The Switch: My Time as a Left-handed, Right-handed Guitarist

I am left-handed, and grew up studying classical flute, which is generally played the same way regardless of the hand you use to write. But when I was eighteen, I decided to finally drop the flute (figuratively), and learn guitar. But the only guitar around for me to play was a $100 Fender Squire, and it was a righty. At this point, I was mulling over what I was going to major in at university and didn’t suspect that any new musical pursuits would amount to much, so I didn’t think twice about starting out on the wrong hand.

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It turned out that I really liked guitar, and threw myself into it. I took an extra year off before starting school, and in that time used my classical background to catch up on improvisational theory. I ingratiated myself to the local jazz department, who admitted me on the basis of my “potential”. So, I was suddenly majoring in jazz guitar and not too long after, gigging around town. Fast forward one music degree, and I felt stymied. There were some aspects of playing that just wouldn’t come to me, easy or hard. For example, funky strumming—make that any kind of strumming. I could comp pianistically and pluck with my fingers, but the loose, yet controlled, percussive movements required for funk seemed out of reach. My right arm just didn’t want to move that way.

This is a performance of a tune I wrote and arranged for my graduation recital, about 5 years after I started playing guitar.

Mentors remarked on my unorthodox picking style: it didn’t feel natural to anchor my wrist or pinky, so my hand floated awkwardly and unbendingly above the strings, which I more than occasionally missed. Having decided to be a guitarist on a whim as I was nearing twenty, I had always felt like an underdog amongst my overwhelmingly male friends and fellow guitar majors, whose shred metal bands had emerged, peaked, and dissipated years before I even considered that I could be a guitarist, too. So this wrong-hand problem seemed to be just another obstacle to slog my way through. And my teacher would just shrug, and say it was too late for me to switch, anyways.

A couple of years passed after I finished jazz school, and I felt frustrated. Despite said slogging (being a slogger is a double-edged sword), the fluency never arrived. I felt lost as a musician and angry for having made the wrong decision, a crucial misstep that ended my musical career before it began. Even worse, my day gig was working in the office of a musical school, literally handing out practice room keys to other people in exchange for their photocopying and tuition fee payments. Things were bad. Around this time, my partner accepted an offer to go to graduate school across the country, and I went with him. There, in Ontario, I had no friends, no gigs, and no-one who knew I had ever studied music “seriously”. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and saw our move as a fresh start. I rented a left-handed telecaster, and continued to teach guitar right-handed at a music store.

Switching to left-handed guitar was a stab in the dark. I Googled relentlessly, trying to find out if anyone had done it before. I read forum posts by other lefties who feared they would never overcome the same problem, but ensuing discussion more or less followed the conversation I had always shared with my teacher, coming to the conclusion that the chance to change had passed. But I was buoyed by the startling finding that, even as the pick felt alien and unwieldy in my calloused left fingers, I could tremolo pick. Immediately. Something that I never figured out after years of struggling right-handed. So it stuck.

That was back in late 2014, and I couldn’t really be happier with how it turned out. It took time, but nearly everything transferred. My playing style changed entirely, but I think it has been for the better. I could finally jam along to my favourite funk tunes, and my improvised lines became more fluid and legato. I still miss the strings once in a while, but maybe that’s just me. There are also a few configurations my right hand will not agree to, such as this altered voicing below, which was easy before (no, really!).

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I have yet to just whip this one out post-switch

One of the most emotionally difficult aspects for me was actually playing at my own wedding in 2015, which was a full house of friends from music school. I had been playing left-handed for about a year and a half, and I felt like a toddler who had the vocabulary and syntax of an adult, but the speech control of…a toddler. But no way I was going to sit that night out! So I stumbled through it and had fun, anyways.

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I do try not to dwell on, nor regret, how much time I spent playing right-handed, but it hasn’t been so hard. Because I could apply the motor skills I already had bilaterally, I don’t feel like any of that training was a waste. And as a neuroscientist-in-training who’s interested in motor control and movement, I’m fascinated by the process and kind of wish I had somehow documented my own transition. Did I share motor knowledge across some somatotopic divide? What manner of abstraction or representation allowed me to transfer procedures across my upper limbs? Are my hands specialised such that my rhythmic control particularly benefited from the switch?

It’s a little distant from my own research area and I haven’t practiced or performed right-handed guitar for a long time. But this whole experience suggests that I could pick it up again, so if you’re looking for a bilateral guitarist for your study, you know where to reach me! We’ll just need an MRI-safe guitar.

Here I am in 2017 lifting one of my favourite guitarists, Mike Moreno. (Oh yeah, and I play Gibson now.)

And some noodling on a couple of standards, earlier this year.

Ironically, I am so busy with my PhD that I haven’t had a lot of time to get out and play, even though I want to now more than ever. In any case, I hope the unpolished nature of these videos doesn’t dissuade any other questioning wrong-handed readers from taking the plunge 😉 If you’re considering a switch of your own, I think it’s worth it! No matter what happens, my music will always be a work in progress, and I like it that way.