For today’s article I would like to look into the relationship between handedness and musicianship. The music community, although it is biased toward righties (like the rest of the world), talks a fair amount about left-handed guitarists. That’s great, but there’s a question that’s been bothering me: we’ve talked about lefties playing guitar lefty and righties playing righty, but what about lefties playing righty and righties playing lefty? It’s hard to know if a musician fits into this category because we primarily base our perception of his hand-dominance on performances. By looking at offstage sources such as interviews and record signings, we can see that it is surprisingly common. Two of the most iconic left-handed musicians, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, are actually the opposite. This phenomenon is more common among lefties disguising themselves as righties. These offenders include Duane Allman, Billy Corgan, and Joe Perry. As a lefty who plays instruments right-handed, I believe this is the best way to learn guitar or bass.
Unlike a pianist, whose hands share the same function, a guitarist’s left and right hands have completely different roles. While the fretting hand’s job requires great dexterity and serves as the voice of the instrument, the picking hand simply helps out by keeping time and picking when needed. I know this is a very simplistic description: the picking hand can add creatively and the fretting can carry rhythm. Many advanced techniques involve one hand doing the other hand’s job, such as tapping and picking a note with the left hand to perform a dive-bomb. Very often, however, this generalization holds true.
For this reason, I have always found it odd that most guitarists use their off hand as their fretting hand. Why use your weakest hand for the role that requires the most dexterity? Since I’m lefty but play righty, I am able to use my dominant hand to fret and use my weaker hand to pick. My left hand already has an advantage in the coordination needed to fulfill its role and my right hand does not suffer since the skills it needs to learn are based on wrist development, precision, and stamina, all of which do not require dexterous fingers.
While learning to play off-handed could pay off in terms of technique, it also can be much more convenient. Josh Middleton of Sylosis fame encourages new guitarists to learn right-handed no matter what. His logic is that since you always suck at first, you might as well just suck right-handed so you have more options when buying new guitars. This also allows you to avoid being that guy who can’t play in an unplanned situation because he does not have the appropriate guitar with him. Think about how many spontaneous jam sessions would be killed if you didn’t think to bring your guitar and couldn’t play anyone else’s.
This issue is even more problematic for drummers, since at most smaller gigs everyone has to share the same drum set. I can imagine that it would be really annoying to reconfigure an entire drum set before and after a band’s set because the drummer couldn’t play any other way. When I was first learning the drums, I was part of a class of five students and one teacher. Since we all had to share the same kit, my teacher told me that I would just have to learn it configured for righties, even though it was uncomfortable at first. I adapted to the situation by playing open style, similar to Will Carroll, the current drummer of Death Angel. I eventually grew tired of playing that style and eventually learned to play exclusively right-handed, simply because I felt like it.
I feel that it is interesting how musicians decide which way they play. Paul McCartney was right-handed, but has stated that left-handed guitars felt the most natural. I completely flipped my drumming style, showing that a person could be both. Jimi Hendrix was known for being a left-handed guitarist, but was rumored to have been able to flip the guitar and continue playing whenever his dad came into the room, probably because he was actually a righty.
If you are a new musician trying to decide which is right for you, it might make sense to make a calculated decision based on the ideas above. For some of you, though, the best bet may be to go with your gut and do what seems right. While there are some benefits that could come from deciding which way to play, the best option is ultimately the one that leads to the best success.
If you have any cool stories about how you or another musicians’ handedness affected your musicianship, be sure to share them below.