A few months ago, I posted about being a left-handed musician in a right-handed world. At the time, I theorized about what would happen if I picked up a lefty guitar. And that was all I had: theory.
However, a little over a month ago, I sold my Vespa and bought a lefty Taylor after speaking with an incredible musician, firekid, who supported my theory both with his personal experience and ridiculous skills. I’ve only been learning for a few weeks, but it’s provided me with some great insights and I’d like to bust some myths for other musicians considering making a switch.
TRUE: It’s Totally Easier to Learn to Play Left-Handed as a Left-Handed Person
Logic told me this would be true; experience confirmed it. There’s a ridiculous myth that Southpaws have an advantage with right-handed guitars because of our increased dexterity on the fretboard. This seems to make sense on the surface until you consider the fact that more than 90% of the global population is right-handed. So why would one of the most popular instruments in the world – an instrument occasionally called “the people’s instrument” – be designed to favor a tiny minority? So, yeah, even without personal experience, that myth is busted.
Unless you’re doing crazy shredding or complex melodic work, your chord hand is pretty stationary. The busy work is carried out by your strumming or picking hand. While left-handed people are often more dextrous with our right hands than even right-hand dominant folks (partially because of how our brains work, partially because we’re forced to develop a certain amount of ambidexterity), it’s just plain easier to do the complicated fine-motor work with your dominant hand.
It took weeks for me to get even a basic strumming pattern down with my right hand and over two years to get something vaguely resembling finger picking. I had a basic, alternating bass pattern down with my left hand in about a week.
Now, this isn’t to say that I’ve miraculously transformed into a guitar goddess, but I’m picking it up a hell of a lot faster than I did with my wrong hand. Even the chord shapes are coming faster and cleaner. Right now, I’m mostly waiting on callouses to form so that I can play for longer stretches. I’m probably not going to be gigging lefty anytime in the next two months, but it’s not too far off.
We especially need to kill the wrong-handed-guitar-advantage myth because it’s toxic to fledgling musicians. It 1) tells them that they don’t know their bodies and can’t trust their instincts, 2) places an unfair expectation that they should be – if anything – excelling, and 3) blames any struggle they’re having on some personal failing rather than an inherent disadvantage. I’ve fallen victim to this messaging and it dramatically changed the way I’ve interacted with instruments – and not for the better. Let’s make sure I’m a member of the last generation of lefties to be fed this lie.
FALSE: Switching to Lefty Will Confuse You And Make Your Right Handed Playing Suffer
This one is completely inaccurate; in fact, the opposite is true. My right-handed guitar playing has improved as I’ve started practicing the left-handed guitar.
Now, putting down one instrument and immediately picking up the other is a little confusing. But if I pick up the guitar, sit for about 20 seconds, and consciously acknowledge that it’s either right- or left-handed, I have no issues. As a Southpaw, I’ve spent my entire life inverting things or doing things ambidextrously to use devices that aren’t designed for my body. If you’re a righty musician with some bizarre urge to play lefty, you might find it more difficult to switch between the two because it’s unlikely you’ve ever had to do anything similar. But if you’re a natural lefty, you’ve done this before, so don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.
The strumming and picking have strengthened my left hand so that my chords are cleaner when I play righty. I’m even beginning to use bar-chords, which were completely over my head until I started playing lefty. Last night I randomly decided I’d play an F major on the righty guitar after having abandoned bar-chords about 6 months ago. And it came out clean and clear. Multiple times.
Similar to how playing bodhrán left-handed improved my right-handed guitar strumming, the picking patterns I’m playing with my left hand are translating to my right hand when I pick up my Martin. If anything, playing guitar ambidextrously is reinforcing and strengthening my skills rather than diluting them.
TRUE: It’s a Great Boost to Your Self-Confidence and Builds Some Lefty Pride
As I said in my post about left-handed musicianship, it feels really awful to be told by teachers and mentors that you’re not trying hard enough or that maybe you just lack natural instrumental ability. I’d like to note that the teachers telling me this were right-handed. They had never experienced having to learn an instrument upside-down and backwards.
Finally having someone say “They’re wrong, go try it the way your body and instincts are saying you should” was freeing. We have a terrible habit, as a culture – perhaps as a species – of devaluing the experiences of others that don’t align with our own. It’s insidious, toxic, and pervasive. My experience with this behavior as a lefty or similar actions by my male peers as a woman are drops in the bucket compared to the way it affects minorities or all kinds in the U.S. (and presumably other countries).
The amount of empowerment I was able to claim by proving the negative words I was being fed were wrong was huge. I feel more capable, more independent. I feel like I have more ownership of my own being. My left-handedness became a valid part of my experience and identity. It wasn’t an excuse; it’s a source of power, something that makes me different from 90% of the world.
And that’s just something as minor as being allowed to use my dominant hand. Imagine how empowered someone would feel who spent their life being told their skin color or economic background or level of ability wasn’t limiting them; that they were just lazy. Imagine how something on that scale could change someone!
The Long and Short of It
So I learned that, yes, if you’re left-handed you may want to try a left-handed guitar. Chances are, you’ll find it more natural. It’s not that it’s impossible to learn to play righty; after all, there are lots of fantastic left-handed guitarists who never touch a Southpaw instrument. But make a decision because it’s what feels right to you, not what someone told you should feel right.
On a larger scale, I’ve learned that, when you tell someone how their experience should be their strength, you often transform it into their handicap. This isn’t to say that every complaint everyone has ever made is valid, but if you’ve never felt what someone is feeling, you may want to hesitate before you pass judgement. Advice, however well intentioned, is usually more helpful when it comes from a place of personal experience.
Picking up that guitar has transformed my left-handedness from a handicap to a unique feature. And, in a few months, I’ll be able to play every song I’ve ever learned or written on both a left- and right-handed instrument. How badass is that? How cool does that sound? It’s unlikely any righty has made or will make a claim like that. Thanks to embracing my individual gift – a gift that was a handicap a few months ago – I can pick up any guitar and play.
Fellow Southpaws, it’s time to stop fearing the Dark Side. Embrace it.