Guitars come in both right and left handed varieties. Although they both behave and function in the same way, there are actually quite a few differences between the two.
Right handed guitars are usually the standard, and they’re more widely available than left handed guitars, but as a left handed player, don’t let that deter you from picking up the guitar – even some right hand dominant players prefer to play left handed guitars.
When you first start learning guitar, it’s not always obvious whether you have a tendency to play right handed or left handed. This is because learning can be complex, and it can take some practice to determine which hand plays the dominant role.
That’s why most people tend to just buy standard right handed guitars without realizing that a left handed version exists.
It can also be a little confusing as some left handed players will restring a right handed guitar “upside down” (strings placed in backwards order) for left handed playing.
If you are left hand dominant, then we suggest you only do this if you’re strapped for cash or only have access to a right handed guitar.
In this guide we’re going to look at some of the biggest differences between right handed and left handed guitars, and give you some advice on which you should use.
In terms of the most basic difference, right handed and left handed guitars are visually different in terms of orientation. For example:
- Right handed guitars have the left hand positioned on the fretboard and the right hand is used for strumming.
- Left handed guitars have the right hand positioned on the fretboard and the left hand is used for strumming.
The easiest way to imagine the difference between the two is to just picture a left handed guitar as the mirror image of a right handed one.
Aside from the fact that left handed guitars have opposite hands placed on the fretboard and for strumming, the guitars are exactly the same. The thick, low E string is still the top string, and the order of strings and their tunings don’t change.
How To Quickly Tell The Difference
A quick test that you can do to determine whether a guitar is right or left handed is to hold it up vertically and look at it straight on.
If the thickest string is on the left side then it is a right-handed model, but if the thickest string is on the right side, it’s a left-handed guitar.
Another quick way to tell the difference is to look at where the pickguard is positioned (only if a guitar has one, but most acoustic guitars do). If the pickguard is on the right side, then the guitar is right-handed, if it’s on the left, it’s left-handed.
The String Sequence
As noted earlier, one of the quickest ways to determine whether a guitar is a right or left handed model is to look at the way in which the strings are positioned.
When holding a guitar, the thickest string should be the top/first string (the one closest to you head), and the thinnest string should be the bottom/last string (the one closest to your feet).
So, when you’re looking at a right handed guitar vertically and face on, the three thickest strings (gold colored ones) are on the left. They are also known as the bass strings.
The three thinnest strings (more silver in appearance) are on the right. These strings are known as treble strings.
For left-handed guitars, the three thickest (bass) strings are on the right, and the three thinnest (treble) strings are on the left.
Difference In Anatomy/Orientation
It’s not just the string sequence which varies between right and left handed models. There are actually a few other anatomy and orientation differences that can help you differentiate between the two.
By knowing a little basic knowledge about the anatomy of a guitar, it can quickly help you tell the difference between the two.
The nut is a small plastic/bone line which is found at the top of the neck of the guitar, which separates the fretboard from the headstock and tuning pegs.
The nut can be a useful way to determine whether a guitar is built for right or left handed players if there are no strings on a guitar.
As the thicker brass strings are at the top of the fretboard, there are larger grooves on the nut where the strings are positioned. So, for right handed models, there will be thicker grooves on the left side of the nut, and thinner grooves on the right.
As for left handed models, the thicker grooves are on the right, and the thinner grooves can be found on the left.
As the nut corresponds with the string order/sequence, when restringing a right handed guitar for left hand playing, you also need to replace the nut. If you don’t, the strings will not be secured.
The Strap Button
Quite often acoustic and electric guitars will come with a strap button, which is what allows you to attach a guitar strap to your guitar. These are particularly useful if you’re performing, as it allows you to play the guitar standing up.
The strap button can be found on the top outer edge of the guitar, near the fretboard. It will always be closest to the top, thickest string (low E string).
So, if a guitar comes with a strap button, it can be a quick way to indicate which side is the top of the guitar. For right hand models, it will be positioned on the left side, and for left hand guitars you can find it on the right.
As we mentioned earlier, the position of the pickguard can be a quick way of determining whether a guitar is right or left handed.
We have already mentioned which side a pickguard can be found on both variations, but it’s also worth noting that a pickguard should “catch” your strumming fingers after a downward stroke.
The pickguard is to prevent any scratches that can occur from strumming, so that they don’t ruin the finish of the body.
Now that you know the anatomy and positioning of guitar parts, you should be able to quickly tell the difference between right and left handed guitars. Now we’ll look more at what it’s like to play both models, and how to find the right orientation for you.
Can Left Handed Players Use A Right Handed Guitar?
It is possible for left handed players to be able to play right handed guitars.
As well as learning the same way as right handed players (left hand fretting, right hand plucking) there are two different ways that you can do it, and one is far less complicated than the other.
The first, and more difficult way, is to learn how to play the chords “upside down”.
The reason why is that the strings will be in a backwards order, which means that the thickest string is now at the bottom of the fretboard, and the thinnest (high E string) is at the top.
However, this method is an extremely difficult way to learn how to play, and will also affect the way that you strum and pick. Although it can be done, we don’t recommend using this method as it’s rather challenging.
The second way is easier, and a much more popular method that left handed players use when playing right handed guitars. You can restring a right handed guitar for left handed use by changing the string sequence so that it’s the opposite way.
However, if you do this, you will also need to replace the nut.
If you don’t feel like you’ll be able to do this yourself, then you can take your guitar to a guitar shop or luthier (guitar craftsman) to do it for you. But there are some things you should know before attempting to do this.
Firstly, this will be hard to do on guitars that have cutouts, as the cutouts are designed and positioned to give you more access to the fretboard from underneath.
Secondly, the resale value will be significantly less, and you might have to revert the guitar back to its original state which can cost you more money than it’s worth.
Some other problems include damage to the guitar, and that hardware will be in awkward positions.
Hardware placements are more of an issue with electric guitars than acoustic guitars, which can cause accidental knocks and switches of volume and tone buttons when playing.
Should Left Handed Players Learn To Play Guitar With A Right Handed Model?
An easy way to decide which guitar orientation you should use is to not think about it too much. Try throwing your hands up in the air as if you are playing an air guitar. Which hand did you use for the invisible fretboard?
If you are left handed with everything else in life, you may get the natural urge to play guitar right-handed, and that is perfectly fine. The same goes for right-handed people who naturally feel more inclined to play using left-handed guitars.
Regardless of whichever way you choose, playing guitar naturally increases the dexterity of each of your hands. This is because your fingers will stretch out into unnatural feeling shapes.
At first your wrists and fingers will begin to hurt, but after an extended period of regular practice, the aching feelings will go.
Because both hands are used for guitar playing, it is perfectly normal for left-handed people to learn using a right handed guitar, and vice versa.
As a beginner, both guitar orientations will be equally hard to use, so choose whichever feels more natural and comfortable for you.
Are Left Handed Guitars More Expensive To Buy?
Only around 10% of the total world population are actually left handed. Because of these low estimates, guitar manufacturers are less inclined to make left handed guitars as the demand for them just isn’t there.
This means that both manufacturing costs and retail prices are often higher than right handed guitars. So, if you’re looking to buy a new, left handed guitar, be prepared to spend a little more money than you would on a right handed guitar.
Also, this means that selling a left handed guitar can be very difficult, as the market is extremely limited. With that being said, you may also be able to get a good price from an eager left-handed player.
Why Is The Strumming Hand The Dominant Hand?
As we mentioned earlier, the guitar can be quite a complex instrument, and a lot of beginners spend a lot of time struggling to form chords properly. As they advance, they may also struggle with harder techniques like bends and hammer-ons. This is a common issue as your non-dominant hand is usually the fretting hand, and the plucking hand is the dominant hand. This means that playing guitar demands a lot from both hands, in comparison to a lot of other daily tasks or activities.
But to understand why the strumming hand is dominant, let’s look at what each hand does.
The Fretting Hand
- Fret chords
- Quickly switches between notes and chords
- Repeats long sequences of notes
- Stretches widely across the fretboard
The Strumming Hand
- Quickly/accurately plucks notes
- Plays complex patterns (i.e. up, down, skipped)
- Keeps the timing accurate
- Accurately targets a space the width of the guitar strings so that they are hit each time
- Purposefully misses out strumming certain strings on certain notes
- Plays complex picking patterns
- Often played “blind” as players tend to look at the fretting hand instead
Another way to think of it is that the fretting hand seems more important at the beginning. As it is the hand you need to learn chords, it requires more of your attention.
However, as you progress, it is actually the strumming/picking hand techniques that require more focus and accuracy.
You might want to consider this if you are left hand dominant and looking to learn using a right handed guitar.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is There The Same Selection Of Left Handed Guitars As There Are Right Handed?
Unfortunately, as there are far less left-handed people in the world, the guitar manufacturing industry doesn’t see the demand for left handed guitars as the same for right handed ones.
So, a lot more time, effort, and money are put into designing and constructing right handed guitars.
You either won’t have the same options that are available for right handed players, or you will need to have a guitar made for special order.
This means that they are generally more expensive than their right handed counterparts, and makes it near impossible to find vintage guitars that were built for left handed players.
Is it Harder To Learn Using A Left Handed Guitar?
As left handed guitars are exactly the same as right handed guitars – with the orientation being the opposite way around – it’s not in any way harder to learn as a left-handed player.
Guitar itself is complex, and it takes a lot of people a good few months to get to a decent level, regardless of whether they’re left or right handed.
Should I Use A Left Or Right Handed Guitar?
As guitar requires a lot from both of your hands, and improves your dexterity (skill in performing tasks with your hands) of both hands, you can learn with either a right or left handed guitar regardless of which is your dominant hand.
The key is to choose the orientation which feels the most natural to you.
It is worth noting that even though your fretting hand is typically your non-dominant hand – which can be challenging to get used to at the beginning – it is actually your strumming/plucking hand which becomes more important as your skills progress.
As guitar players typically use their dominant hand for plucking, it’s worth taking that into consideration before choosing which variation you want to learn with.
We hope this article has helped you to understand the physical differences between right and left handed guitars, and how this affects how you play the guitar.
We also hope that it’s given you a better idea of how to pick which variation would be better for you when it comes to learning how to play.
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