You should play a right-handed guitar if your right-hand is dominant. Left-handed people should, ideally, use a left-handed guitar. They can learn a right-handed guitar if they are willing to put in some extra effort. Ambidextrous people can choose either, but I recommend a right-handed guitar for them as well.
While the decision seems to be easy for right-handed players, southpaws and ambidextrous people have a few things to mull over (and for parents picking out a kids guitar, it can be a dilemma). Right-handed guitars are so abundant and all-pervading that most lefties just pick one up without knowing that a left-handed model exists.
As you can imagine, this can turn out to be a regretful decision. Although, there are quite a few famous guitar players who have pulled it off. Many lefty students pick up a right-handed guitar. After months (or years) of laboring at it, they still can get used to it and feel disadvantaged.
This can be a sticky situation. At that point, you can either make the switch and start retraining your motor memory skills from scratch, continue with a serious handicap, or worse yet, quit altogether, which happens quite a lot.
You can check out our article on The Differences between Right and Left-handed Guitars for more details. For now, let us understand the role of each hand in guitar playing and how it ‘plays’ into your decision.
The Role of the Right and Left Hand in Guitar Playing
Acoustic and electric guitars are available in right & left-handed versions, but beginners seldom think about it that way. Unlike many other instruments (like drums), the role of a dominant hand is not as obvious in guitar playing because both hands are tasked with comparable challenges. However, since ‘expression’ is relayed through the picking hand, the guitar pick is traditionally held in the dominant hand.
The Fretting Hand
The fretting hand is the hand that rests on the neck (by the frets). It is the hand responsible for pressing down on the strings to form chords or play notes from a scale. Initially, the fretting hand application may seem more challenging because of the chords and scales involved.
Guitar players put the fretting through the wringer (think finger gym) to build finger independence, dexterity, strength, and agility. It has to play all the legatos, long/fast runs, and unthinkable chord shapes as you approach advanced harmony.
However, as you progress, the hand becomes less nuanced and more menial, especially so for dynamic playing. New students often focus on forming/memorizing shapes and how to switch between chords and notes in tight spaces (more on this later).
The Picking/Plucking Hand (Dominant Hand)
The picking hand is the one that has to grip the guitar pick (thus the name). It’s in charge of playing the chords and striking the strings to play the notes of a scale or guitar phrase/lick. It brings nuance to your playing and works the rhythm.
Although there is some debate on the topic, most musicians agree that the picking hand should be the same as your dominant hand. What is a dominant hand, you ask? Technically, it is the hand that you have better control over and use predominantly for writing, throwing, etc.
For them Ambidextrous Folks:
If you can’t figure out which type suits you, you should go to a store and try out left and right-handed guitars. Try playing any basic pattern, a Major scale, or just hold down the simplest open chord. Simultaneously, try strumming it to the best of your ability. This should help you decide.
In rare cases, people may struggle to identify their dominant hand without assistance. You can visit UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center Questionnaire for an assessment about your ‘handedness’.
If you are ambidextrous, you could be capable of learning the guitar with either hand leading. I would highly recommend getting a right-handed guitar for a practical reasons in such a case. Primarily because right-handed guitars are easily available, which means you have more models and options to choose from. Additionally, they are relatively cheaper – though not by much.
Why is the Picking Hand dominant in Guitar Playing?
The moment you encounter barre chords as a student, you will question the idea of calling the picking hand the ‘dominant hand’. In fact, most students/beginners struggle with chord shapes, scales, chromatic exercises, and the gamut of techniques like bends, pull-offs, and hammer-ons.
It is totally justified to question why the dominant hand (think more adept) is reserved for the guitar pick. Would it be better if we did it the other way around? Frankly, to a rank beginner, I’m sure either way seems as daunting.
Before we discuss the reasons for this, it’s helpful to acknowledge that guitar playing is a complicated endeavor. It is hard to establish a baseline that clearly demarcates which hand is ‘more important’. So, YMMV.
As a beginner, you may feel like the fretting hand does the heavy lifting, but as you progress, you will start noticing complex picking patterns that involve string skipping, playing with an angled guitar-pick, flatpicking, etc.
The ability to play the guitar dynamically relies on the attack (soft or hard) of your strumming/picking hand. Various techniques like pinch harmonics, harp harmonics, palm-muting will begin to emerge as you reach an intermediate level.
In other words, the picking-hand is responsible for the subtle nuances that bring out the finer details of the music. They relay your personality and expression. These facets of music emerge from the finger details that need more precision and control. That’s why it is called the dominant hand.
Either right or left, the important thing is to practice regularly and enjoy your guitar journey. Getting the ‘right’ guitar design will ensure that you don’t inadvertently make things harder for yourself or regret your decision down the road. To that end, I hope this article has helped clear the air on the subject.