Lefties and string instruments

Maybe a dumb question, but… do left-handed people have problems in learning or playing the violin, cello, viola, etc.? I’ve only ever seen such musicians hold the bow in their right hands. Is there only one right (um, I mean, “correct”) way to hold the bow and play a string instrument? Are left-handed instruments available or necessary?


Left handed violins are available for sale. I think there are many reasons why lefties end up playing right handed instruments. They may be pressured into it by their teacher, they may not have access to a left handed instrument while learning. Given that playing stringed instruments generally requires dexterity in both hands I suspect it’s not that much more difficult for a leftie learning on a rightie instrument than any novice learning an instrument.

You didn’t address guitars specifically, but there are also issues for lefties there. Lefty guitar players have variously chosen to:

  • Play right-handed, e.g. the left hand fingers, and the right hand picks.
  • Flip a right handed guitar to lefty, with the strings unchanged.
  • Flip a right-handed guitar, but string it left-handed (reversing the high/low string order)
  • Play a left-handed instrument – the strings are flipped so the bass is closest to the player, and the pickup and tuning controls are a mirror of a right-handed instrument.

Any left-handed string players out there?

Put simply, it’s equally difficult either way round :cool: Plus, apart from the far lesser availability of instruments at all levels (notwithstanding the link provided), there’s the mundane issue of what happens when players stand or sit alongside each other.

…and another, which I’ve only just thought of, which is the disruption of the directional nature of the sound projection of an ensemble, such as with the violin section of an orchestra. Throw a few lefties in there, and balancing the sound would become a whole lot harder.

This is what Jimi Hendrix did when he learned to play. Later when he began using left handed guitars he still had them strung up side down so they played the same.

As a lefty, I can assure you we’re used to a right handed world. I do two things left handed. I write and throw/bat(baseball) left handed, everything else, including golf, eating, using tools, etc. I do right handed. And yes, I played a guitar, albeit very poorly, right handed. I would guess that the typical left handed person has more control over his right hand than the right handed person has over his left. The last comment is just a guess based on experience though.

I’m left-handed, and I play guitar right-handed. Left-handed guitar just doesn’t feel right to me. To me, it makes sense to have your “strong” hand doing the fingering. I do other things right-handed as well…shoot pool, shoot a gun, and use scissors. I throw, kick and write left-handed.

i used to strum a guitar, although badly. I would say that the left hand work was a fair bit harder than the right hand. Had I been actually picking, I would think the right hand might be harder. Watching a violinist, it seems to me the left hand is doing much more difficult things.

A girl I knew was a semi-pro folk singer (she played in clubs around the city, but never tried to become a pro). One summer she was a camp councilor teaching guitar and one of the campers was missing a left hand. She restrung a guitar in the opposite direction and taught the camper to fret with the right hand and strum with the left stump (which ended around the wrist.

But in general I see no reason why left handers are handicapped playing stringed instruments. They might be at an advantage.

Generally the task for the non-dominant hand (fingering) is harder for beginners. At advanced levels, however, the task for the dominant hand (bowing or picking) is more challenging and nuanced. As a rule, lefties playing a right-handed instrument will never be quite as good as they could have been playing left-handed one. The other factors are degree of comfort in holding the instrument (some lefties find playing right-handed to be very awkward, others are not bothered by it), difficulty obtaining a left-handed instrument, and the logistics of physically fitting into an ensemble.

So some, though certainly not all, lefties will feel a left-handed instrument is necessary for them, and if they pursue playing one will then have to deal with the attendant disadvantages.

If most of the time you are strumming chords, that would be easier, wouldn’t it? But if you are someone like Robert Fripp who is often playing arpeggios (plucking one string at a time), the dominant hand might have an easier time of it, right?

One of the best Celtic fiddlers in the world is Ashley MacIsaac, who plays left handed.

Check this clip out for a good close-up visual of him playing:


This is a very bold assertion, and I’d like to see it backed up somehow, especially as it follows on from an acknowledgement of the roles each hand takes.

Unless we’re talking about guitars, where there’s a more established tradition of ‘handedness’, there’s no such thing as ‘playing right-handed’. You play a violin with the violin in the left hand and the bow in the right hand, and plenty of right-handed people find this awkward and never take to the instrument. The exceptions, such as D18 refers to, are very much exceptions.

The post above that has slipped most notice is the significant one when it comes to violin - it doesn’t work in a section of an orchestra. The violin is almost always an ensemble instrument. Next time you’re watching an orchestra, notice how not only are the bow arms synchronized within a section, but even body movement, leaning, bending, swaying, etc. All of these motions are similar to birds in flight or fish in a school. The section plays as an entity. You’d be a problem for your section-mates, to say nothing of the conductor, if when everyone was zigging, you were zagging. There are many violin players in the orchestras in the world. Some of them are left handed but they’ve learned to play the instrument the way right handed players do.
Also, notice that the f-holes of the violin, where much sound comes from, face up and toward the audience in most orchestral seating arrangements, i.e. the fiddles sit downstage right. A leftie would be sending the majority of the sound upstage. Not an ideal situation.

Yeah, I reckon, and I certainly feel like it’s probably easier to do barre chords (which I do a lot) with your stronger hand, as well. I couldn’t play Robert Fripp-type stuff if you held a gun to my head, though, and maybe that’s at least part of the reason.

I was amazed to learn that Duane Allman was left-handed, but chose to play guitar (and did he ever) like a right-hander.

I do this and it seems unusual enough to have been brought up several times by other musicians. The reason I took up guitar was so I could play songs at parties and singsongs etc. where the guitar would most likely be a right handed one. I have played piano/keyboard for years but couldn’t be bothered dragging one of them to every party.

In the videos I’ve seen of him he’s played with a conventional string setup.

Yeah, I was going to say that any of the bowed stringed instruments would be problematic if played left-handed, if for no other reason than the lefty would be banging elbows with the righty sitting to their left.

As to why the non-dominant hand seems to be doing the more complex work on stringed instruments, here’s my theory: the dominant hand is active; the weak hand is reactive. So with a stringed instrument, the dominant hand is responsible for actually producing the notes while the non-dominant hand shapes and adjusts the notes. This is why lefty/righty isn’t such an issue for wind players - in their case the mouth/lips/breath is producing the notes, not the hands.

My theory also applies to sports to a degree - baseball in particular. Throwing is active, and is done with the dominant hand. Catching and hitting are reactive, and done with the non-dominant hand (yes, hitting - a right-handed hitter’s power comes primarily from the left arm, and vice-versa for a lefty).

yep, playing in an orch. you’ve got to play right handed. havoc would ensue otherwise.

soloists, or playing in small groups could free you up a bit.

I got the info from the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The 7 Hendrix guitars on display all have the all have the thicker strings on top, not the bottom like all the other guitars on display.