Teach a singer new tricks on the guitar
July 18, 2012 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Guitar-playing filter: Absolute beginner here, having just picked up my first acoustic guitar. Between choir and piano lessons, the music theory isn't an issue, but I do have a couple of questions I hope you MeFi's can answer.

First: I'm left-handed. When I hold it, my left hand does the strumming and my right hand does the string-holding part of the job. As I look down, the thickest (E) string is on the bottom. Is this correct, or do I need to invert the strings?

Second: Presuming I invert the strings (or don't, according to your answer to the previous question), which guitar chord charts should I use?

Third: what's the trick for toughening up fingers? I'm a 30-year-old guy with soft hands - and apparently easy-to-hurt fingertips.
posted by chrisinseoul to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
First: Holding the guitar, looking down at the strings, they should go from thickest to thinnest. From your description it sounds like you have them backwards.

Second: http://www.justinguitar.com/en/BC-000-BeginnersCourse.php is a good online beginner's course. Alternatively, buy a book at a bookstore if you're more into that.

Third: Play a lot. When I was first learning I'd play until my fingers bled. High school kids are crazy! It'll come.
posted by Precision at 9:12 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you got a right handed guitar and are holding it upside down. It's possible to play that way, Hendrix did it, but they do make them for lefties. You may want to go exchange it for a left handed guitar.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:15 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with Precision on all accounts.
Also, I would suggest learning how to read guitar tabs. I also play the piano but I found that music-readin' did not get me as far with learning basic chords than tabs did. Plus it's easier to find out how to play your favorite songs that way!
And yeah, the trick to toughening up the fingers is just... play enough that you get calluses. It is a painful process but worth it, I think!
posted by thebots at 9:17 PM on July 18, 2012

You have the guitar backwards, Jimi Hendrix style.. but he could play either way..

Best bet for not hurting your tendons and toughening up you fingers is to take two chords, C and G or C and a, and strum for 15 minutes a day, sing along making stuff up. After two weeks add another chord and increase the time... continue this (two - three months) until you have several chords and good calluses, then take some lessons..
posted by snaparapans at 9:21 PM on July 18, 2012

You can't simply invert the strings on a guitar. If you take a close look at the nut and the saddle, you'll see that they are made for the guitar to be strung with the low E string at the top and the high E string at the bottom (see the widths of the nut slots, and see the way the saddle is angled and tapered).

Left-handed players do it a few different ways. Many simply learn to play guitar right-handed, as this makes it a bit easier to use conventional learning materials (chord charts, etc.), and you can pick up pretty much any guitar and play it. There are also left-handed guitars, but the selection is far more limited. And as Ghostride said, Hendrix just played his guitar upside down but I wouldn't say that's the optimal choice.

For chord charts, I like Chordbook.com, and Ultimate Guitar Tabs Archive is a good source for song tabs and chords.

Your fingers are going to hurt for a good while before they toughen up, and there's really no way to do it but play every day. Start with 15 minutes and build up from there. Begin playing open chords and scales, and try out different strumming patterns, and when you have that down pat, start learning bar chords and power chords. There are lots of finger-picking and picking techniques and songs to be learned too!
posted by keep it under cover at 9:29 PM on July 18, 2012

I have played left-handed guitars for 35 years. If you absolutely must buy a lefty guitar unseen, spend at least $200 for a new one. If you want an acoustic in that price range, buy a Yamaha. If you want an electric, go with an Epiphone, Squier or ESP LTD. If you spend $400 or more, you can pretty much buy based on what looks good to you.

I strongly recommend, however, that you find a teacher ASAP for at least two lessons and to help you buy a decent guitar.
posted by Ardiril at 9:31 PM on July 18, 2012

When I was building my callouses I found that the worst pain was when I would slide my fingertips on a string. So, I applied masking tape to my fingertips. This alleviated the sharp pain of sliding, yet allowed me to still build my callouses. After my fingers were sufficiently toughened (which didn't take long) I removed the tape.
posted by The Deej at 9:31 PM on July 18, 2012

Also, if you have any questions specific to left-handed playing, memail me as I don't follow AskMe threads.
posted by Ardiril at 9:33 PM on July 18, 2012

Right, technically the thickest string should be on "top" as you look down.

I'm pretty sure Jimi mostly actually restrung (and re-set the nut) so his strings were the "right" way round (thick on the top, thin on the bottom) - at least once he was gigging enough to be able to afford it. keep it under cover is correct, you can't really just reverse the strings.

There are leftys who've played "upside down and backwards" - Dick Dale and Albert King come to mind and there's a Wikipedia list (FWIW) here. So it can be done.

Have you tried holding your guitar the standard way? I'm a lefty who plays right-handed, and it's never felt particularly odd to me.

And yup, the bestest way to toughen the fingers is to just play. You just have to build up calluses.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:41 PM on July 18, 2012

If you're just starting out I'd said play the guitar right handed (right hand strumming). Myself and every other lefty I know plays it that way. It will save you a lot of effort and allow you to pick up anyone else's guitar down the line.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:02 PM on July 18, 2012

Re callouses, if you're finding your fingers really hurt a lot you could consider getting lighter guitar strings. I'm an experienced player but I found my sister's old guitar unplayable because the strings could have been used to hold up a bridge. If you go the route of getting your existing guitar converted to be left-handed (as mentioned up thread you can't just switch around the strings, which I must admit I didn't know) get the lighter strings put on at the same time. Also get someone who knows about guitars to check the distance between the string and the neck, i.e. the distance you have to push down the string, to make sure it's in a normal range and not higher than usual.

Also, I always give this advice in these threads: to get started, find a song you like that has three chords or so, then focus on learning those chords and then that song. This is much more fun and demonstrates more concrete progress than just learning chords one at a time or going through drills. If you can read music you'll find guitar tab pretty moronic by comparison, but it's the lingua franca of sharing guitar songs on the internet. Justin Guitar and Ultimate Guitar as above have everything you need to get from here to Hendrix. Have fun!
posted by StephenF at 1:41 AM on July 19, 2012

One thing that helped me was to soak my finger tips in vinegar for a couple of minutes just before and just after practice, it helped me be able to play longer sooner. I also soaked my finger tips in rubbing alcohol for a minute after getting them wet (after a shower or doing the dishes, for example) that helped the calluses form faster.

The most helpful thing I've been getting out of my teacher (aside from some music theory that you don't really need) is learning how the notes on the guitar are structured, why it's tuned the way it is and how the notes relate to each other. The first illustration my teacher used was to relate the strings of the guitar to the keys of a piano so you might find that helpful.

If you don't think you can do it yourself, find a good, local luthier (and you should find one anyways) to change the nut and re-string the guitar. They might be able to suggest a few other adjustments to make to help improve play-ability. If you put on lighter strings, you may need to adjust (or have your luthier adjust) your truss rod. I'm just not comfortable doing that myself (I've been playing for 6-months) so I get my luthier to do it.

Lighter strings should make things easier, acoustics often come with really heavy gauge strings. I put these on my acoustic and they helped a ton but my electric is still worlds easier to play (which is why I practice on my acoustic more often).

Picks and strings are cheap, feel free to try lots of different ones to find what you like.

I enthusiastically 2nd Justinguitar.com. It's a great site and his videos are fantastic.

As I'm sure you know from playing other instruments, the solution to almost every problem is, practice more.
posted by VTX at 6:16 AM on July 19, 2012

Nthing soaking your fingers in rubbing alcohol. Actually, just dip them in there. Take them out and then let the alcohol evaporate, and then repeat.

I'm a casual player who does one or two gigs a year which will require me to play for two hours or more and, due to nervousness, press down on the strings way harder than I need to: so I always do this for about two weeks before the gig and I'm always fine.

And on that note: experiment with how hard you need to push the strings down - you're only trying to get the string to vibrate clearly and cleanly on the fret, not to push it all the way down to the fretboard. It's a small distinction but it can definitely make a difference.

Good luck!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 6:56 AM on July 19, 2012

Ditto on the leftie who plays right handed. (I learned to golf rightie as well - another activity where the equipment favors right handers)

Chordie is my go-to site for finding the chords to songs I already like to sing, and includes chord charts.

And toughening up your callouses just takes time. Definitely get lighter strings (I like Elixir Nanoweb) and don't be afraid to restring the guitar - you'll be doing it a few times a year at least...
posted by ElGuapo at 8:19 AM on July 19, 2012

Oh, one more thing to add about being a lefty. Left-handed guitars are more expensive and there are fewer of them. It isn't a big deal on more acoustics since the shape is symmetrical but if you ever want an electric or an acoustic with a cutaway, it will be easier to find one you like and cheaper if you learn to play right-handed.
posted by VTX at 8:32 AM on July 19, 2012

I learned to play lefty (upside-down even) for 15 years.

I was stupid.

My left-handed pride (damn those memories of never having the right scissors in art class!) got in the way of me using and buying better instruments, and learning music faster.

So, 2 years ago I "switched back".

(I happen to like the Noad "Solo Guitar Playing" book. I also recommend against learning tab for as long as possible. If you know how to read already, then read :) Learn "closed position" as soon as possible, and your playing will be better for it :) Pick the hardest music you can -- jazz, bossa nova, etc. Get a few lessons with a teacher, who will be able to fix technique mistakes. YouTube is awesome!)
posted by gregglind at 2:19 PM on July 19, 2012

I would also suggest just learning to play a right handed instrument. I concur with the people that say that the fretwork requires more dexterity and using the dominant hand for that would be easier.

And yes, the heavy string go up, so your stronger/longer fingers can work them, leaving the lighter and closer strings for your smaller and weaker fingers.

According to my dad, you just play until your fingers bleed every night when you are 13 because you want to be a rockstar, and that's how you get your callouses.
posted by gjc at 5:54 PM on July 19, 2012

Chat-filtery, but . . . .

While I'm a lefty who plays righty - because, like several others here, it makes sense to me that my more dextrous hand should be on the fretboard - I spent several years in a band with a lefty who played lefty, and he felt that his more dextrous and stronger hand should be his picking/strumming hand. So YMMV.

Swinging back 'round to addressing your questions, I agree with gregglind that if you already know how to read music, you can live without learning guitar tablature.

Also, the single book that's been my best reference on guitar/music stuff over the years has been The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. Tons of useful info, organized well, easy to find what you're looking for, lots of useful diagrams. Covers a lot of music basics clearly, and how they translate to the guitar.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:22 PM on July 19, 2012

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