Are Your Sinister — or Dextrous?

“Why is everything upside-down?”

You know the origin of the word “sinister,” don’t you? It’s the Latin word for “left,” which, according to etymologists, became associated with evil, thanks to the medieval belief that left-handed people were deceitful and probably possessed. Meanwhile, “dexterous,” which means adept with your hands or brain, is from the Latin “dexter,” meaning “right.”

What are the odds that a right-handed person came up with those ideas? 😉

Lefty guitarists have it tough. They have fewer instruments to choose from, and they usually can’t just pick up any old guitar and start jamming. When I wrote for Guitar Player, we tried hard not to be “side-ist,” and would always refer to the “picking hand” and “fretting hand” rather than the left and right when discussing technique. But still.

I have left-handedness on the brain because I upgraded a left-handed guitar for a friend. I threw caution to the wind and recorded a demo video upside-down, without restringing. It ain’t pretty — but it sure is interesting! I’ve never undergone any sort of neurological testing, even though I look like the sort of person who should have electrodes permanently attached to his skull. But after playing upside down for a few minutes, I could practically feel parts of my brain pulsating with unaccustomed energy. I held a wine glass in my right hand, and it felt wrong. Then in my left, and it still felt wrong. And man, was it tough typing! It was a weird, disorienting mental high. 

(FYI, I’m not fully ambidextrous, but I’ve always had a lot of left/right confusion, and to this day, I often blurt out “Turn right here!” when I mean the opposite.)

When I taught guitar, I wouldn’t have dreamt of encouraging someone to “switch sides” — left-handed students played left-handed. But I never actually had a left-handed student who was a total beginner. If I had, wouldn’t it have made sense to teach them right-handed, since both hands are equally unskilled when you’re starting out? I always thought so, but never had a guinea pig student to help me test the theory.

Musically speaking, this seemed like a profitable exercise. Obviously, muscle memory is largely negated. You can’t execute vibrato in your usual fashion. You’re less likely to play your stock licks. It’s hard to overcome the tendency to want to start all single-note phrases on the (now) lowest-pitched string. Difficult barre chords become easy. Easy ones become impossible. The first string seems absurdly thin. Bending it (downward, of course) is almost too easy. It definitely provided insight into the technique of Albert King, the best-known left-handed player to play a righty guitar upside-down. That, in turn, made me think of Hendrix, whose blues style was so heavily influenced by that particular King. (Jimi too was also a lefty who played an upside-down guitar, though he restrung so that high-pitched string was nearest the floor, the opposite of King’s approach.)

Even though my tone suffered, I found myself becoming more mindful of tone production. I had to map out chords and phrases in my mind earlier than I would if playing right-handed, which at times forced me to play more simply and melodically.No prefab licks. No gratuitous bursts of speed. I hated every frickin’ second of it!

Has anyone else tried this? Lefties, have you by necessity developed an ability to play right-handed guitars upside-down? Did you learn left-handed? If you learned right-handed, do you regret the decision? Is your picking hand more skilled than your fretting hand? And how much basis is behind the notion that left-dominant brains really are different? Are you more creative and artistic? Or are you just plain SINISTER?



13 comments to Are Your Sinister — or Dextrous?

  • LuredMaul

    I have played a right handed guitar upside down without restringing it High E on top) for 25yrs; It started by accident although I am Left handed.  :beer:

  • Richard D

    I am left handed and got fed up of not being able to play with people when there was a guitar about, so i just learned to play a righty up-side down. I can’t play fast paced stuff. But if you learn to play upside down, people still look at you in amazement.  :1up:

  • Martin Bottino

    I am Right handed, and my brother is a lefty, and often I Pick his left handed classical guitar and try to throw down some licks, It’s kind of a funny stuff, ’cause you have to fight against your Brain!

  • I’ve been telling people that “sinister” means left handed for years now! And “villain” is someone from a village!

    Personally I’m ambidextrous, but I play right handed. My dad was left handed, but they made him right handed in school.

  • David Davies

    Its not just the guitar….
    Even guitar pedals are wired with ease of the right handed player in mind. My guitar lead points left, but has to wrap around to the right side of all the pedals.

    • joe

      …which is totally stupid, since we’re accustomed to thinking of signal flow being laid out from left to right, like text. Soldering inside a guitar pedal can be as disorienting as playing a guitar upside down.

  • Ardiril

    I play left-handed because I lost half of two fingers on my left hand to a lawnmower when I was 3, otherwise I am right-handed/right-minded. When I first got serious about learning to play guitar, I first had to play left-handed air guitar for a couple months just to get my brain adjusted to the idea. Try it with a song or two each day for two weeks, and you should see some major improvement when you pick up an actual lefty guitar again.

    Left-handed players have fewer instruments than you would imagine. Fender is the only company to consistently manufacture professional grade left-handed guitars. The story I read years ago is that the company’s veteran builders go on vacation and the new builders retool the shop and build lefty instruments. I believe it. The quality of even American-built Strats and Teles is markedly inferior to their right-handed cousins. I searched 15 years before I found a really good Strat.

    Things are a bit better now as the import lines build quite a few lefties, and CDC machines have improved the quality of the parts and how they fit.

    A left-handed player’s best friend is Carvin. 

    • joe

      Thanks for the post, Ardiril. Super interesting stuff! And I’m sorry to hear how dismal things can be for lefties.

      So, to whatever extent you can self-diagnose your own playing, do you feel you play differently relative to right-handed guitarists who play right-handed instruments? Does your picking hand feel more than typically coordinated, and you fretting hand less so? Or is it all a wash?

      • Ardiril

        As I said, I was born right-handed, so I would think that fretting with my right-hand would be easier, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. I have always struggled with technique (and now that arthritis is setting in, my playing is even more limited).

        What I think is happening is that the guitar is more of a percussive instrument. The attack of the strings is more important than precise fretting. Getting your picking solid and in time has a much more positive effect on your sound overall. After all, which sounds worse? A misfretted chord that is in time, or a properly fingered chord that is played hesitantly? This is the basis of the saying, “Play through your mistakes.”

        Where this makes the biggest difference could be in muscle memory. Right-handed players pick with their right hands, and picking overall includes fewer motions over a limited area. So, righties can put their picking into auto-pilot and concentrate on what their left hand is doing on the fretboard. Yngwie is a great example. His picking is a master class in economical motion.

        This lesson here is probably to put a bit more emphasis on rhythm exercises, and get moves like string skips and sweeps solidly committed to muscle memory. This way, a player does not have to break concentration and refocus on what his picking hand is doing. Ultimately, a guitarist should probably strive to never have to think about his/her picking hand again.

  • Roger Moore

    “But I never actually had a left-handed student who was a total beginner. If I had, wouldn’t it have made sense to teach them right-handed, since both hands are equally unskilled when you’re starting out? I always thought so, but never had a guinea pig student to help me test the theory.” – This was me!!! I am left handed, and when I was kid I had a toy guitar that I “played” left handed. When I was 10 or 11 and asked for a real guitar for Christmas my older brother told me that “hardly anyone plays left handed and the guitars are expensive” so I switched! I had a great guitar teacher who told me I had probably made a good decision and so I learned to play right handed. Can’t play even the simplest lick left handed anymore! Still do pretty much everything else “sinister” style though :satansmoking:

    • joe

      Thanks for providing evidence for a pet theory, Roger. Do you have any sense that your left and right hands are, on average, “differently abled” relative to righties who play righties?

  • I think I remember an issue of GP back in the early nineties where Ernie Isley recorded an entire album playing with the guitar flipped over to his left hand. If I recall correctly, he did it to completely eliminate any reliance on existing habits and/or to get closer to Hendrix’s approach. Maybe I imagined the whole article. It made an impression, imagined or not…

    • joe

      I don’t recall the article, but it’s an interesting idea. On a semi-related note: I am an enthusiastic (but exceedingly untalented) drawing student who often takes life drawing classes. For the last few years, I’ve been working entirely left-handed, even though I’m a righty. Obviously, I have a LOT less dexterity (pun intended), but the technique makes me slow down and really experience the line going down on the paper. In my case, it’s not like I have any especially GOOD habits when I draw with my right hand that I worry about losing. But absolutely, yes — it does really interesting things to your cognition and perception, and I have a vague, if hard to prove, sense that it’s doing SOMETHING good for my tired old brain. 🙂

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