The main difference between a left- and right-handed guitar is that the strings are reversed in order of thickness. When looking at the guitar, if the thickest string is on the left, it’s a right-handed guitar. If the thickest string is on the right, it’s left-handed guitar. This of course means both play completely different and are accordingly set up differently too.
The stats say 10% of the world is left-handed with only 3% identifying as solely (or strongly) left-handed. This leads to poor demand for left-handed guitars and lefties often wonder if the guitar is any different from a pair of scissors – made without acknowledging their distinct existence.
Thankfully, in the past few decades, we’ve seen flipped Stratocasters, lefty acoustics, and a rich legacy of legends like Cobain, Hendrix, and Dick Dale. As an ode to their southpaw spirit, we’ll outline the key differences between a left-handed guitar and a right-handed one and address other common questions related to the subject.
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- Left- and Right-Handed Guitars: What’s the Difference?
- Upside Down Playing and Famous Guitarists
- Related Questions: Guitar FAQ
- Final Thoughts on the Differences Between Left-Handed and Right-Handed Guitars
Left- and Right-Handed Guitars: What’s the Difference?
Comparing a left- and right-handed guitar isn’t always as simple as the strings being the other way around. The change in thickness effects the balance, and the orientation of the player changes just about everything else!
Let’s take a look.
Strings & Tuning Machines
The first and most obvious difference you’ll notice between right- and left-handed guitars is the direction of the strings. When you look at the two guitars vertically, the thickest string will be on the opposite end on each type. This difference is easy to work around, as you can string the guitar upside down (or the other way around). You can check out our full guide to guitar strings for more info.
The pickguard will instantly categorize the orientation of any guitar. Right-handed models have it to the right to prevent scuffmarks from the guitar pick as you strum. The same pickguard will be on the left when you are facing a left-handed guitar.
While you can string these guitars upside down, the pickguard will look awkward and can be disorientating. You could remove it on certain models like the Gibson ES-335. You’ll also find that many acoustic guitars (especially nylon-string guitars) don’t have a pickguard at all.
Fretboard Inlays (side)
Most guitars have fretboard inlays – the little white dots on the neck to help you keep track of which fret you are playing. However, you’ll also see guitars that have side markers located on the side of your fretboard towards the top (facing the ceiling).
Side inlays indicate the fret positions so that you don’t need to look at the neck while playing. Left- and right-handed guitars will have them on a different side. This isn’t a deal breaker if you wish to modify the guitar. You can buy aftermarket inlay stickers relatively inexpensively.
The guitar nut sits near the headstock, right at the crown of the guitar neck. It is a skinny strip of synthetic bone or similar material that’s designed to hold the strings in position. It has six slots – each sized according to the gauge (thickness) of the string intended for the slot.
This won’t be apparent unless you inspect the nut up close. If you intend to restring your guitar upside down, the thickness of the slot will become an issue. The thickest string will be over the thinnest slot and the thinnest string will rattle because the slot is too wide. You have two options to remedy this: a) flip the nut 180 degrees, or b) install a new one.
Acoustic Guitar Saddle
Saddles are a strip of material (bone, ivory, etc.) that sits on top of the bridge of an acoustic guitar. They are important for the intonation of the instrument and help transfer the frequencies from the strings to the chamber (body).
For the sake of intonation, acoustic guitar saddles are placed at an angle to alter the string length. If you look closely at most acoustic guitars, the saddle is slanted in a way that the thickest (E) string has the longest length. The direction of this slant will vary on left- and right-handed guitars.
Upside Down Playing and Famous Guitarists
Every so often, a guitar player would decide to go his own route and play the right-handed guitar despite being a southpaw. We aren’t talking about the way Mark Knopfler did it – by pretending to be right-handed. We are talking about the mind-boggling world of upside-down left-handed players.
They are rare musicians who learn the guitar with the strings lined upside down – a convoluted and eccentric approach to learning the instrument. Luckily, they can be fascinating to watch. Check out the above video of Eric Gales to witness it in action.
Many of these guitarists and bass players say they started as kids who didn’t have access to any other instrument and decided to learn it upside down. Here’s a shortlist of musicians who play with the thickest string closer to the floor and the thinnest string closest to the chin.
- Eric Gales (blues guitarist)
- Bob Geldof
- Zacky Vengeance (Avenge Sevenfold)
- Mono Neon (bass guitar)
Related Questions: Guitar FAQ
Can a Left-Handed Person Play a Right-Handed Guitar?
You can restring an acoustic guitar by switching the strings (flip them) and making some minor adjustments, although many guitars are designed asymmetrically and won’t feel ‘right’ when you do this. For instance, the pickguard will be placed towards you and away from the strumming hand, where it should be to protect the body from scruff marks. This can throw you off visually, too. We have a longer article on the topic of whether you should learn left-handed or right-handed.
Is it Harder to Play the Guitar Left-Handed?
Assuming you are left-handed, you will learn the guitar just as everyone else does. There is no tangible difference in how lefties are taught. There may be some less obvious obstacles such as confusion while watching instructional videos. It can be puzzling starting off to watch people playing the other way around. Overall though, there’s no reason to believe it’s harder to play the guitar if you are left-handed.
Is It Harder to Learn the Guitar Left-Handed?
The biggest obstacle you’ll face learning the guitar is that tab and chord charts are almost always oriented for a right-handed player. This means when you get to learning to read tab, or even just learning the fretboard, you’ll have a little more mental work to do in order to relate everything back to how you see the guitar from your vantage point. However, once you know these basics and have this memorized, learning things like the CAGED system or the circle of fifths will be as easy as it is for anyone else, as transposing becomes second nature.
Why Do Left-Handed Guitars Cost More?
If you are a lefty, you’re already aware that the left-handed versions invariably cost more than right-handed versions. This oddity can be attributed to demand and supply. We tend to think of left-handed guitars as an ‘alternative’ to the flagship model. However, to the manufacturer, the guitar is no different from a ‘special model’ because it needs innovation, special molds, and added labor costs. Plus, the demand isn’t comparable to right-handed models.
Final Thoughts on the Differences Between Left-Handed and Right-Handed Guitars
Luckily, we’ve got more left-handed guitars on offer today than ever before. Even the entry-level segment has some killer left-handed guitars like the Fender CD60 Acoustic Guitar and Fender Squier Affinity Telecaster. If you are a beginner, we’ve recommended several left-handed options in our Best Electric Guitar Beginner Kit buying guide.