As a left-handed guitarist, I’m often asked “Why do you play guitar the way you do?” Sometimes the question is purely out of curiosity. Sometimes it’s out of concern that it might be easier to learn to play right-handed. It certainly would make choosing and buying a guitar a lot easier. One of my friends recently commented that there are probably more left-handed guitars in my home than there are in all the music stores within a fifty-mile radius of my house. I can tell you for a fact the exact number of left-handed guitars in all the music stores in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, unless some have been delivered while I’ve been writing this article, is currently zero.
Be that as it may, I usually answer any questions about my playing with the same question: Why do you play guitar the way you do? Why do right-handed use their left hands to do all that fancy fingerwork along the frets? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to have their dominant right hands flying all up and down the neck? From this perspective, one might wonder why every guitarist, not to mention bass player, banjo player, mandolin player, ukulele player, and even violinist, cellist and viola player wasn’t playing the other way ’round.
It’s easy to forget (or to overlook if you’re a beginning player) that there are several aspects to playing the guitar. It takes two hands, each of which has a specific job. One hand deals with fretting notes along the neck while the other is responsible for striking the strings (via strumming or picking) to produce the sound of the note. This hand has the additional task of providing the rhythm of the notes, determined by how it strums or picks the strings.
And when it comes down to it, most people feel more comfortable using their dominant hands as “rhythm control.” which is why right-handers strum with the right hand and left-handers strum with the left, leaving their non-dominant hands to take up the task of magically dancing on the fretboard. Thankfully for most people, the non-dominant hand usually steps up and handles the job fairly well.
A lot of lefties start out learning to play right-handed, Jimi Hendrix being one of the best-known examples. His father, believing the old “being left-handed is the mark of the Devil,” tried to make his son do everything right-handed. While Jimi learned to write right-handed (which contributes to many people believing he was right-handed and learned to play lefty for unknown reasons) and also to play guitar right-handed (as well as left-handed and upside down), he was far more comfortable playing left-handed. Thankfully for all of us, he played this way more often than not.
Paul McCartney also started out by trying to learn to play right handed. His “ah ha!” moment came when he saw a picture of Slim Whitman (who had a number of hits in Britain through the 1950s and, in 1956, was the first country singer to grace the stage of the London Palladium) and immediate began playing left-handed.
But Slim Whitman was a strange inspiration because he was actually right-handed. An accident had left him without most of his left-hand’s second finger so he taught himself how to play left-handed in order to use his fully-functional right hand on the frets.
Recent studies estimate that ten percent of the world’s population is left-handed. This is up from the four percent that was the estimate when I was starting school, and given the growth of humanity, it makes sense that this number is more than keeping pace. The “Society of Lefty Guitarists” continually adds names to its roll. Whatever your style of music, you’re bound to find a lefty to inspire you, whether it be Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas, the late Kurt Cobain, Perry Bamonte (who was with The Cure), Slipknot’s Paul Gray, the legendary Dick Dale, or Of Monsters and Men’s Ragnar Þórhallsson.
And you shouldn’t forget all the left-handed people who play guitar right-handed, for whatever reasons they may have. This list includes such luminaries as Robert Fripp, Gary Moore, Billy Corgan, Elvis Costello, Duane and Gregg Allman, Mark Knopfler, David Byrne, David Bowie, Chris Rea, Chris Martin, Ritchie Blackmore, Johnny Winter, Carl Wilson, Steve Cropper, Noel Gallagher, B.B. King, and Paul Simon.
The morale of all this? If being left-handed is keeping you from playing guitar, you’re missing out on making music! This week, we’ll look at how to pick a side (to play left or right handed) as well as pick a guitar and explore some of the myths of playing left-handed. You’ll ultimately learn that regardless of which way you play, it’s all about being a guitarist first.
NEXT: CHOOSING A SIDE AND CHOOSING A GUITAR