You’d be forgiven for thinking that if a lefty wanted to start playing guitar, all they have to do is flip a right-handed guitar over and string it backwards. After all, that’s what Hendrix did, and Cobain, and Dick Dale, and Albert King… the list goes on.
However, to say that left and right-handed guitars are identical but for how they’re played is a little shy of the truth. There are indeed specialist left-handed guitars out there, and structurally speaking, they’re very much their own thing.
Of course, there is a reason why all those iconic lefty players simply flipped their right-handed guitars (I’ll get into that a bit later on), but for now, let’s talk about how left- and right-handed variants of this popular instrument differ.
Orientation — What’s the Difference Between How a Left- and Right-Handed Guitar Is Played?
The important thing to remember when it comes to orientation is that a guitar is always strummed or picked with the strong hand and fretted with the weaker hand. So, a right-handed player will play the note with their right hand, fret the notes with their left hand.
This is all backwards to a left-handed player. They strum and pick notes with their stronger left hand, while their weaker right hand cradles the neck and frets the notes.
Visuals — Do Left- and Right-Handed Guitars Look Different
A guitarist that has been playing for some time will automatically know when a guitar is not designed for their handedness, or that’s how it is for me in any case.
I’m a right-handed player, and when I see a left-handed guitar, something just seems a little, shall we say… off. I don’t have to think about it, it’s just instantly apparent to me. You know those dreams in which everything seems normal but for one very strange factor? Well, that’s sort of how it feels for me looking at a left-handed guitar.
The reason the appearance of a differently-handed guitar is a little disorienting to my brain is that they’re a perfect mirror image of right-handed guitars — complete opposites!
Yet, it’s the exactness of this opposition that creates a variety of commonalities. The thicker string comes first, getting thinner towards the other side of the fretboard, the tuners are in the same sequence (low to high), and the onboard controls are in the same order.
How to Tell the Difference Between Left- and Right-Handed Guitars on the Fly
If you haven’t been playing all that long, or perhaps don’t play at all, the easiest way to tell the difference between a left- and right-handed guitar (besides asking a store clerk) is to simply look at the strings head-on.
Should the thickest string (bottom E) be on the right-hand side of the fretboard, then it’s a left-handed guitar. Conversely, if the thickest string is on the left-hand side of the fretboard, it’s a right-handed guitar. The inversion makes it a little confusing, but that’s the way it’s done, folks!
Now, I know what you’re thinking… What if I’m too far away from the guitar to see the gauges of the strings? Well, that’s a great question. In this instance, all you need to do is check out the pickguard.
The pickguard of a guitar is the shaped sheet of plastic that sits under the strings and stretches out towards one side of the guitar. Its job is to protect the surface of the guitar from pick strokes.
Pickguards are a much more visible fixture of the guitar, so you should have no problem picking them out from across a room. Unlike the strings, the pickguard does not need to be inverted to determine the handedness of the instrument. If it travels towards the right of the guitar body, then it’s a right-handed guitar. If it veers towards the left edge of the body, then it’s a left-handed guitar.
Determining the Handedness of a Guitar: A Comprehensive Guide
Even armed with the string and pickguard trick, determining the handedness of a guitar can be difficult at times for a number of reasons…
- Guitars don’t always have pickguards (acoustics especially).
- Certain freeboard designs span the entire width of the guitar body.
- The guitar may not have strings.
- Even more deceptive, the strings might have been installed backwards, so the thick string is at the bottom of the fretboard and the thin string is at the top.
So, to make sure you can always tell the difference between a right-handed and left-handed guitar, no matter what, let’s take a look at the full list of essential checks!
1.Look at the Strings
String order is the easy one we’ve already covered. Looking at a vertically oriented guitar, if the thick string is on the right, then it’s designed to be played by lefties. If the thick string is on the left, then it’s for righties.
If you can’t see the strings, there are none, or you think they may have been flipped, move on to the next check.
2.Check the Pickguard
As mentioned earlier, if you’re facing a guitar and the pickguard stretches over the left of the body, then it’s a lefty. Should the pickguard travel to the right, then it’s a righty.
3.Peep the Strap Buttons
Often referred to as strap pegs, strap buttons are the little metal nubbins that poke out from the body of the guitar that thread through the eyes at the end of a guitar strap.
On most standard-shaped guitars (Strat, Super Strat, Tele, etc.), the back strap button is situated in the middle of the bottom edge of the guitar body, which is no help to us, but the front strap button almost always juts out from the top side of the body.
If the front strap button appears to be on the bottom side of a guitar, it’s a sure sign it’s either a righty that’s been flipped by a lefty or a lefty that’s been flipped by a righty.
But what if the strap button is missing or hidden, as it often is on irregular-shaped guitars? Don’t let it flummox you! Read on to learn how to jump this hurdle.
4.Consider the Nut
The nut on a guitar is the little piece of graphite, plastic, or bone that creates a border between the fretboard and the headstock. These little components have a sequence of notches that hold the strings in place as they make their way towards the tuning pegs.
Each notch is sized to accommodate a corresponding string, so this is where you should be looking for clues pertaining to a flipped guitar and upside down strings.
Examine how the thick string sits in the notch. Does it barely fit in? Perhaps it’s sitting on top of the notch rather than inside it? That typically means it’s not meant to be there; however, it could just be that the guitar has been strung with higher gauge strings that don’t suit the nut.
To confirm your “flippy” theory, take a quick look at the notch at the other end of the nut. If the thin string has oodles of wiggle room, then the strings have indeed been flipped.
That said, almost any guitar DIY-er could have flipped both the nut and the strings, so the investigation must continue!
5.Look for the Fret Side Markers
Most guitars have fret markers on key frets up the board (3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, 24), to help players navigate the instrument, but it’s not these front-facing markers that we need to look at.
To make sure the fingers of a guitarist don’t get lost when playing standing up, manufacturers include side markers that mirror the front markers. They will only ever be on the top side of the fretboard.
6.Saddle Up, Pard
If you’re still unsure about the nature of the instrument before you, there’s one final thing we can do to find our answer… eyeball that saddle!
The saddle – or saddles, as the case may be – is like the nut of the bottom half of the guitar. It sits on the bridge and determines the intonation of each string, and to do so, it has to ever so slightly modify string length.
Generally speaking, the saddle(s) will be slanted so that the thickest string is longer than the rest, and the thinnest string is shorter than the rest. If you notice the opposite is true of a guitar, it usually means it’s been flippity-dippity flipped, yo!
And that brings us to the end of the guide, but our mission is far from over. We still haven’t discussed why countless lefty guitar heroes flip their righty instead of using a lefty.
Why Do Some Left-Handed Players Play Flipped Right-Handed Guitars?
There are two kinds of players that flip their guitars: One flips the guitar but leaves the strings as they are, so the thick string is closer to the floor and the thinnest string is closer to them (check out Eric Gales), and the other flips both the guitar and the strings.
If a lefty leaves the strings where they are, they’re essentially creating a whole different playing system, which means they won’t be able to find any relevant learning material and will have to figure things out on their own.
By flipping both the guitar and strings, a lefty recreates the right-handed playing orientation for their left hand, meaning they will be able to use things like notation and tablature quite naturally.
But, whatever avenue a flippin’ lefty goes down, the reason for the flip remains the same… they didn’t have access to a left-handed guitar.
Historically, left-handed guitars weren’t really a thing, so if a lefty wanted to play, they had to make do with a right-handed instrument. Even in the early 50s when left-handed guitars went into production, they were exceedingly rare and often more expensive, so a lefty had every reason to stick with their flipped righty.
Are Left-Handed Guitars More Expensive, and, if so, Why?
It’s not as common these days, but sometimes, left-handed guitars are a little more expensive than their righty counterparts. This mostly comes down to scarcity, the fact that there aren’t as many left-handed players, and the extra production costs accrued by deviating from standard procedures.
It can seem like a bit of a right-handed slap in the face to lefties at first, but, considering you can sell these instruments on for slightly more than their right-handed variants, you make your money back.
Are Left-Handed Guitars Rare?
I wouldn’t say that left-handed guitars are rare, but they’re certainly harder to find than right-handed guitars. This might have been a problem when we had to source our axes from little local music stores, but now, we can search the internet and find a bunch of awesome lefty instruments in seconds.
Is Guitar More Difficult for Lefties?
Guitar can be more difficult for left-handed players in that if they flip the guitar but not the strings, it will be hard to use learning materials, but otherwise, nope… it’s exactly the same process.
Final Thoughts — How Should You Play the Guitar?
You should play guitar however you feel is comfortable, but if you can afford an instrument that’s designed to compliment your hand preference, then go with it.
It’ll smooth out the learning process, you won’t have to play awkwardly to avoid hitting your tone and volume pots, and it’ll ensure you’re speaking the same musical language as everybody else.