38

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., 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.

  • 1
    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
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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
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    @AlexBasson: Yes, there is no doubt this is so for a reason, and there are many proves that it is like this because it is the most natural way, but the question is : Why is this the most natural way to play a guitar? It is actually a good question. – awe Aug 6 '12 at 7:49
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    @AlexBasson, I am left handed and I really don't like left handed guitars. Fretting with my dominant hand is a lot more natural to me than the opposite since I never had to develop extra dexterity there to start with. That being said, I only play with a pick, so I don't feel like I need much dexterity on the right hand and this may be different with people playing other styles. Anecdotally, when I learned keyboard, I started on an organ and only did chord shapes with my left hand. After that on the piano, despite being left handed, my left hand had less flexibility so it may all be habits. – Thomas Mar 22 at 16:00

17 Answers 17

29

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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  • 2
    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
  • There is no logic to this question or analysis. The right hand is doing the more difficult job on guitar and violin. – ggcg Mar 24 at 0:56
9

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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  • 2
    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 '14 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 '14 at 22:54
8

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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  • 5
    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 :-) – Doktor Mayhem May 18 '12 at 20:56
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    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
7

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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4

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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4

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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4

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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3

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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  • I agree with your statement about the right hand being the "originator of sound". But your teacher's experience is not really a counter example. Having learned how to play already He has a lot of muscle memory and it not a fair comparison. As a beginner the guitar probably felt just as awkward as trying to play it with opposite polarity. But, +1. – ggcg Mar 24 at 1:23
3

It may be a completely religious war as to which hand is doing the most work, the fretting or strumming/picking hand.

Keeping Register with the strumming hand is much simpler than for the fretting hand. I play bass. My fretting hand is moving in two dimension - between the strings and up and down the fretboard. My picking hand only has to choose the correct string. My fretting hand also has to deal with extreme changes (more than a guitar) in the distance between frets. The distance between the 1st and 3rd frets is dramatically larger than the distance between 13 and 15. Thus playing an octave is a different stretch from my fret hand between E1 and D3 then from E13 and D15... but it's the exact same motion for my picking hand. As I pull-off and hammer-on, my left hand makes 2 or possibly 3 movements for each movement of my strum hand. You can play the same note in a variety of positions on the fretboard... which one I choose is driven more by where my fret hand was on the note before than where my strum hand was. IOW, the less time I have to change notes, the closer I want them to be on the fretboard - making the choice is done by the fret hand, the picking hand only has to follow and find the matching string. The fretting hand has a long list of techniques, hammering on, pulling of, bending, sliding, vibrato, harmonics, etc are all fret hand. There aren't nearly as many for the picking hand. All four fingers and possibly 5 have a precise place to go.

In another answer someone referred to a rhythm guitar pattern where you make a chord shape with the fret hand once per measure but strum 4 times. As a person who has struggled to play guitar, I cannot keep the same shape as I shift up and down the fretboard, but I can strum 4 times a measure with ease.

But lead guitar is not that simplistic. Do a splitscreen on an Eddie Van Halen solo. His picking hand is playing the same string over and over while the fretting had is furiously HOPO'ing.

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3

As a multi-instrumentalist that plays guitar and bass both ways, it seems to me that I have more control of the instrument with my preferred hand strumming/plucking, but my bends and string articulation are better with my preferred hand fretting. Sweep picking, string skipping, finger picking, etc, are easier and clearer with the preferred hand on the plucking end, but things like bends, vibratos, and other fret-hand articulations are more effective with the dominant hand. When I'm strumming with my off-hand, I find myself requiring more focus on the strumming and picking. Naturally, once I've gotten either down to muscle memory, it doesn't matter much. If you asked me to just sit and play something off the top of my head, it would depend on how i intended to play to choose whether my preferred hand fretted or picked/strummed.

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2

"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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2

A right handed guitarist's answer: If I didn't pluck the notes (right hand) and only used hammer-on's and pull-offs (left hand) I would be allot faster. The slow part that needs more speed work is the picking hand. This is because (since I am right handed) the left hand notes are played by four different fingers, but the right hand notes are played by one pick. Since I alternate my picking this is a 2:1 ratio favoring the left hand.

I have a friend who is left handed and plays right handed, and though I have not heard him play he claims his hammer-ons and pull-offs are amazing.

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2

I can see that there are already many answers to this question at this point, but I think I can add some more information on this matter.

D Mac wrote:

Why does conventional playing style give the string manipulation to the left hand?

The left hand prepares the note, the right hand plays the note. Thus you are in control of playing with the right hand which feels natural for a right-handed person. I will elaborate below.

D Mac wrote:

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.

I am a violin teacher and I have taught many students to play the violin from scratch. Some of those were left-handed playing on a right-handed violin. So I have some experience on that particular aspect. Now there are many factors playing a role, like how strong the motivation is, how much the student practice, some has a very good flair for playing the violin and so on. But in general it is harder for the left-handed student to play on a normal right-handed violin.

There is a good reason for that. Playing an instrument is a matter of creating and/or manipulating sound. And the sound appears at that exact moment when you move the bow. This means that you take control of the sound with the bow. This control feels natural to do with the right hand if you are right handed. There are countless ways of manipulating the sound with the bow; bowing technique is a huge subject on violin playing.

The left hand does have some role in the quality of the sound, like you do need to place the left hand fingers correctly in order to play in tune but the sound won't appear until you move the bow. You can also vibrate with the left hand and thereby have a left hand influence on the quality of the sound, but the main control of the sound is in the right hand with the bow.

An advanced player who has learned a great deal of bowing technique can of course do a lot more than a beginner, but even a beginner can manipulate the sound with the bow.

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1

When you first learn to play a song then fretting can seem more complicated than the strumming but after you have learned to play the song without error then you focus on making the song sound good by making your playing expressive which is largely driven by the strumming hand (think of the difference between hearing a midi player play a song vs a real musician).

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1

If you consider harp or piano, both hands are work to both select pitches and rhythmically "strike" notes. Both of those instruments are fixed pitch with one string per pitch.

Moving to guitar and violin the first thing to point out is they aren't fixed pitch. You can stop the strings along the neck. That's a new job to do with one of the hands.

Let's not talk about right/left hand, but dominant hand instead.

Both hand do have some aspect of selecting pitch. One hand "strikes" one of several strings. The other hand selects strings and neck positions.

Both hands have rhythmic aspects. The hand "striking" the strings obviously needs to do that in rhythm. The other hand working the neck also needs to make changes in rhythm.

Excluding techniques like hammers on guitar or pizzicato with the fingers on the neck of the violin the neck hand is not "striking" the notes. By "strike" I mean setting the string to vibrate.

So, the specific role of "striking" the notes is normally given to the dominant hand. That seems to be the unique role of the dominant hand.

Rather than concluding this is some kind of backward prioritization of the work, it probably makes more sense to recognize rhythmically striking the notes if fundamentally more important than fingering pitches. I really don't see a probably with taking that further and saying rhythm is more fundamentally important than pitch.

Why does conventional playing style give the string manipulation to the left hand?

Because the subordinate role of fingering pitch on the neck is given to the non-dominant hand.

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1

You can think of making music in two dimensions: sound production (pitch) and the nuance of the sounds (phrasing). The first is something of a blunt instrument - you either hit the desired pitch or you don't. The second is the fine detail that makes the sound musical... and that's something that requires more control.

With some instruments, like piano or harp, one hand does both. But if you have a choice, the hand that does the nuance part will be your dominant hand, because that is capable of finer control.

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0

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

What defines "exacting manipulation"? This is ambiguous.

"However, guitar, violin, lute, 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."

This is simply not true. You are assuming an answer here and looking for us to support your assumption. There is nothing benign about the right hand task. It is extremely "exacting" for violin and guitar. First of all the guitar is typically fretted and exactness is not required to get the correct note. Even though it is better to fret a note close to the fret to avoid buzzing it is not a requirement to get the correct pitch. The right hand on classical guitar is where all the expression comes from and this requires extraordinary attention to minute details on pressure and angle of attack for three fingers and a thumb. In fact a good number of classical guitar pieces do not involve a lot of left hand movement but rather holding down a chord and using the right hand to play fast arpeggios. You seem to have invented a special box to put guitar playing in to somehow disparage the right hand to make your point. Your narrative is false. I can say the same for the violin as I have played both violin and classical bass, both bowed. Again, the left hand job is easy. The right hand takes more effort for many players to get control over tone and volume. Have you ever heard a beginner violin player? Forget the left hand fingering, just bow open strings. It can sound like a cat being run over by a slowly moving bicycle. Absolutely horrible. The attacking hand is where the expression is, the control of tone and volume. This is the harder job on any instrument.

"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."

No, it wouldn't. You don't just slide the bow back and forth. This takes years of training to get right. However I might suggest trying to play both traditional and reverse as a beginner and seeing how the two feel. Then pick what feels good. I suspect that to a true beginner they both feel awkward.

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  • Why the down vote – ggcg Mar 25 at 10:14

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