker hand to pick. My left hand already has an advantage in the coordination needed to fulfill its role and my right hand does not suffer since the skills it needs to learn are based on wrist development, precision, and stamina, all of which do not require dexterous fingers.

While learning to play off-handed could pay off in terms of technique, it also can be much more convenient. Josh Middleton of Sylosis fame encourages new guitarists to learn right-handed no matter what. His logic is that since you always suck at first, you might as well just suck right-handed so you have more options when buying new guitars. This also allows you to avoid being that guy who can't play in an unplanned situation because he does not have the appropriate guitar with him. Think about how many spontaneous jam sessions would be killed if you didn't think to bring your guitar and couldn't play anyone else's.

This issue is even more problematic for drummers, since at most smaller gigs everyone has to share the same drum set. I can imagine that it would be really annoying to reconfigure an entire drum set before and after a band's set because the drummer couldn't play any other way. When I was first learning the drums, I was part of a class of five students and one teacher. Since we all had to share the same kit, my teacher told me that I would just have to learn it configured for righties, even though it was uncomfortable at first. I adapted to the situation by playing open style, similar to Will Carroll, the current drummer of Death Angel. I eventually grew tired of playing that style and eventually learned to play exclusively right-handed, simply because I felt like it.

I feel that it is interesting how musicians decide which way they play. Paul McCartney was right-handed, but has stated that left-handed guitars felt the most natural. I completely flipped my drumming style, showing that a person could be both. Jimi Hendrix was known for being a left-handed guitarist, but was rumored to have been able to flip the guitar and continue playing whenever his dad came into the room, probably because he was actually a righty.

If you are a new musician trying to decide which is right for you, it might make sense to make a calculated decision based on the ideas above. For some of you, though, the best bet may be to go with your gut and do what seems right. While there are some benefits that could come from deciding which way to play, the best option is ultimately the one that leads to the best success.

If you have any cool stories about how you or another musicians' handedness affected your musicianship, be sure to share them below.

About the Author:Ryan Loftus is a solo artist and multi instrumentalist from Philadelphia, PA. Specializing in metal, rock, and exotic music. For more information, check out his website ryanloftusonline.com.

41 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Vrstone87
    I'm a lefty but have always played right handed guitars.
    jfbrown42
    Me too. My friend Bob is a lefty and plays lefty guitars, and he is always in situations where he can't play because he doesn't have his guitar with him. Plus when we walk into a guitar store, he has about 3 guitars in the whole store to look at.
    teknoman
    I'm righty but I play lefty guitars because I injured my left arm at a young age and I can't rotate my wrist, however learning guitar felt more natural to me when I used my dominant hand for fretting. At first I played lefty on a right handed guitar (with the strings upside down) but I re-strung it after a while because it made everything so much easier to play. The only downside about playing lefty is the very limited variety of guitars you can get and you can't be picky about the color, actually you feel lucky when you find any lefty guitar at your local music shop. And whenever you have to make a complex task (like writting) you always choose your dominant hand over the other... that's why I think guitar was invented by a left handed.
    Wiencon
    I am lefty and play lefty for about one year. I've played right for about 3 years and after 1 year I am far better playing lefty. I figured that's because picking is all in wrist and through whole life I've been using my wrist in writing so it's more precise and more dextrous. Fingers are about same dexterity in both hands, I play piano for 13 years now and I can really tell, that fingers in my right hand are far more flexible and fast. I believe lefties should play lefty, of course You can learn right, but believe me, You will see better results much quicker. Holding pick in my right hand doesn't feel natural at all although I've played this way for 3 years! What really sucks is selection of lefty guitars, but I acquired Ibanez 721 and ESP E II so I guess I can't complain at all And what's very important - it looks cool as hell http://s3.favim.com/orig/42/a7x-avenged-...
    Cazman
    I'm a lefty and I play lefty, everything else has always felt very wrong. It does make it more difficult to find a good guitar though, and I pay extra in the end.
    Octane Twisted
    Yes but... if you have a lefty and a righty your band you get stage symmetry, which damn cool
    ironmanben
    I'm lefty and I play lefty and I don't feel like I'm losing any dexterity. It's all down to what feels right to the individual person. I've noticed that playing lefty allows you conveniently get out of things you don't feel like dealing with too. For example... "Bro can I try/borrow your guitar" becomes "Oh wait it's lefty, never mind I can't play that" real fast. "Come jam with me bro, grab a guitar" If I'm not feeling it I can be like "Nah, I'm lefty so I can't". And there are a lot of times when I haven't been feeling it for a variety of reasons. It also stands out onstage and gives people one more thing to remember about your band if they're paying enough attention. I get around the whole thing of not being able to just pick up a guitar and jam (when I want to) by being that guy who brings my guitar almost everywhere just in case.
    primus182
    I'm a lefty and I play lefty! And it's hard to find good guitar. and fu****ck this shit, fender didnot made american white lefty telecaster!!
    Chris4614
    I'm a lefty, and when I started I was given the advice 'hold the guitar whichever way feels more comfortable' I know it's harder and more of a hassle learning, also the limited availability in the shops but.. to my mind the heart of the song is in the rhythm and it's the strumming or picking hand that takes care of that. If you're a natural lefty and you try to play the other way round doesn't feel right and could cause problems with rhythm. I've never regretted playing lefty for a second!.. my stage name is even 'left hand Chris'
    MaggaraMarine
    You need both hands to play the guitar. I wouldn't call either hand more important. I'm right handed and playing right handed always felt more natural to me. In other words, when I started, playing right handed felt less weird than playing left handed. It's kind of strange - guitar is one of the few instruments that have both left and right handed versions. Or I'm sure that other instruments also have left handed versions, but they aren't popular. For example look at the violin. Everybody plays it "right handed". Same with the piano. I'm sure you could reverse the keyboard (at least on a digital piano) but it would just make no sense. French horn is always played "left handed". I don't see the point in "left handed" versions of a "right handed" instrument. You need both hands to play the guitar. There are no left handed violins, but left handed violinists do exist. I don't see the reason why we need left handed guitars.
    Clark Griswold
    Lefty who has played lefty for years. Hate going to a guitar super store with 150+ guitars and only 3 of them are cheap lefties.
    theogonia777
    For this reason, I have always found it odd that most guitarists use their off hand as their fretting hand. Why use your weakest hand for the role that requires the most dexterity?" I think the author is severely underestimating the dexterity required in the picking hand, particularly in metal rhythm guitar that requires crazy accuracy with alternate picking, string skipping, cross picking, palm muting, etc; bluegrass playing which, again, requires a mean and precise right hand for rhythm and fast and consistent picking for solos; and pretty much any sort of style that involves heavy use of finger picking, such as certain styles of country, classical guitar, slide playing, ragtime and jazz fingerpicking, etc.
    paddinou
    I don't agree with an important point in the article. The author says than the fretting hand needs more dexterity and that's why he doesn't understand why guitarists use their off hand on the fretting board. When you are a beginner you are impressed by the dexterity of the fretting hand but when you become a better player you realize that the dexterity on the fretboard is not a problem whereas the accuracy and synchronization of the picking hand is much more difficult to improve specially when you play John Petrucci stuffs for instance. Even for a clever guitarist I think that both hands need the same work. it's 50/50. It's not just my point of piew, a lot of great guitarists say that the picking hand is the real deal. That's why playing you off hand as you fretting hand is not a problem.
    Silly_Man
    Yeah, it's not even funny how much more important the picking hand is compared to the fretting hand. It takes a really long time to master techniques like directional picking and sweep picking to the point where you can use them cleanly and as fast as you want.
    esky15
    I find that a lot of tasks I do with my right hand, I can do without looking and it always feels more comfortable. When I pick, I don't look at the strings, it seems more natural. I think your picking hand is more important than fretting. Of course this is subjective to the genre of music, as well as your own opinion. Your right hand does more than just strum. You need to pick individual strings, it keeps rhythm and timing, you get a lot of tone(if not all) from your picking hand. You need to be able to efficiently play quick notes in synchronization with your fretting hand or else it just sounds terrible.
    jefman roxx
    I'm a lefty and there's only two things I do right handed... Wipe my ass, and shake hands.
    richriverkaraok
    I'm right-handed but have always played left (< see pic). I don't know why as this is almost the only thing I do left-handed (the other is billiards :/ ) The first time I picked up a guitar I just naturally played it left and my mum just got it restrung instead of telling me to play it the other way (she was a huge McCartney fan so perhaps she was happy about this). However I've always wished I'd learned to play right-handed for two reasons. Firstly, as has been mentioned being left sucks when it comes to guitar choice is it's limited and lefty models often cost a bit more, and yeah whenever you go somewhere and someone asks you to play or jam you can't unless you've happened to bring your own guitar - although this factor has also allowed me to learn to play basic chords upside down. Secondly, I disagree with the author that using your non-dominant hand for picking is better. I have always seen myself more as a rhythm than lead player because I've always struggled with faster "shredding" type of playing and also faster riffs (eg speed metal) and my theory is that I'm using my weaker hand to pick with.
    BLeeTheKing
    I'm a lefty and play lefty. It sucks that I can't get a decent guitar (without spending a ****ton of money), but I've played this way for nearly ten years and have gotten at least okay at it.
    swave75
    I am a lefty who had to learn to play righty. I still play air guitar left handed though.
    DrYCeLL
    I'm a lefty, and I play lefty. I own 11 guitars and each one feels special to me. Their unique left-handedness and scarcity cause me to treasure each instrument I own. I also make more informed buying decisions because I'm never tempted by flashy sale prices, simply because lefties never get sales. Besides, you want kids to learn as comfortably as they can. With the attention span of "kids these days" at such a low, starting out both bad at the instrument and more awkward using it than the other way could be a recipe for someone to give up.
    JBTheLefty
    I'm lefty and play lefty. I play guitar as a secondary instrument, I'm a primary tubist in Music school. My right hand was already fast from doing fingerings on tuba, so the transition made a little more sense.
    whirlpool
    I've always thought tabs were wrong way round for right-handers. They should be as if you're looking on a mirror ie bass strings up?
    Christianx93
    Personally, I am a tad ambidextrous and do many things with my left hand, such as eating and writing. However, my fingers on my left hand are completely retarded. My right hand fingers naturally were more susceptible to learning how to play. So I play left handed. It was such a struggle figuring this out, but once I did, it changed everything.
    vppark2
    That was a great read man! I have been wondering the same thing. Ive nvr played a lefty guitar before, but one day I thought of possibly getting one just so I could switch roles and possibly get better, but of course that would take a ton of time, since it's a whole new world, and your muscles arent used to it, especially if youve been playing for so many years. Thankfully Im still young tho so it's def not too late. Also, Im not sure if having my dominant hand being the fretting hand would make a difference. Like...I cant imagine my left hand using a pick in all honesty.
    koosher
    My Dad is left-handed but plays right-handed. I've heard him tell stories about how he was encouraged to just learn to be right-handed while he was growing up. Despite being right-handed and having several "correct" guitars I could've learned to play on, I was just never really able to get it. So my Dad bought me a left-handed guitar, and I was finally able to progress. Now that I am a somewhat proficient guitar player I have made some attempts at playing a right-handed guitar, and I do believe if I put in enough effort I could probably develop some ambidexterity in my playing, but at this point I think I'll just stick with what I've learned. I've learned some ukulele chords on a right-handed version, and I think I would have the same awkward feeling were I to switch around the strings. I think that anyone with a bit of skill could probably figure out how to play the mirrored version. All of the information is in your head, the tricky part is managing to flip it around. It is very frustrating though, to walk into a guitar store not so much to browse, but to find the handful of guitars (in a best case scenario) I can actually play.
    Ottmeister
    "Hendrix was rumored to have been able to flip the guitar and continue playing whenever his dad came into the room" Why would he flip the guitar when his dad came in the room?
    atxC3000
    Many people throughout history thought that lefties ''carry the devil in them'', so they made their lefty kids right-handed. My dad didn't like my left-handedness because everything is made for right-handed people, so he made me use my right hand for most things. I had many difficulties as a kid because of that, but I'm now ambidextrous, which is pretty cool! Maybe Jimi's father didn't like his son's left-handedness too?
    Shavyi
    I'm a lefty for writing, but everything else is done with my right hand. For the guitar, it was all natural to play on right-handed guitars : my left hand is way more agile, so it was obvious to my that it had to be my fretting hand !
    stephen.avery
    I've thought about this often. I'm a righty who plays righty. But when I'm not playing guitar, my left fingers are far less coordinated and quick as my right hand. I often think about buying a lefty guitar and trying to catch up. It would be interesting to see if my right hand would be more of a shredding possibility.
    Ravenfaust
    LOL. So this guy is suggesting right handers play lefty to suit his theory. Because according to him the fretting hand is more important. If right handers did that, would it make them all more 'gifted'? What sets the lefty guitarists apart in their talent is the fact that they are all RIGHT-BRAINED. Billy Corgan, Joe Perry, Allman, Knopfler doesn't count for shit for your theory because their playing guitar right-handed doesn't make them any less right-brained because in other activities they're left handed. Is it so hard for you to see that, author?
    N7Crazy
    I'm slightly ambidexterous, using my right hand for 90% of all tasks, but using my left to mainly write with and do a number of, from what I can see, completely random tasks. I play right, simply because it felt right as my left hand is more flexible than my right, the other being however more precise in a rough scale. This has also meant that up to a certain point, it begins to be a problem since my right hand can't follow up with my left...
    Duaneclapdrix
    I think guitar is played right handed because, traditionaly, it was plucked. Thats what I always figured. I'm left handed and play right. Even classical guitar. It just felt more natural.
    RyanLoftusMusic
    Interesting theory. That makes sense finger picking requires more coordinated involvement from the fingers.
    Theclitcommande
    I am right handed but always played left it just felt natural.I got tired of lack of options so I started building my own