Lefty Week: The Life of a Lefty

Published on 14 August 2019

How does it feel to approach life as a lefty?

It’s lefty week here at guitarguitar, and it’s high time we spared a thought for the plight of the southpaw guitarist! 10 percent of us are left-handed, and for whatever reason, men are more likely to be lefties than women. That's a lot of guitar players!

In the harsh and scary past, those of the sinister disposition were forced into using their right hands with violence and abuse. The term ‘sinister’ comes from the Latin sinistra, which merely translates as ‘left’ but somehow became ‘evil’ during the Classical era. This may be down to superstitions about ‘leftness’ in general being looked on as being negative and unwanted: Ancient Romans saw birds flying on their right-hand side as being a good omen (is this where the notion of the term ‘right’ being used as ‘correct’ came from?) and birds on the left being bad, or sinister.

Those Romans, man. They were probably the ones who coined the term ‘skating goofy’ to shame those who propel skateboards with their left foot. It’s a cruel world.

Confessions of a Traitor

This particular writer is a traitor: a left-handed individual in every aspect of life apart from playing musical instruments. I write with my left hand, point with my left hand, kick a ball with my left foot...but I play the guitar right-handed, have drums set up right-handed and, weirdly enough (I notice this as I type), feel better with my computer’s mouse in my right hand. This wasn’t the case when I was a young chap playing endless hours of The Secret Monkey Island on my Commodore Amiga, so something must have changed there...could this be society’s subtle social conditioning? Have my hands secretly submitted to cultural peer pressure?

Since I’m a traitor and play right-handed guitars, I don’t know what it’s like to experience the world of music as a true lefty. I picked up a guitar mainly because my older brother had gotten one and I thought it looked awesome. I’d also just gotten the CD of Monster by REM and was enthralled by the big, juddering noises I could hear throughout the songs. I desperately wanted to mimic them and so set out to play a guitar primarily to do just that. The incredible tremolo sounds in Crush With Eyeliner turned out to be tremolo from Peter Buck's Mesa Boogie Trem-o-verb amp, but 12 year old's don't have access to that kind of info back in 1994! Having no concept of the ‘tremolo’ effect, or of the subject of effects at all really, this particular sound eluded me for some years...

The point is, I didn’t know that guitars even came in left-handed variations! I simply needed a guitar. Much like the right-handed violin I borrowed from school in Primary 5 to have three agonising lessons on before sacking the whole idea, I just assumed that a guitar was a guitar. As such, I cracked on by myself, beginning an obsession that is now a quarter of a century long. I was already well on my way to becoming a competent player before I came across the notion of a left-handed guitar. I wasn’t a fan of the Beatles, so Paul McCartney’s left-handed Hofner bass wasn’t something that was on my radar. Kurt Cobain certainly was, but I didn’t even notice his guitar was left-handed! If you aren’t looking for them, you tend not to see them!

So how has this affected my guitar playing? I would say there were short term benefits and long-term issues.

The benefits were that my dominant hand was doing all the ‘tricky’ bits: forming notes & chords, applying vibrato, and getting my adolescent shred on! I got better than my mates faster since their left hands were struggling where mine wasn’t. In terms of my right hand, I never remember having problems, certainly not with using plectrums. I figured that if I had to learn something, I’d just get on with it and learn!

In the long term, what I’ve noticed is that certain relatively simple things have proven themselves to be difficult for me. The main one was finger-picking: it took a lot of patience and perseverance to be able to apply the standard ‘p-i-m-a’ techniques to my unruly right hand. I got there in the end, but my right-handed guitarist pals got there long before me, issuing puzzled looks in my direction as they did so! I could slay them at a Satriani solo, but they could play Norwegian Wood without having to push their right hand into crippling positions and adopt crumpled war-face expressions like I had to.

It wasn’t even a case of learning to shred and forgetting the basics: I was a big fan of arpeggios and effects as soon as I knew what both things were: Radiohead and U2 had as much to answer for as Sepultura and Nine Inch Nails when I was a teenager! It just so happened that my left-handedness afforded me an aptitude for speed and expression that my right-handed contemporaries didn’t find until later on.

More recently than this, I’ve attempted (on numerous occasions) to master some proper Flamenco techniques, and again, the non-dominant right hand is proving to be something of an issue. Right-handed players can confirm to me that Flamenco is tough, full-stop, so there’s an element of relief there, but I still think it’s a disadvantage being left-handed in this respect.

Case Study

But how is it for somebody who plays left-handed? Even though we, at guitarguitar, make a point of keeping more left-handed guitars in stock than any other guitar retailer, it’s still an uneven playing field. I decided to speak to a genuine lefty, who plays left-handed, about the trials and tribulations of being a left-handed guitarist. To protect his identity, we’ll call him Neal.

Neal has been playing since he was around ten. “My parents took me to a shop in town and the man put two black Stratocasters into my hands: identical except one was left-handed. I tried both and immediately preferred the lefty one. The right-handed one just didn’t feel right. So, we bought the left-handed one and I began to learn.”

This is actually the easiest way to determine which ‘handedness’ to use in guitar playing: handle both, and even if you can’t play a single note, one will appear more ‘correct’ to you.

Just go with it! Why fight against nature?

Neal had some interesting comments to make about the acquisition of guitars. Generally, he didn’t find too much to complain about in terms of availability of guitars, though he concedes that many southpaw players on online forums do get annoyed at the lack of choice.

“In the UK or the US things are fine, really. It’s more like, if you’re in India or Eastern Europe, it’s hard: there’s less choice”. He also added that, before the likes of guitarguitar brought in vast amounts of left-handed guitars, he would often order from the States and have the guitars shipped over.

Though Neal mentioned his opinion that a guitar is a tool before it’s anything else (implying that perhaps it’s the collectors and not the players who criticize the lack of lefty guitars...), he did say that he enjoyed the ‘hunt’:

“I can trawl online sites for a month, looking for a particular type of guitar to turn up, watching and waiting to jump on it as soon as it becomes available! It’s very satisfying. I bookmark ‘left-handed guitars’ on eBay and look every day, something that right-handed people probably don’t have to do”.

Some brands charge more for left-handed versions of their guitars. Neal is philosophical about this, citing two prominent examples:

“Fender charge the same price for their lefties, but they don’t offer anything like as much choice. Schecter, on the other hand, offer a huge range of left-handed guitars, but they charge more money for them. So it’s up to you: you either get the good price, or the good choice.”

Another interesting point Neal put across, based again on his interaction with lots of left-handed guitarists in online forums, is that lefty guitarists are far more likely to order custom-built instruments due to the comparative lack of choice out there.

A lot of the overarching thread to my chat with Neal boiled down to the basic notion of  ‘getting on with it’: from agreeing that left-handed guitars do look a little odd (“you get used to it”) to the notion of reading TAB and chords in a semi-backwards manner (“left-handed chord books are out there”), it’s very much ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.

That’s a great attitude to take. Basically, if you are a lefty, it’s no big deal.

Final Words

We have always, and will continue to be, major supporters of our left-handed brethren. If you are thinking of beginning to learn guitar and are undecided on whether to play left-handed or not, please do come into one of our stores and ask for help. It’s in our interests to be friendly and helpful to you, but it’s neither heads nor tales to us which way around you play! We’ll be happy to help you figure that one out and then equip you for your life as a guitarist!

Lefties reading this: do either of these stories ring true with you? Whether you are a ‘closet’ lefty like me (and Fripp, Bowie and Corgan) or a ‘true’ lefty like Neal, Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix, hopefully, some of our observations and experiences ring true with you too. We are all in this together, whichever way around we hold our beloved guitars. At guitarguitar, you’ll be welcome either way.

Until next time

Ray McClelland

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