Technically, a lot of what I’m about to say below will apply to any stringed instrument, but, the misconceptions in the ukulele world are epic, and the hoops a lefty has to jump through to work around it definitely worthy of a little uke-specific discussion. (If you think there aren’t many lefty guitars or basses on the market, look for left-handed ukuleles, and you will find yourself feeling downright spoiled by comparison.)
So, here goes…
As those of you who’ve been reading this blog know, I’m a lefty, and I am learning all of my instruments left-handed. I am learning guitar left-handed. I am learning bass left-handed. And, yes, I am learning ukulele left-handed, too. I’m not going to lie to you, this process is not all sunshine and roses, and there are a few very real obstacles a left-handed player has to work around that a right-handed player doesn’t need to worry about, but it is a subject I am very passionate about, because you righties of the world seem to think you’re entitled to an opinion on the matter. Let me spell it out for you: you’re not. Oh, I’m sorry, did I just isolate you? Did I just casually dump you into the ‘other’ category as if your life experience is irrelevant?
Welcome to my world.
Yes, the statements above are confrontational – intentionally so. If you are not now and have never been left-handed, then purporting that a lefty should just “learn right-handed”, is exactly the same thing as a white man claiming to know exactly the life of black women because he’s read about it, or because he knows black women, and by so claiming, he makes a black woman’s opinions on her own life irrelevant, even though she’s the one who has actual hands-on experience with the subject which he never has and never can have (I am neither a white man or a black woman, for the record, but the example works.). He claims, unwittingly perhaps, that he knows more about what she needs than she does.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. And, to make my point, I’m going to issue you Righties a challenge. Take a day, or a week, and try to do your day to day tasks left-handed: brush your teeth left handed, pick up your coffee left-handed, open doors left handed, etc. Do everything you feasibly can do without causing an accident with the opposite orientation to which you are naturally predisposed. Unless you are closer to the ambidextrous end of the scale, these small tasks will take a concerted effort; you will have to stop and think about it. As time goes on, they will get easier. If you continue the experiment for a week, or a month, they will get easier still. But, when you switch back to doing those things right-handed, it is still going to feel less cumbersome. It is still going to feel more natural.
Are there lefties who can, and should, play right-handed? Yes. Absolutely, and I will get back to that in a minute. But, understand that as a right-handed person, encouraging a lefty to ‘just learn right-handed’ is encouraging that lefty to work at a handicap. Understand that when you say ‘it will be easier’, what you really mean is that it will be easier to BUY THINGS, not that it will be easier to play them. Understand that what you really mean is, ‘it will be easier for the right-handed world that doesn’t particularly want to be bothered by what you, as someone other than right-handed, may need to get the most out of your lessons and your instruments.’ Understand that if you say ‘that’s not true’ as you read these statements, you are bullshitting yourself.
Lefties, please, do yourselves a favor and take advice on whether or not you should learn left or right-handed from other lefties. There aren’t many of us, but we are out there, and we have honest and objective opinions based on actual experience as left-handed people playing instruments.
Let me tell you a story:
My mother is also a lefty, but she was not born that way. She is actually more dominantly left-handed than I am as right-side paralysis in her childhood has left her with limited strength and flexibility in her right hand. She had to become a lefty, and I think because of that she is much more tuned in to the difficulties of left-handedness in day to day life than, someone who was just plain born this way. When I was a baby she used to take my spoon out of my left hand and put it in my right. I, apparently, would put it back in my left and continue on as if nothing had happened. Mom always told me that she wished I was a righty, because life is more difficult for lefties. The fact is, I can do most things with either hand (I like to blame her, because of the spoon thing. 🙂 ) I can use a mouse either lefty or righty, but several years ago I bought a drawing tablet for my computer, and at that time switched to using the mouse on the left, because while I can mouse click with the right hand, I can’t draw that way. I found it more comfortable, so now I use my mouse on the left. I don’t struggle to use a mouse that happens to be on my right, but comparitively, I prefer it on the other side. (I do take a twisted sort of joy in watching my right-handed co-workers fumble over my left-handed mouse, though. There is often grumbling involved, which entertains me to no end before I mention that the cable is more than long enough for them to move it into a position that is more comfortable for them.) I keep my water bottle on my right side, and often my phone. I can list any number of basic tasks that I show no distinct handedness performing. But, I can’t write well with my right hand; it’s cumbersome to use eating utensils right-handed; I can’t draw righty, and I cannot play music righty, either. Yes, I have tried. Music is like handwriting. It requires a level of fine motor skills that are less cumbersome to perform in the way your brain is naturally wired, and keeping rhythm is far easier when you’re doing it with your dominant hand.
Flashback: 1993. We pass by a guitar at a yard sale. It’s a little ¾ size classical, and my mom buys it for me for $5. As someone who is obsessively left-handed, she takes it to a guitar shop to restring it lefty for me and enrolls me in group lessons for a month over the summer. It’s a tuning atrocity due to the right handed nut, but, at the time, I really didn’t know it was the guitar and not me. After that one month, my lessons disappeared at the same time as my friends were getting into karate. So, karate swallowed my life, and my guitar fell aside.
Fast forward about 10 years. I gave that guitar to a friend years ago because I never used it. At this point in my life, I’ve got some joint problems in my right hand (later discovered to be a side effect of an untreated medical condition I didn’t know about), but I still longed to learn. I knew there was no way I would be able to fret with my right hand. The knuckles and wrist were too prone to stiffness and pain. So, I picked up a right handed squier to learn on, figuring, ‘it’s going to be hard no matter what, so it doesn’t matter which side I play with, right? And, guitars will be easier to buy righty than lefty.’ Lessons could not have gone any more abysmally, and after about 2 months, I found myself practicing less and less due to being disenchanted by literally zero progress. Eventually, the guitar retreated into a closet to collect dust.
There were two other times I tried to learn righty after this with nearly identical results. I kept trying. I kept failing. And, I have several friends with similar stories. One person I know is thinking about trying again left-handed after we spoke. She was also told to ‘just learn righty. It will be easier’, at fourteen. She tells me “my rhythm was never right,” and relates a story about how, as a teenager, that was devastating because she really wanted to play, but just plain wasn’t good at it. It was very disenchanting, and years and years later she still wants to learn, and wants to get back into it. She thought the fault was with her. No one ever told her that, as a lefty, she might find rhythm much easier if she strums with her left hand.
These are very real stories. This is a very real and very prevalent left-handed experience that could be completely avoided if only righties would stop spreading this bad advice like the plague. I’m seeing less of this advice in the guitar world, but it’s still a disease in the ukulele world. Because ukulele is physically less demanding than guitar, people will even say to play uke right-handed if you already play guitar or bass left-handed. But, even if the uke is physically easier to play and might, possibly, be easier to play as a righty than other instruments, that does not mean it won’t still be easier for a lefty to play as a lefty. For me, trying to strum right-handed feels a bit like being possessed by an alien who has control of my limbs and isn’t quite sure how to use them. Could I eventually get the hang of it? Probably. But, why should I have to? Why should I take the mountainous task of learning a musical instrument, and turn it into a mountain range, if I don’t have to?
If you want to give good advice to a lefty uncertain whether to play right or left-handed, this is advice a very good friend gave me, and the best advice I’ve ever seen on the subject: Don’t think. Right now, play air guitar. If he/she lifts their left hand to fret, by all means, hand them a right-handed instrument and send them on their way. BUT, if that person lifts their right hand to fret, do NOT encourage them person to learn right handed. Odds are high that a person who plays air guitar lefty is going to have a significantly easier time learning that way.
So, Lefties, that is the advice I am giving you right now. DON’T THINK. Play air guitar. Should you play ukulele left-handed? If your right hand is in the fretting position, then absolutely, and do not let anyone try to convince you otherwise, because learning an instrument is hard enough without going against your nature to do it. Maybe you’re one of the lucky lefties who can overcome the handicap and learn righty. But, maybe you’re not. And, do you really want to set yourself back months or years in the learning process to find out when there’s an easier way? Do you want to learn to fret a bunch of chords with your left hand, only to find later that you’re going to have to relearn them on the right since it’s just not working?
I set myself back 20 years in learning to play an instrument by believing the bad advice that you can learn either way, that there’s really no difference and it’s all in how you start. Don’t be me. Start the way that feels right to you. If right-handed feels more natural to you, then by all means play righty, but if you play righty, play righty because you think it feels better, not because someone else tells you that you should, or because there are virtually no left-handed ukuleles on the market.
And please, don’t believe nonsense that someone playing left-handed can’t learn from someone playing right-handed, or vice versa, because that is the biggest load of bull you are ever going to hear in your life. Actually, being left-handed is advantageous when learning from right-handed players. When I watch youtube videos, or other people play, I don’t have to mentally flip things over. I am the mirror image of anyone playing in front of me except another lefty. All I have to do is mimic exactly what I’m seeing. In fact, many music teachers find teaching lefties easier for exactly this reason; it’s exactly like playing in front of a mirror.
So, you’ve decided to learn left-handed. Now what?
As a left-handed guitarist, you’ll find your options in instruments limited. As a left handed bassist, even more so. As a left-handed ukulele player you will find your options almost non-existent (there are a few). You will be told that you can just flip your ukulele over and restring it. This is partially true, but only partially. I have 5 ukuleles. 4 of them are righties that I’ve restrung for a lefty. I don’t run into too many problems on acoustic instruments, but there are a few things to bear in mind, or places where problems may need to be addressed.
1. Tuning. The typical tuning of an ukulele (soprano, concert, tenor) is GCEA. What that means is that your two thickest strings are in the middle, with thinner strings on the outside. That makes this a much easier conversion than a guitar or bass, because the nut is not going to be that far off. However, it’s not going to be perfect, and you may run into tuning or buzzing problems. These will almost always be on the C string. On some ukes, things will work really surprisingly well. My Kala KA-15 keeps amazing tune almost in spite of itself. (I would not expect a $50 ukulele to stay in tune so well, let alone one that’s been strung ‘upside down’, but my kala keeps the best tune of the bunch.) On the other hand, my Lanikai SMP-T I can get some buzzing on the C string, which slips out of tune at a faster rate than the other 3 strings.
I actually emailed Lanikai to see if they might be willing to make a left-handed nut for me. I wasn’t expecting a yes, but I did think there was value in showing that there would be an interest. The reply I got was essentially “no such thing exists”. (Really? Because there ARE left-handed ukuleles. Not many, but a few. What you really mean is you don’t make any, Lanikai, not that there is no such thing anywhere on the planet Earth.) They did offer to send me another nut, but another identical nut would be useless, and I took the time to explain why: the C string is wider than the slot for the E string. You can try to wedge it in there. You can let it mostly just rest on top, but chances are, it’s never going to be just so. Not as bad as restringing a guitar or a bass, since the size discrepancy isn’t as large, but the size discrepancy does exist and with that discrepancy comes the potential for finicky tuning.
So, if you DO run into a problem of this sort, what can you do about it since you can’t buy a left-handed nut for your uke? Well, it depends. If you have a sandable nut (not plastic) you can easily just file that space a teeny bit wider to comensate. If you’ve bought a uke with a plastic nut, you have to replace it. There’s really no other choice.
You can look for a local luthier and see if they would be willing to make you a left-handed nut for your uke. If you can’t find a local luthier to do it for you, you can absolutely buy a nut blank and some files to make one yourself. Some will say you can possibly screw up your action this way, but you can use the nut that came with your uke as a size template to match to, so really it’s not as crazy for a novice as it sounds. The fact is, because of the need to convert, the average lefty is just going to be far more adept at how instruments are put together than a righty of the same level: we need to be, and we learn by necessity. It’s absolutely a viable option if all else fails, and not that difficult to do if you have a size/shape nut to compare to, even if you are a beginner.
So far, I have not run into any problems with the bridge or saddle, so while it’s certainly not impossible that you can have issues here, my odds so far are 4 out of 4 that it’s not necessary to make adjustments to this part of the instrument.
If you don’t want to deal with this at all, my advice is to make sure not to by ukuleles with plastic nuts. If you buy an uke that has a nut that can be sanded or filed, it is relatively easy to just carefully widen the slot for the C string with a file or a bit of sandpaper. I expect I will have to do this to my new Snail Uke. I definitely need to do it for the Lanikai Tenor, but I’m waiting for the strings to settle on the Snail and see if the C string keeps some semblance of tune or not (comparable to the other strings. Let’s be realistic: it’s an ukulele, and nylon stringed instruments slip out of tune easily. The goal here is to not have one string that slips out of tune significantly faster than all of the others.). It’s better to wait to make adjustments. I do not recommend adapting your ukulele when the strings on it are brand new. As they stretch, you will be able to tell if the C string is slipping out of tune faster than the other strings, but while they’re stretching, none of the strings are keeping tune. It’s not a time to accurately gauge whether or not you’re going to have issues.
On the point of strings, if you exercise caution, you can use the strings your uke comes with to restring. You won’t have much excess length to work with, but it can be done if you happen to have been good at Operation as a kid. Just make sure to keep track of which string is which. Sometimes I tag mine with post it note scraps before removing them. Other times I’ll swap the two outer strings first, then the two inner. Whatever system keeps you from getting confused about which string goes where, really.
2. Cutaways: These are not problematic, but they are basically completely useless. Understand that if you buy a right handed ukulele with a cutaway and flip it over, that cutaway will be on the top of your uke. It won’t cause any technical problems, but it will also not be even remotely useful to you and will look a bit funny. If you’re female, it’s basically going to look like a boob pocket. I try to avoid cutaway righties just because it looks ridiculous, but it certainly wouldn’t stop me from buying one if I loved the sound enough.
3. Electronics. This is where we really need more left-handed ukuleles. My one lefty is an acoustic-electric Rubin soprano. It’s not the most amazing uke ever, but the left-handed placement of the electronics saves some headaches. There are a few lefty acoustic-electrics, but if you want a tenor, you’re SOL so far as I’ve been able to find (unless you find someone to make you a custom). Still, you can absolutely flip over a right-handed acoustic-electric ukulele and play it, (since really, what choice do we have?) but the electronics do give you a few extra things to consider.
Know that you will be making your tone and volume adjustments blind. You will have to memorize which knob does what by feel because you cannot see them.
Be aware of where those controls are placed. If they are placed near the bottom of the body, when you play sitting they will be resting on your thigh. If you’re the fidgety sort, it will be very easy to change your settings by accident. (I am totally the fidgety sort). It will be less cumbersome to choose an uke with electronics placed closer to the middle or top of the body, to avoid accidentally bumping them.
A built in tuner is purely decorative. You cannot see it, so you will not be able to make use of it unless you somehow jimmyrig a small mirror on there and learn to read backwards. But, it would be less cumbersome to just use a clip on tuner, really.
Learn to visualize if you are ordering online. Imagine where all the equipment will be placed when you are holding it left-handed, both standing and sitting. Think about the placement of all knobs, think about the placement of the plug. On solid body ukes (no lefties exist to my knowledge as I write this post) you will have to take extra care to not select one with knobs that sit where you are holding the body. If you need a solid body in your life (I totally want one eventually) be VERY careful to select one with knobs you are not going to constantly be bumping into. Even being careful, there will still be a learning curve involved in avoiding them. Be aware of that and be prepared to work around it. There are guitarists who play right-handed guitars upside down. The mechanics are somewhat different with an uke since you hold and uke differently than a guitar, but if they can work around their knobs, so can we (until someone makes a lefty so we don’t have to).
4. Shopping Offline. It is in your best interest (though I admit I have not done this yet), to learn to play one or two simple tunes upside down. C is an easy chord to play upside down. So is F, C7, A and Am, D. If you have a simple song in your arsenal that you can fret and strum upside down, you have a song you can use to test drive right-handed instruments at offline retailers. If you don’t, about all you can do is maybe run through a scale, test the harmonics, etc, and hope that when you try to play a song, you like how it sounds. There are a huge number of two chord songs out there. Do yourself a favor and keep one or two in your back pocket to take shopping with you, or, you know, to impress drunk friends with at parties.
Can you just learn to play right handed ukuleles upside down and say to hell with the conversion? Sure, why not? But, that shit will make you dyslexic.
I can assure you that converting right-handed ukuleles to play left-handed is absolutely viable. Yes, it’s a bit more work than just taking a righty off the rack and going, but making music isn’t about what you can buy, it’s about what you can play, and it’s my very biased and very firm opinion that this should not be enough to stop you from learning in the way that feels right to you. If playing left-handed feels right, then play left-handed. The more of us there are, the more retailers will be inclined to acknowledge that we exist. It happened with guitars. It happened with basses (well, somewhat…). You can even buy a left-handed mandolin. It’s ridiculous to assume that these instruments don’t exist because no one needs or wants them. Rather, we make alternatives work because what we need isn’t available. Any lefty who’s rearranged classroom furniture so they could sit in the only left desk in the room, or used a spiral notebook from back to front, knows exactly what I’m talking about. And, any righty who thinks they know better than someone who lives in a world that, for them, was designed backward, what that person should do to adapt to a situation in which the odds are stacked against them can honestly just STFU and stop setting us up to fail.
Consider this: if lefties who play left-handed make up a remarkably small percentage of the market, how much of that is based on it being ‘easier’ to play right-handed, and how much of that is based on people getting bad advice and failing to learn at all? Consider how many people could have learned to play, but didn’t because they couldn’t play right-handed, and no one told them ‘it’s not you; it’s your instrument’. Consider how that percentage might change, if only lefties were given the advice that is most beneficial to them at the start of their musical journey, rather than 20 years later, when they’re still longing to learn something that they’ve been set up to believe they just plain aren’t any good at. After you consider all that, then decide whether or not you really want to tell a left-handed person, to ‘just play righty’ because it’s ‘easier’.
Until Next Time, I’m playing left-handed, and for the first time in my life, I’m actually playing. So, go ahead, tell me my actual hands-on experience is wrong. I dare you.