Being Left-Handed and Playing That Way

Why should anyone want to play left handed, when most everyone is right handed and instruments are made right handed? Besides, playing an instrument requires hands to have "dexterity" (does this word refer to the "right" way?!?) in both hands. I do not intend to argue that left handed people should necessarily play left handed instruments, but I do think that if a "lefty" is serious about playing music, then this should be a consideration. Here are a few points to consider...

Fiddling left-handed

Honestly, as a lefty, I actually purposely do somethings right handed and sometimes switch back and forth. I believe it's good for my mind as well as my body to some extent. This is especially true of physical labor-- shoveling, for example. Strangely enough, I am stronger in my right arm and hand than my left. I am not sure why, but it may be that I tend to carry things in my right while I do things with my left. Importantly though, whenever I do something that requires feeling or lots of intent, I do it instinctively with my left hand. My left hand is dominant-- I write and throw left handed. For playing a stringed instrument like a guitar or fiddle, certainly both hands need to be facile, but it is the pick or bow that drives the music. The noting hand "serves" this hand. Certainly, feeling can be given with the noting hand using vibrato, but dynamics, attack, and many subtle other parts of the overall sound that add to its expressiveness come from the pick or bow. I was given a guitar at the age of fifteen and found it clumsy and awkward. Finally, I strung it up backwards and was able to learn. I come from a musical family and was offered a mandolin to play when I was eight years old. It didn't move me and looking back now, I wonder if there would have been a difference had it been left handed.

Fiddling left-handed

It's not practical to play left handed because instruments are built right handed. Well, you can always play backwards!! Elizabeth Cotten is a fine example of that. And there are some notable fiddlers who just played a right handed fiddle backwards. Actually though, it's pretty easy to find a lefty guitar nowadays. In fact, some very respected makers (Larrivee, in Canada, for example) make left handed instruments at no extra cost. Mandolins that are "A" style can be set up left handed with a minmal amount of work (Of course, F style mandolins are not practical candidates. Lefty F mandolins are rare, but do exist.) I believe playing violin left handed is more problematic. I am not classically trained (self taught fiddler), so am not really able to offer expert advice for violinists. From my own perspective, classical music is like most other institutions. Their conformity helps them to reproduce themselves and I believe having a bow pointing in the "wrong" direction may not be allowed. My own nonconformity has led me to have violins that have been converted completely to lefty and I have no qualms about encouraging others to have this done if they so desire. Most luthiers will do this for a few hundred bucks if you are serious about it. My own approach has been to learn to do this myself on inexpensive imported violins "in the white", since I also have been interested in finishing violins as well. I doubt that I would convert a fine vintage instrument to a lefty, but there are plenty of factory instruments out there that can be improved considerably by removing the top and regraduating it and installing a new bass bar, so this seems like a logical thing to do. As far as new instruments go, I believe we are in a Golden Age. There are certainly plenty of very fine builders who would be willing to make a custom lefty instrument and this is quite special, since you can actually know the person who built your instrument as well as support an art/craft that is still essentially "pre-industrial".

Finally, some people say that it's at least very inconvenient to be a lefty. I have had right handed folks stare at me while playing or say that it's confusing to try to learn from someone who is "other handed", but this seems quite natural to me. Just look in the mirror! And what about not being able to play other folks instruments? This truly is a disadvantage. I do get a kick out of having someone who is right handed try out my fiddle without me telling them it's a lefty. If I am playing a dance, then I always have a back up fiddle with me. Knowing I can't just pick up someone else's instrument and play it, I just try to always plan to have my own instrument with me when there is a chance I might get to play. There is one advantage, however. I have been in some jams where someone who is perhaps grubby handed or even a bit intoxicated wanted to play my instrument. It's much easier to say outright "No, you can't!" and then explain why.

So, enough of a rant. I really believe that I would have never become a fiddler (didn't start until I was 25 years old) had I tried it right handed. I am curious to know others' thoughts on this topic and am willing to post some of your stories on this page or at least add links to your pages from here. Or if you are an instrument maker friendly to leftys or have lefty insturments for sale, then I can link you here, too.

~ Woody McKenzie