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For the majority of players, the right hand is used for most tasks that require exacting manipulation: writing, throwing, etc.

However, guitar, violin, lute, etc., etc., use the right hand for plucking the strings - often with a pick - and the left hand is required to do the more exacting work of pressing the strings to the neck of the instrument. As a player myself, this feels nothing but natural.

But - if you could start from scratch with no preconceived notions - wouldn't it be better to use your right hand to manipulate the strings on the neck? That requires faster and more exacting finger movement then waving a pick over the strings or holding a bow and sliding it back and forth.

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+1, I've often wondered about this. –  jadarnel27 May 18 '12 at 13:08
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I've also wondered about this. I'm right-handed and I've never learnt the guitar. When I picked up my friend's to see what it was like, I naturally used my right hand for fingering the chords, as that seemed to require the most dexterity. Cue my friend exclaiming "wow, you can play left-handed?!". Although, I played violin (badly) as a child and using my left hand for bowing would seem awkward. –  Widor May 18 '12 at 13:23
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Supposing your hypothesis were true, why do left-handed guitarists seek out left-handed guitars (especially since left-handed guitars are so much harder to find)? For that matter, why did the left-handed Hendrix take a right-handed guitar and turn it upside down? Why not just play it normally? This doesn't answer your question, but it's worth pondering. –  Alex Basson May 25 '12 at 11:08
    
@AlexBasson - I've pondered both issues - I think the left-handed player using a right-handed instrument relates to the availability of right-handed instruments. Especially violin/fiddle players tend to play right-handed instruments so they can easily borrow another's instrument when they don't have their own with them. If they were tied to a left-handed instrument, and they didn't have it with them, they'd be unable to play. –  D Mac May 25 '12 at 14:29
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@DMac Or to put it another way, doesn't the existence of left-handed guitars demonstrate that guitarists don't necessarily want to use their dominant hand to fret the strings, but in fact prefer to use their dominant hand for picking and strumming duties? –  Alex Basson May 25 '12 at 17:23

9 Answers 9

Your logic fits and, as some of the commentators have stated, I've pondered about this in the past.

Usually your dominant hand naturally can handle doing a lot more work, like you've stated. In playing instruments, the dominant hand also should be used for doing the "big jobs":

  • in drumming, the dominant hand would be hitting the hi-hats. In a normal 4/4 measure, the dominant hand would hit the hi-hats 8 times, whereas the other hand would hit the snare once or twice.
  • in tabla, the dominant hand would play the fine tuned dayan. Once again in a normal 4/4 measure, the dominant hand would be playing 6-8 notes, whereas the other hand would play anywhere from 2-4 notes.

This also goes for the guitar. If you're playing rhythm, the dominant hand is doing all of this work, upstrokes, downstrokes, arpeggios, string skipping, etc., whereas the other hand is simply fretting a chord.

Picking/strumming can require big/quick/exact movements. Fingering and fretting gennerally requires smaller, more dexterous movements.

I guess the misconception/myth is that picking/strumming is less work than fretting. I wouldn't say that one is more than the other, it's just different types of work, and generally, the dominant hand is better suited for picking/strumming.

Note: There are some people who are dominant right-handed and play left-handed, and vice versa. In the end, it all comes down to whatever is the most comfortable for you. Nowadays, there is no lack of left-handed guitars available, so if you find it easier and more comfortable to play that way, go for it!

Also, see this page which has some more information in deciding whether to play one way vs. another.

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I think you're right, rhythm and speed is the key. Even when strumming single chords on a guitar, your left hand only moves ones for every two strokes of your right (down, up). Most passages require many more movements with the right than the left. But I also have a friend who's left handed, and is an excellent right-handed guitarist, so a lot of it would just come down to what you're used to.. –  naught101 May 19 '12 at 1:13
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+1 - it's indeed a myth that the right hand is doing an easier job –  Agos May 21 '12 at 21:24

I am right handed and play conventionally - right hand picking, left hand fretting - and this does give my dominant hand the complicated, strenuous work.

Fretting chords is relatively easy work, and even when there are aspects of left hand work which are fast or complex, the right hand is usually having to cope with even more complex patterns at the same time.

The genres I play range from blues and classical to heavy metal and rock, and for these the right hand is almost always working harder.

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I suspect the common belief represents a "harmonocentric" view; but from a "rythmocentric" view, the answer is so obvious, the question seems silly (but amusing). :) –  luser droog May 18 '12 at 20:55
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I have no idea if those words are real, but I like them :-) –  Dr Mayhem May 18 '12 at 20:56
    
Just a point to add… I think that fingers on either hand are often (nearly) equally dexterous, it's the wrists, alignment, and as @VariableLost mentioned briefly, spatial coordination that differs so greatly. For example, I can type equally well with both hands, and though I can play the piano slightly better with my right, it's not a large difference, and that does require wrist movement/spatial coordination as well. Both hands have difficult to work to do, but they're difficult in different ways. –  Josh Fields Aug 5 '12 at 22:56

I am left handed and have always played guitar right handed. It felt right to me that way. Baseball, golf, shooting rifle, eating, writing - i am very left handed and can't function trying to do it right handed. Like I say, guitar feels natural right handed to me and I developed my fingering very quickly. I don't believe that the right hand is doing any work that is harder. The left hand needs very dexterous flexablility and coordination.

To answer the question, I believe that the right hand may do well over the sound box or pickups because it has better spatial coordination. The right arm is less supported than the left, which always is supportted on the neck. The right hand sometimes needs to be able to function without the arm resting on the guitar. Primary handedness would suit the act of your arm in free space and coming down to strum the strings accurately.

I still have issues with my right hand being confused about which string I am picking vs which finger/string is being fretted. However, I would take better and quicker left hand development over perfect picking/strumming anyday. I think you enjoy learning the guitar more and stick with it when your left hand develops faster.

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The answer is probably in history. When the first guitar-like instruments were created, things they played were more right-hand-demanding, and only later complexity moved to the left hand, while traditions left unchanged.

I am left-handed, but play 'righty' guitar, and I've always felt it more natural (as of contemporary stuff).

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"the right hand is used for most tasks that require exacting manipulation: writing, throwing, etc."

Are these really tasks that require exacting manipulation? I would not say so, they require exacting action. Exacting manipulation would rather be stuff like holding some object in place while working on it with some tool you hold in the other hand, or aiming with a bow at some target while the other hand draws the string, or fixing food on your plate with a fork while the other hand cuts it with a knife.

Or fingering chords on a guitar while the other hand strums or picks the strings. All of these are more usually done with the "weak" hand: none of this has much meaning in itself, but is necessary to allow the "strong" hand to accomplish the actual tasks.

Though these "manipulations" do require exaction and considerable force, it's of a different kind. It's rather a constant strong "holding" force with small and subtle modifications, such as turning an object, aiming the bow or changing fingerings or doing vibrato, while the strong hand rather applies force momentarily to directly effect something.

I am left-handed and also play guitar and cello lefthanded, and it feels the only correct way to me – however this is definitely for the main out of habit, I doubt I would play too much differently if I had always practised right-handedly. Otherwise there couldn't be so many good left-handed guitarists and string players who actually play right-handed.

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I just had this question to my key board instructor, who happens to be a good guitar player too. He was baffled. He took his guitar and put it reverse as in picking the strings with left hand and notes with right hand. He is a right handed person and never held guitar like that. He just could not comprehend how to use the guitar in the other way. My theory, or explanation was that when we pick the strings of guitar with right hand, they are the originators of a sound. So basic sound is generated by the picking of the string. This is the most important aspect of the guitar playing. The left hand though it looks like doing majority of work, or the real dextrous work of creating different notes, or chords; those are still the derived sounds, or manipulated sounds governed by the stings vibration done by the right hand side. So the controlling of the string vibration is better handled by the right hand than the left hand. Again, this is my hypothesis. Need to dig in more.

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It's an active/passive/control hand thing. The right hand determines the loudness of the tone and its character and exact timing, both with plucked as well as bowed string instruments.

A right-handed person will use a hammer in the right hand. When you are taking a look at what a blacksmith does with his left and his right hand, the left hand requires a lot more dexterity for managing the work piece between hits. What the right hand provides is controlled power and the driving force.

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After a few years of practice, bowing becomes harder than fingering. Consider the whole arm, not just the hand, when measuring the difficulty of the subtasks of playing.

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This is similar to my understanding of it; however, scholars disagree on which branch of the necked chordophone family spawned the other; bowed strings (which descended to the modern violin family) or plucked strings (the lute and oud, eventually resulting in the guitar, banjo and similar instruments). If bowed strings came first, the need for fine motor control in the entire bowing arm would indeed naturally lead to using the nondextrous hand for note fingering; however, if plucked strings came first, the other way makes more sense to a right-handed person. –  KeithS Jun 16 at 22:51
    
My theory is that, regardless of which came first, the two chordophone branches in Western music developed interdependently, and the left-handed posture came to dominate the entire family due to its importance in bowed strings. –  KeithS Jun 16 at 22:54

I'm a left handed guy with nearly 30 years of right handed guitar playing/teaching experience. I've always wondered if I should have learned leftie style. When learning it feels strongly that the fretting hand is the business end. But as you progress you learn what makes the difference between an OK player and a great player with individual style is the strumming/picking hand or in most cases the dominant hand. I'm fine with doing this with my right non dominant hand. Perhaps fine could have been easier or better though with my left dominant hand. I did not have this choice with the piano and this did not hold me back though. My honest conclusion is that some people are v left or right handed and have to stick with that. Some are more flexible like me and I should be grateful for this.

I once knew an ambidextrous guitarist who busked with two guitars I'd like to ask him some questions now now about all this.

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