We lefties, as a people, have suffered perilously under the yoke of the right-handed scissor, the can opener, and of course the dreaded spiral notebook. It's too often that we find the odds stacked against us. Luckily, we can take a little solace in the knowledge that we are in good company. Lefties are to be found among notable scientists, world leaders and other luminaries, but especially in terms of left-handed guitarists. Some big names that are famous for shredding licks southpaw style are Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Kurt Cobain, Billy Elliot Easton, and Tony Iommi. Heck even Justin Bieber plays guitar lefty—oh wait, I said "good company."
Yes, it's reassuring to know that some of our kin have found their way into the highest echelons of musical stardom, but like so many other things for lefties, playing guitar in a world built for the right-handed can be tricky. For some extra encouragement and a caution to never leave us lefties out, we talked to some of our musical peers who also rock the axe backwards and asked about their own experiences.
Editor’s note: At Musician’s Friend we feel the pain of lefties, and offer an unmatched selection of acoustic and electric guitars and basses in left-handed models. In many cases, the lefty instrument costs no more than its right-hand counterpart. And we make it easy to find those southpaw models. Just choose a category such as Electric Guitars, then, in the left-hand sidebar under Subcategories, click on Left-Handed Electric Guitars, and voila, up pops a huge selection to choose from! Do the same with acoustic guitars and basses for equally left-hand-friendly results.
Surviving and Thriving in a Right-Hand World
Every guitarist faces some sort of obstacle, but with practice and adaptation, they find a way to cope. Lefties often face a completely different set of issues. Prolific country music singer and songwriter Jeffrey Steele says that when jamming with a couple right-handers it’s good to watch your guitar neck and bring a Plan B instrument.
On stage you’re always in the way because your guitar neck is in the opposite position, so you get dirty looks from other players sometimes when you get too close! Also, if a guitar is being passed around the campfire, you start to panic when your turn comes up. I deal with that by always bringing my harmonicas though.
There are the spatial concerns to take into account, but innovative self-taught solo guitarist Sean de Burca feels his biggest hurdle has been in the gear department. There's hope though, de Burca says, after a trip or two around the block, you'll find the right tools.
The biggest obstacle is definitely buying and researching a possible new guitar. There are a lot of guitars I'd be interested in, but, more often than not, they aren't available in a left-handed model. Left-handed guitars are also more expensive, another big downside. One of the most disheartening parts of it though is when I've been invited to guitar studios. I'll be surrounded by Greenfields, Bashkins, Carter-Poulsens and Parkers, and I'll only barely be able to play a few notes on them. However, I can cope with this because I have found a guitar that is perfect for my playing style! The Ibanez EW20.
One strategy to sidestep many of the usual issues accompanied with being a left-handed guitarist is to just train yourself as a right-handed one. This "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach has been adopted by natural lefties like B.B. King and Paul Simon. Accomplished singer, guitarist and songwriter Matt Kurzban brings this method successfully to the stage with his band DAMN GLAD.
I am a natural-born lefty. I decided at an early age that I was going to learn to play the guitar right-handed. My decision was very easy as all I had to do was think about what it would be like as a left-handed person to go over to someone's house and not be able to pick up their guitar and play it. Most guitars are right hand oriented. People find it strange when I tell them about this because it’s rare for a left-handed guitarist to play a right-handed instrument.
Giving the Right Hand a Try
Training yourself as a righty is certainly possible for some guitarists, and some even do a little of both, but the majority find it difficult to do anything other than what comes naturally. Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sarah Factor says that playing guitar for a pure left-hander can be very difficult, but a little flip-flopping can make an otherwise awkward instrument useable.
I can really only play a few chords on a right-handed guitar, but I'm pretty dumb with my right hand, unfortunately. I can play a righty ukulele upside down though!
Steele finds he can squeeze some use out of right-handed guitars by looking at them differently as well, and it has proven to be a skill that’s gotten him out of a pickle once or twice.
Right-handed guitar is hard because it's all upside down and requires chording, but I can fake it if I have too. I once did a live radio interview talking about a hit I wrote and they asked me to play it live. I tried to explain I couldn't because I was a lefty, but they didn't understand so I did it backwards on the spot and just slowed it down to give myself time to make the chord changes. They thought I was giving them a special version of the song but I was just buying time to figure out what to do.
Are Lefties Better Musicians?
Science hasn’t found an answer to the question, are lefties better at playing guitar? Chances are there is no definitive answer because it’s just not that simple. Of course there are opinions out there. Kurzban, admitting his partiality, does feel that he has a leg up in certain respects.
As a lefty, I am biased. I feel that left-handed musicians tend to think outside of the box musically because of our ability to adapt in a right-handed world.
Factor echoes Kurzban’s sentiment, but thinks all things are equal beyond the added creativity.
I think lefties are more creative. I wouldn't necessarily say they are better musicians though.
Tralian, a classical musician, composer and inventor of the Trillo, says that there are strengths in using either hand, but each player should put their dominant hand wherever it will perform best.
Lefties, like righties, can optimize their talent if they apply their hands where they will excel the best. Playing the guitar the way it was designed, with the fretboard positioned to the left with the left-hand fingering the board, makes a better musician on the fretboard I think than a right-handed player. Playing a guitar reversed will make a better musician using the tremolo lever and controls. Playing a two-handed method, the dominant hand should play over the top of the lesser hand.
Gear: Finding the Perfect Fit
For a lefty, finding the right guitar can be one of the biggest struggles. The fattest part of the guitar’s market share is in right-hand guitars, so not only are prices often higher, but sometimes certain models are not even available in a left-hand version. What ends up happening? For guitarists like de Burca and many others, it’s all about customization.
The guitar I own is my dream guitar. I have customized it as my playing has developed. It is an Ibanez EW20lase-nt with a K&K Trinity Mini pickup (3 transducers under the bridge and a condenser mic in the sound hole), the bridge, saddle and nut have all been customized too, to help with intonation and heavier strings.
Jez Lowe, who has built an enviable reputation as a songwriter and performer in the world of acoustic music, says some of the best guitars for lefties are custom-made.
My first custom-made left-handed guitar was made by Fylde Guitars for me in 1977, and was the best guitar I ever had. It was stolen in 1994, sadly. I wish I had it now. I have another Fylde now, plus a Guild, a Taylor, and an old Yamaha, all proper left handed instruments, and I like them all.
Bassist for the band Protestant, Jesse Smith, has been playing lefty in hardcore bands since the mid-90s. To Smith, affordability and sound are still the most important considerations, and these features are still available to the left-handed rocker.
I like what I currently play, Fender Jazz Mexicans. They are affordable and sound good. If I had something nicer and more expensive, I would probably snap the headstock on it.
Left-Handed Silver Lining
While it comes with its sticking points, left-handed guitar playing has a couple advantages that you might not immediately think about. It works out nicely, de Burca says, if you aren’t keen on letting just anybody handle your gear.
I am so protective over my Ibanez, being left handed does come in useful when someone asks me if they can play my guitar, or when someone asks to use my guitar for their live set. I can always say "sorry dude, I have a left-handed guitar". No lefties have asked to use my guitar... yet.
There is also just a certain prestige to joining the class of talented left-handed guitarists, Steele thinks that playing left-handed is a charming standout that will get you noticed.
In the end we usually are the most creative, and we bring a new twist to how music is created. Hendrix, McCartney, and Kurt Cobain all changed history. Some even accuse me of doing that in country music all because I saw it differently.
Smith jokes that being left-handed has even gotten him out of performing some less than glamorous guitar-related activities.
Hey, at least it gets me out of having to play Guitar Hero.
Cranking Out the Riffs Just a Little Different
While many in the music world may see southpaw picking and strumming as upside down and backwards, the truth is that it’s all a matter of perspective. Without embracing the world’s left-handed axe men and women, everyone would have missed out on some classic jams. As for those just getting their start, it doesn’t matter which hand you pick your guitar up with, as long as you pick it up.
Will we always be doomed to bump elbows at the dinner table with our right-handed neighbors and be stuck in a many a mildly awkward high-five situation? Sure. But as a left-handed guitarist, you are participating in a proud rocking tradition, just a little different than most.