Guitar handedness question

Not a guitar player, but this has always puzzled me.

Why is it a right handed guitar player uses their left hand at the guitar neck to control the notes played ?

I would assume a right handed player would want to use their right hand for the finger work there. Or, is the strumming the more complex part of the playing ?

The main reason is because the guitar evolved out of other instruments, and if you look at other stringed instruments like the violin, lute, etc. they were all played with the left hand holding down the strings and the right hand controlling the notes and rhythm.

It does make a certain amount of sense. You hold down various points on the strings with your non-dominant left hand while the dominant right hand then plays the notes and controls the rhythm.

Depending on what style of guitar you are playing the right hand can be doing some fairly precise things. If you are just banging out a rhythm then you at least have your dominant hand controlling the rhythm. When you pick individual strings then the right hand does the more precise picking of the strings while the left hand just holds down the strings. Holding down the strings in the right place is easy on a guitar because all you have to do is have your finger somewhere in between the correct two frets. A violin, by contrast, requires your fingerwork to be much more precise since the finger placement alone determines the pitch of the note and there are no frets to help you out there.

I can also tell you from personal experience that I learned to play a guitar in the typical right handed style because that’s the way everyone else did it, and it never seemed odd and never felt as if it would be easier switching hands. Then again I played the piano before I played the guitar and was used to having some coordination with my left hand.

I play and I’ve thought about this myself.
I think both hands do about the same amount of work (neither would work well without the other). The pick hand usually initiates what happens, you strike the string with one hand and react to it with the other. Another is the controls (if electric) are on the body with the dominant hand.
More often than not I think it’s just personal comfort, I’m sure there are plenty of people who play the opposite of their dominant handedness.

I’m sure we’ve had this question before.

As said above there’s a lot more to guitar playing than strumming (I play classical myself - lots of intricate dominant hand work there) and even when strumming it feels natural to use your dominant hand. Once you get beyond being a beginner you realise that tone and rhythm are more important and demanding than fretting the strings, so it makes sense to use your more dexterous hand to take care of that.

ETA: And I’m extremely right-handed btw, so much so that my high school nickname was “one-arm” from how I used to play rugby, catching and passing basically one-handed. Never had a problem using my left hand on the guitar though.

The right hand has the harder part. This isn’t apparent at beginner or even possibly intermediate levels, but when you get to advanced, what the right hand does is harder.

With fingerpicking (using individual fingers to strike individual strings) it’s pretty obvious that the right hand job isn’t easy. I’m not bad at fingerpicking, but I find it even harder to play picking patterns with a pick (plectrum). For an example, think of the guitar riff on “Sweet Home Alabama” which is a pretty easy one and I can even nearly pull it off. But even strumming can be a lot more dynamic and subtle than you might think.

I’m primarily a keyboard player; I second on guitar. One time I was in a band and we were playing a Santana song. The guitarist asked if I could play the apparently simple rhythm guitar part so he could play percussion. Sure! Only, when I tried it, even though I got the right chords and timing, the part just fell flat. There was something explosive and dynamic about how he was strumming the guitar and I just couldn’t do it!

Furthermore, the right hand does a wide variety of techniques including resting the heel on the strings at the bridge, not to mention free strokes versus rest strokes, and how much harder those are to get sounding clear than it looks.

As lisiate says, the right hand does a lot of fairly subtle stuff that dramatically affects the tone. A great player can get surprisingly good tone out of a poor instrument.

IMHO, guitar is just plain harder than keyboards, because it’s a lot more subtle. In addition, you need very precise coordination between two hands doing very different things

As Bach said, pianos are great: you press the key, and the instrument plays itself. Of course, a good keyboard player takes advantage of this ease to concentrate his or her skill on other areas. But I do think it’s easier to be “half decent” on keys than on either electric or acoustic guitar.

Regardless, I’d recommend a lefty learn to play on a righty guitar. Regardless of which way you start, you should be able to do well with enough practice. It’s easier to find good (especially used) gear, and you can play someone else’s guitar (in a pinch or for the fun of it). Ditto golf: there’s even less point in learning to play golf left-handed. Fencing or tennis is the opposite: learn lefty if you possibly can!

I think it is well covered above. Just to add a few thoughts.

Nearly any instrument can provide enough nuance that it will stretch even the most talented player. A friend of mine works for our state symphony orchestra, and she observed how the pianists have the hardest life. At concert level the technique needed to play is so demanding that they practice many hours a day, day in day out. When even one of the most internationally revered soloists arrives to play with the orchestra, they will secrete themselves in a practice room and spend the days in there keeping their chops up. None of the other soloists need to spend the amount of time that pianists do.

Bowed instruments most definitely have the majority of the playing in the right hand/arm. The control and nuances of bowing are what makes a great player. Whilst driving the fingerboard is the more obvious skill to the observer, getting the instrument to sing and express is all in the bowing.

A guitar is forgiving, in that you can belt out a perfectly reasonable tune without a great deal of skill. A lot like a keyboard. But stepping up to make the instrument sing, and express music, well that takes a lot more skill, and as above, that skill is almost invisible to the observer, being in the subtleties of the right hand.

I started playing classical guitar (very poorly) and now play rock guitar (better, but not amazing).

The first thing to notice is that with classical guitar what the dominant hand does is much more complex and much more difficult than what is does in rock guitar. Quite frankly I can’t really play classical guitar simply because of how difficult it is for my (dominant) right hand.

Rock guitar clearly inherited the dominant-hand-plays-the-strings from classical guitar and it is certainly difficult to understand why you do it that way when you first start playing and it is certainly possible to do the other way round. That said rock music has had used this orientation for a while and there are a lot of techniques that take advantage of the fact that your dominant hand is doing the strumming. For example (though probably not the best example as it isn’t that often utilized) I’ve been teaching myself recently how to double pick as Dick Dale does distinctively on Misrilou, this requires moving your hand very accurately and very quickly and would probably would be very difficult to do if you strummed with your weaker hand.

Going off on a slight tangent. One thing I’ve noticed about the guitar (after not playing for a few years) is how easily it lends itself to writing chord progressions and riffs. The relative positions tuning of the strings and the possible positions of the left hand almost seem to suggest phrases all by themselves.

Before starting to play the guitar again I purely wrote music which I put straight onto my PC into various synthesizers. I’ve noticed it’s much easier to get inspiration messing around on a guitar than it is messing around sequencing notes on a computer.

I dunno…

I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years or so. I’m right handed and play right handed. I suspect that if you gave a right handed person who wanted to learn guitar a guitar strung for left and taught them to play “left handed”, after a similar amount of time as a righty playing right, they’d play equally well.

It’s not always as simple as which hand does what. An often overlooked factor is natural arm position, in which the dominant hand is held closer to the body. This is seen in holding a rifle, taking a boxing stance, and holding a guitar. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, just as some have a stronger sense of their handedness than others. For some people, playing “opposite-handed” guitar would be no big deal, but for others it would feel very wrong.

I’m left-handed, with a fairly strong sense of it. I had tried holding a guitar in the right-handed position and it felt terribly awkward. I decided to play a left-handed guitar. When I first was looking to buy one, stores that didn’t carry any would typically say I should get a right-handed guitar as I could use my dominant hand for fretting, which is the biggest challenge for a beginner. (My unspoken response was if it’s such an advantage, why don’t you have a store full of lefty guitars for the benefit of all the right-handed folks out there?) Going with left-handed instruments was the right choice for me. Other lefties (more than half) have chosen to play right-handed, for their own reasons.

Speak for yourself!

This. I’m left handed, and don’t ‘play’ by any stretch of the definition of the word, but when I was trying to pick up the bass guitar, I eventually restrung the bass I was using and flipped it. Holding it left handed felt natural; right-handed, not so much. It had nothing to do with the technical points made above (which I am sure are valid, but for me its was the ‘feel’).

A somewhat bizarre thing I’ve noticed while learning the guitar, is that while I often have to babysit what the left hand is doing, the right hand seems to take care of it self a lot of the time. That is, I may have to actually watch the left hand to make sure I hit the proper strings, while this isn’t an issue for the right hand, it just knows where the strings are and how to pick them. Once I learn a picking pattern, I can often leave the right hand alone, as it were, to take care of the picking, while I pay attention to the moron on the left. It’s almost as if the right hand has its own brain.

Is this just a weird feature of my particular brain, or is it a common thing?

You mean “secret themselves” – otherwise the visual is too amusing. This is a back-construction from a common error, which is to pronounce “secreted” (meaning hiding or concealing) the same way as “secreted” (meaning to exude a liquid). The correct pronunciation is to pronounce “secret” the normal way and add “ed” as an unstressed syllable.

I confess I get a snicker every time I hear someone say it wrong.

Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly. The difficulty of an instrument at the top level is pretty much proportional to how popular that instrument is (how motivated people are to be the best at it). At the level of “good enough not to suck” the answers are different. IMHO, piano is easier than electric guitar, which is (way) easier than violin. Of course, I know a lot of guitarists who think that piano is harder. Along with guitarists who insist that guitarists have to have more talent than pianists. Of course!

I agree wholeheartedly. I suggest anyone starting out give the right-hander a good try, but do what seems natural. My brother is a righty but shoots lefty and kicks lefty. Go figure. (His left eye is dominant, which explains why he shoots lefty.)

My guess is that’s fairly typical. However, when you’re first learning fingerpicking, it works the opposite way. Once I get good at a given fingerpicked tune that’s of any complexity, I can’t do it if I think about my fingers, and watching them gets in the way.

The trickiest one is one I haven’t recorded yet. It doesn’t sound all that terribly complex, but it involves a lot of open strings and fretted notes on the same string, and so I have to lift and put down my left-hand fingers at just the right moment, or I’ll kill a note that’s supposed to be ringing as I’m picking the others. I only managed to get it by lots and lots of repetition (so now my wife is really over it) and if I pay attention to what I’m doing, it’s like the centipede who couldn’t walk after someone asked how he managed it. And it’s still 10 times simpler than anything Leo Kottke does.

I’m ambi, lean left. I tried reversing the strings once. Couldn’t make good enough sense of reading the chords.

Electronically transposed a keyboard once, similar issue.

Silly data point, huh?

My totally speculative evo-psych hypothesis is that humans have evolved to have not so much a ‘dominant’ hand, but an ‘active’ hand and ‘holding’ hand. It’s natural for a right hander to use the left hand to hold something, while the right hand does something to it, and vice versa for a left hander, of course. This is true even when the holding hand is using all its fingers to keep awkwardly shaped pieces in a precise position, and the active hand is just pushing, so I don’t think it’s just about which hand is more agile.

When playing a string instrument (violin family, guitar, etc), the fretting/fingering hand is holding the strings/neck, while the bowing/plucking hand is actively moving the strings.

So I believe that for which hand feels most natural for which activity in playing, it’s not about which activity is more ‘difficult’; it’s about which one is more like holding a big awkwardly piece of flint in a precise position, and which one is more like hitting the flint to knock flakes off.

My wife is a very good amateur violinist and says once you learn fingering it is far, far easier than all the stuff with the bow.

On a side note, I play Guitar Hero left-handed because strumming in GH requires only one repetitive motion with no strings to pluck and the like.

It’s always good to look at a dictionary before correcting someone.



That’s true. A few times I’ve written down tabs to keep for future reference of songs I’ve already learned how to play, and it’s a complete pain to get the finger picking patterns right, because when I think about how I’m playing them, I can no longer do it!