September 3, 2012 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that when you play guitar, your fretting hand is not your dominant hand?

I've played guitar for years, and as a lefty I've always wondered about this. Since I do so much with my left hand and so it makes sense that would be my fretting hand would be my left. But I strum with my left and fret with my right. Why is that the way it's done?
posted by to sir with millipedes to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I believe it comes from classical guitar, where you are plucking each string with your dominant hand, and that requires more dexterity than pressing down.
posted by gjc at 8:09 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not, always. I'm left handed and I fret with my left.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:12 PM on September 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

I have wondered about this too, here's my hypothesis. I suspect it's because the timing is more crucial for plucking or strumming. You can fret a note or chord a bit before or after the beat and it won't matter, but the dominant hand has to stick to the beat or the whole rhythm will be off.
posted by nomis at 8:14 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are people that have done it successful the other way, but a lot of the actual tone comes from how you pick or strum.

To me, the fretting hand seems to do a bit more blunt work with the occasional bend or tremolo, while you need good pick control to do things like pinch harmonics.

Here's a gear page discussion.
posted by drezdn at 8:16 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry I wasn't very clear above: the plucking or strumming hand has to follow the beat of the music more precisely than the fretting hand, and that explains why most guitarists use their dominant hand to pluck/strum.
posted by nomis at 8:17 PM on September 3, 2012

Violin, viola, cello, bass, lute, and most other stringed instruments I can think of off the top of my head are "fretted" with the left hand and strummed or bowed or plucked with the right. Even in ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings. Why is sort-of HALF of a "why is it like that?" -- it's always been like that, so you have a vast weight of instruments, teaching, etc., oriented in that way.

Many (most?) instruments require either fairly equal tasks of the right and left hand (piano, snare drum, flute) or similarly complex tasks from each hand (violin). (So does typing, come to that.)

As a righty with hardly any dexterity (ha!) in my left hand, typing, playing piano, and playing stringed instruments have never seemed odd using my left hand. I suppose if a lefty can be forced to learn to write a fair hand with their right hand, it's no great task to teach a righty to push down in various patterns with their left. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:20 PM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Because your picking hand is so much more important. It actually makes the music.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:07 PM on September 3, 2012

I believe it comes from classical guitar, where you are plucking each string with your dominant hand, and that requires more dexterity than pressing down.

Especially if you play fingerstyle [youtube].
posted by wutangclan at 9:13 PM on September 3, 2012

More fingerstyle [youtube] from Joe Pass, one of the greatest guitarists ever.
posted by wutangclan at 9:23 PM on September 3, 2012

One holds a lyre in one's left hand and plucks it with the right.

Later, lyre playing techniques were extended to include muting and stopping with the left hand.

Apparently organologists no longer believe that lyres are direct ancestors of the modern bowed and fretted instruments, but they do predate them.

Lutenists and fiddlers did not simply materialise along with the new-fangled lutes and fiddles. As new instruments were introduced, they were taken up by actual individual musicians who already had experience playing the older forms. These musicians simply adapted familiar techniques and methods to the new forms and passed these practices on to their own students.

Common practice and pedagogy in classical music is one thing, but in pop music it makes little difference. I know lefties who play left (Hendrix), lefties who play right (Fripp), and lefities who play a right-handed guitar left-handed without restringing it (Dick Dale). There are even righties who play left!

Here's a fairly comprehensive list of players in each configuration.
posted by Herodios at 9:31 PM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I too am left handed and fret with my left. I couldn't deal with learning guitar opposite from how everyone else was learning on top of the vast anti lefty conspiracy that is the rest of life (joke, sort of) and agree with TWF that both tasks take dexterity.
posted by sweetkid at 10:00 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a good point. I am learning guitar and before that, played violin. It is really weird that the complicated shit is mostly done with your nondominant hand (and you know what? I've heard of lefty guitars, but I've never seen a lefty violin!). Even weirder that well, I did it without too much trouble and without really thinking too hard about it.

On the other hand, a few years ago I took a class on how to spin yarn. The teacher said to draft (i.e. pull the raw stuff that you're going to run through the spinning wheel out of its fuzzy clump into a thin enough strand to go through the wheel mechanics) with my left hand. Dear lord, I sucked donkey balls at it, while everyone else in the class apparently spun perfectly from dear one. Well, halfway through the class the teacher went out of town and had a substitute come in, and the substitute was all, "Just do it with your right hand if you want to." Cue the miraculous improvement in how I made yarn. I don't know if drafting with your left is a thing you are supposed to do (the teacher, oddly enough, was right handed) or just how the teacher was taught, but man, it was nice to be able to work it with the hand that was better at pulling.

But...well, it doesn't hurt anyone to practice ambidextrousness, I suppose. I've never had the problems with playing that I did with drafting. Maybe it's just easier to plunk your fingers down in place than yanking backwards?
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:15 PM on September 3, 2012

Er.... "day" one, not dear one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:16 PM on September 3, 2012

Sorry, I meant to say above:

"One held a lyre in one's non-dominant hand and plucked it with the dominant."

In other words, whether it's relevant in modern practice or not, traditionally tone production was done by the dominant hand, holding the instrument was done by the non-dominant, for very pragmatic reasons that became less relavant over time.

Troubadors and rockers could do what they like, but court musician in a large ensemble had better be uniform, and lefties were the minority.

Also: Did you ever notice that all muppet musicians are lefties? It's a sinister cospiracy, I tell you!
posted by Herodios at 4:19 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did you ever notice that all muppet musicians are lefties? It's a sinister cospiracy, I tell you!

I see what you did there. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 4:41 AM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know that Rik Emmett of Triumph is left-handed and plays the guitar right-handed. It seems there are some others.
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:33 AM on September 4, 2012

I'm a lefty and learned guitar (from my right-handed dad) on a left-handed guitar (really, an old acoustic of his strung backwards). I tried doing it right-handed -- fretting with my left, picking with my right -- but I just don't have the fine motor control of my right to be good at it. Like jenfullmoon, once I switched sides, things went much more smoothly. My right hand is fine for the grosser motor issues of fretting, and has enough power to do it, but for finesse I need my left hand in the picking/strumming.
posted by katemonster at 7:45 AM on September 4, 2012

The rythm guitarist in my band is left-handed but learned to play right-handed and regrets it. I agree with previous posters that the plucking hand must be more precise, and therefore should be the dominant hand.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:50 AM on September 4, 2012

The work the right hand does feels more intuitive to me — it's got the rhythm, man! I think our dominant sides are better at that direct connection to intuition. Similar to throwing a ball, then — with the off hand we are all doofuses because we have to think about it.
posted by wemayfreeze at 8:12 PM on September 4, 2012

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