Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Playing Music Left-Handed

One of the main reasons I chose the tenor banjo was because I’m left-handed*.  A 4-string banjo is easily converted to lefty – all you do is switch out the bridge and nut, and reverse the strings.  Everything else is the same.  There’s no 5th string to throw things off.  (*My tendency toward nonconformity and individuality may have also been a factor!). 

I’m pretty strongly left-handed – I eat lefty, throw lefty, golf lefty, use left-handed scissors.  My dominant hand was going to have to be the picking/strumming hand.  (I do throw a Frisbee with my right-hand; go figure!)  Now that I’ve been playing for a few years the decision to use my left hand to hold the pick has been validated by the realization that keeping rhythm is more important than hitting every note perfectly.
Lefty violin collision
Playing left-handed does have some limitations.  You don’t have the opportunity to play as many different instruments.  It’s not like you can just pick up anyone’s guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo or bass and fool around with it.  Going into a music store is no fun - with all those instruments that are strung “backwards” or upside down.  I also have to take note of where I position myself in a jam setting so I don’t bash headstocks with the right handed person sitting next to me.  Yes, being lefty can mess up the feng shui of a room.

However, I don’t think the process of learning to play is any more difficult as a lefty – taking lessons from a right handed person, figuring out chord shapes, reading tablature, and mentally reversing instructions that refer to “the right hand”.  It’s a right-handed world and lefties are already used to making these adjustments.  We’re probably a little more ambidextrous too – everything from automobiles to computer keyboards to can openers are made with a right handed person in mind.
Kermit's a lefty!
I recently got a really nice tenor guitar.  I often get asked by others if they can try it out.  Usually I’ll just hand it over and watch the look on the person’s face when he discovers that it’s a left-handed instrument and that I’ve been playing left-handed the whole time.  If I don’t feel like handing it over I’ll preface it by saying “OK, but you do know that it’s a lefty, right?”.  That usually stops them.

I did get to hear my tenor banjo being played in real time last year when a really good left-handed guitarist with mandolin experience came to our session for the first time.  I handed him my GDAE tuned banjo and asked him to play it so that I could finally get to hear it from the perspective of a listener and not the person making the sound.  I was pleased with what I heard! 

Being lefty is probably why all of my current instruments are custom orders from independent luthiers.  I like having the side position dots on the correct side, but more than that I like knowing that the instrument was made specifically for me.  It’s more expensive but also more personal.  If you’re left-handed and thinking of playing music, there’s no reason to not to do it the way that comes most natural to you!

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