How do I teach my left-handed son how to play the guitar?
January 12, 2011 5:57 PM   Subscribe

My son wants to learn guitar; I know how to play, but I'm a righty- he's a lefty. I'm looking for advice on how to proceed.

I've read that sometimes folks string the guitar 'hendrix style' - is that more of an affectation than a requirement for lefties? Any great resources in how to get him started?
posted by jenkinsEar to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a lefty and I learned to play righty because my dad was a righty and I learned just messing around on his guitar. No ill effects as far as I know.

How much does he know about reading music? How much do you know about reading music? What style of music is he into? You? Where are the overlaps? These are important if you want to play together, and important for finding appropriate resources.
posted by skyl1n3 at 6:08 PM on January 12, 2011

I'm a lefty and I play a guitar like a righty. I think it's an advantage--your fretting hand often requires more coordination than your strumming/picking hand.
posted by umbĂș at 6:14 PM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just do it the normal way. Flipped guitars or flipping the strings is either an affectation, or done by people who learned wrong and can't change, or done by people who, for a physical reason, are unable to play in the standard way.

Having a more agile left hand is generally a benefit with guitar played the standard way; the fretting hand usually needs more agility.

(on preview, yeah, what umbu said.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:30 PM on January 12, 2011

I'm a lefty and I play guitar "right-handed."

Jimi Hendrix was right-handed and played guitar right-handed.

Jimi Hendrix also did not string the guitar "Hendrix style." He strung it left-handed and played it left-handed.
posted by The World Famous at 6:31 PM on January 12, 2011

also a lefty who plays guitar "normally." A lot of coordination required with both hands; I don't see an advantage in switching, and selection on left-handed guitars is awful.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:32 PM on January 12, 2011

Oops - typo. What I meant to say was that Hendrix was right-handed and he played guitar "left-handed." And he strung the guitar left-handed. So what Hendrix did was just like what I do. But I play a right-handed guitar, which is a lot cheaper and easier to find.

So, if you want your son to be like Jimi Hendrix, have him play a right-handed guitar the normal way with it strung the normal way.
posted by The World Famous at 6:32 PM on January 12, 2011

I've known one left handed guitar player. He played righty. His fretting hand was amazing, but his timing was atrocious due to his picking hand. I suspect there's a reason right handed players strum with the right hand and fret with the left, even though fretting requires more fine movements.

OTOH, learning to play righty means that any guitar you come across will likely be playable. Playing lefty means having a limited selection of guitars, and not being able to play a friend's guitar, etc.

Stringing the guitar backwards is one solution, however, doesn't work as easily as you might first think in practice, as the grooves in the nut and the intonation adjustment on the bridge will be set up for a normal stringing, and so you can't generally just restring the guitar and have it actually work all that well, but have to modify/replace the nut, and replace or adjust the bridge.

If it were me, I'd play lefty, but I may be biased from seeing my lefty friend attempting to play righty and having a terrible time with the timing.
posted by smcameron at 6:37 PM on January 12, 2011

Another lefty who just pays right handed - you use both hands and it's much easier to find instruments, work with more teachers etc that way.
posted by leslies at 6:39 PM on January 12, 2011

I learned 'upside-down' and only now after 15 years, have I decided to learn 'the right way'. I think it was part of my affectation, and general annoyance at living in a right handed world. Some things are easier to play reverse strung! Jazz seems to be similar in both. Other genres are very difficult to play, except right handed (classical, flamenco). Looking back, I wish I had eaten my pride both about playing right handed, and learning to read sheet music.
posted by gregglind at 6:43 PM on January 12, 2011

My husband's a lefty who plays righty. It's much easier because he can pick up a "normal" guitar wherever he goes. Don't bother with backwards stringing or left-handed guitars.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:47 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm the oddball who is left-handed and plays lefty - it always felt incredibly awkward to play right-handed.

smcameron is right that just restringing the guitar won't work well - you've got to replace the nut and bridge. Easier to just buy a left-handed guitar.

When I was learning to play with right-handers, I found it easier to think about it as looking in a mirror - sit face to face, and everything lines up. Reading tablature is annoying, as it's written for a right-handed stringing, but tablature is kind of a crutch anyway (IMHO).

I'd start by teaching him a few chords, the same as anyone else, but sitting face-to-face. It'll be hard to finger more complicated things, but E, A, C,G, and D shouldn't be too bad, and that'll get him through a ton of fun songs. If he's strongly left-handed, he'll have an easier time with the rhythm playing lefty, so you can start with things like reggae or ska that have easy chord changes but somewhat trickier rhythm.
posted by chbrooks at 6:51 PM on January 12, 2011

As you can see from the above answers, this is a personal preference. Take him to a a store and have him play on lefties and righties. Ask him which one he likes more.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:59 PM on January 12, 2011

Not quite sure what The World Famous is trying to articulate in those posts about Hendrix. For the record, whether Hendrix was left or right-handed or ambidextrous is the subject of some debate.

Hendrix generally played regular guitars, but fretting with his right hand and plucking with his left -- that is, he played a right-handed guitar, rotated 180 degrees, restrung so that the low (musically) E was highest and so on.

In other words he played guitar "left-handed", a horizontal-mirror-image of the way most right-handed people play. He just didn't use a left-handed guitar to do it with, and the re-stringing caused interesting effects because the pickups weren't designed for it.

As for a contribution to the question -- how about visiting a guitar shop which has a few left-handed guitars and letting him try both ways? Whichever feels natural to him will be easier, and if he chooses to go left-handed, it won't be hard for him to "mirror" your hand shapes on his guitar.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:00 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

My friend learned to play using right-hand strung guitars held in the left-handed position.
I believe he is self-taught. It couldn't be easy to teach someone to play "upside down", but he strums with his left hand, has a unique style, and he can pick up any righty guitar and play it no problem.
posted by tresbizzare at 7:10 PM on January 12, 2011

I'm left handed and play right, and I think that's probably the way to go as others have said. When I started I would have been equally rubbish either way because your hands just have no idea what they are doing. And now that I've learnt it means it's easy to buy guitars and you can play any guitar you come across.
posted by markr at 8:47 PM on January 12, 2011

Seconding (fifthing? ninthing?) that unless you or he really have strong feelings about this for some reason, you should have him learn to play guitar the normal way, like a righty. Handedness really, really should not matter unless a player has an actual physical disability that prevents him from learning the normal way, I promise. It will be much simpler for him to be able to play any guitar he comes across in the long run, and it will be much simpler for you to teach him the "normal" way in the short run.

[/end plea by left-handed orchestra teacher who often has to convince anxious parents that handedness does not matter a lot on any reasonably ambidextrous instrument that is pretty unfamiliar to a beginner- it's way worse to attempt to play the cello backwards than a guitar, though, at least they *make* "left-handed" guitars!]
posted by charmedimsure at 9:12 PM on January 12, 2011

It will be so much easier to teach him guitar sitting face to face - his left hand will mirror what your right hand is doing, and vice versa. How lucky you both are! Of course, he'll need a lefty guitar, and I do suggest you go find him one.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 9:40 PM on January 12, 2011

Another lefty who plays "right-handed" guitar. I think it's a bit silly to think of it as "right-handed," because both of the hands need to be able to make intricate movements independently and in co-ordination with each other.

I started out, briefly, playing "left-handed." There really didn't seem to be much difference in difficulty, so I gave up the "dammit I'm left-handed don't force me to do things right-handed" pose pretty quickly.

So yeah, what pretty much everyone else is saying. :)
posted by bardophile at 9:41 PM on January 12, 2011

This is somewhat counter-intuitive for many, but your picking hand is actually the one that needs more dexterity. No matter what style you play (except maybe punk). The fingers on your fretting hand only need to be in the right place at (roughly) the right time, but the pick/fingers, in addition to all this, also need to have precise control over the exact energy applied to the string, and the precise time at which it is applied. Meanwhile, the fretting hand has more wriggling room in terms of when a particular note is fretted - it only needs to do so at some interval between the striking of the previous note and the next.

A case in point: The rhythm guitarist/singer in my band is a lefty playing a righty guitar. He's been playing quite regularly for about 6 years as a guitarist, but he still has very bad control over the dynamics. He is quite incapable of playing anything that requires dynamic control or precise rhythm. Everything that he plays tends to sound like punk, and the band has always had to work around that, which is a pain in the ass.

YMMV, of course. I know of one famous lefty guitarist that plays right-handed: Marc Ribot, who is most famous for his collaborations with Tom Waits. But he has himself said (in an interview that I can't find) that the reason he couldn't be a more mainstream jazz guitarist is that his picking hand let him down.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 1:43 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a lefty who plays lefty. I started playing when I was 12 and left-handed guitars just felt more natural to me. I think it's from playing along to songs on a Hurley since I was about six.
Seconding bringing your son to a guitar shop and letting him try both and see which he's more comfortable with.
Also, once he's reasonably proficient with a left-handed guitar it's not a huge stretch to learn to play a righty guitar upside down, at least to sing-a-long or jamming standards.
Also also, Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry is correct about being able to mirror the people you're learning from making learning easier.
Finally, there is a wider selection of lefty guitars around today than there was 5-10 years ago and the price difference isn't as steep either.
posted by minifigs at 3:10 AM on January 13, 2011

my husband is a lefty who plays lefty & always complains about the poor selection of left-handed guitars, fwiw. then again, the duded i dated before him was also a lefty who played lefty & didn't have any issues (& was arguably a better guitar player, but i guess that's neither here nor there). other lefties i know play right-handed & really haven't had any issues.

ironically, i'm right-handed but learned to play a right-handed guitar left-handed (like hendrix, i guess) -- this was totally an accident b/c i taught myself & didn't realize till i was several months in that i was holding the guitar backwards. whoops.
posted by oh really at 6:02 AM on January 13, 2011

Excellent, thanks all! I really appreciate the feedback. We'll check out a store and see what works best.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:25 AM on January 13, 2011

I'm another lefty-who-plays-lefty. In general (beyond the context of guitar playing, I mean) I think there's a spectrum of "handedness." My wife is nearly ambidextrous. I, on the other hand, am so strongly left-handed that I get kinda twitchy just thinking about playing right-handed.

On the whole, I would rather be a right-handed guitar player. I was at a party a few weeks ago where a spontaneous jam session of sorts started up. I was unable to join in, because I didn't have my guitar. It's also much harder to find guitars to purchase, and I can't just walk into the shop and try out whatever guitars look like fun.

So I agree: see whether you can get your son playing righty. But don't push it, and if he seems to really prefer to play lefty then that's the way it's going to be.
posted by lex mercatoria at 11:25 AM on January 13, 2011

I'd see which hand he finds it easier to keep a rhythm with. I personally (rightie) wouldn't be able to play left-handed just because I can't seem to easily do anything with my left hand that requires precise timing.

Also, as Protocols said above, if he does get a LH guitar it'll work great for teaching. My teacher plays left-handed sometimes and having a "mirrored" guitar to look at helps.
posted by mmoncur at 7:24 PM on January 14, 2011

I'm a lefty who plays lefty. I learned the basics in a middle school guitar class where the teacher strung a right-handed classical guitar left-handed. My first electric was a lefty, but my second was a right-handed Epiphone SG strung left-handed. I still have that guitar but rarely play it because my left (strumming) hand is always knocking the volume/tone knobs. Very annoying.

I started playing nearly 20 years ago, before ebay, craigslist, etc. where the only place to buy guitar was the local music shop, which rarely stocked lefties. About 6 years ago I bought a lefty Telecaster from ebay and am very happy with it. So while the marketplace has expanded beyond the local music shop, you won't have the opportunity to play and compare a range of guitars like you'd do in a store.

I don't regret learning to play left-handed; that's what felt natural, but it's very difficult to find cool guitars. Perhaps your son can learn on a right-handed guitar strung left-handed for now and then shop around for a lefty guitar when he gets serious about playing.
posted by Allez at 6:19 PM on January 17, 2011

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