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Thread: Starting Left-handed or right

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    Default Starting Left-handed or right

    I am quite new to mandolin--I'm looking to begin learning how to play very shortly, once I purchase a mandolin for myself after kind of falling back in love with the instrument. I've got some options within my budget in mind, and I'm checking out the local stores to try them out and play in person to get a feel for the individual instrument. So I'm pretty good on that front.


    My question is a bit more on fundamentals of starting.

    I'm right-handed, technically. I write with my right hand. But I do almost everything else left-handed (bowling, shooting, using fork and knife, tennis, batting in baseball, etc).

    I know this is a weird question, given how rare it probably is for someone who is 'right handed' to even consider playing lefty.

    I'm an accomplished musician on clarinets (I've been playing these for nearly 20 years now), saxophone, flute, and some piano. Even after playing saxophone for about 15 years, and going through a lot of exercises to strengthen my left hand, I've still got an exceptionally weak pinky and to an extent ring finger on my left hand. I've plunked around on guitar a few times, and every time I pick up a guitar, I pick it up and play around left-handed.

    Given that after 10+ years of diligent strength training, my left hand still has a weakness that makes it difficult for me to actually perform the distinct motion of pressing down and holding (onto a fret or a key), would it be totally off base to learn to play left-handed and use my left-hand as the strumming hand and use my much stronger right hand as the fret hand? Or should I learn right-handed and continue to struggle with a weakness that I fear will make it extremely difficult for me to play full efficiently with all the fingers on my hand? Or is there maybe some kind of option for playing right-handed with the weakness in my left hand that I'm not considering?

    I want to enjoy playing just as much as I love listening to mandolin music, so before I jump into it, I'm hoping for some outside perspective.

    (I've lurked for a while here and I've read lots of the threads that say 'always play right handed' and about how there are much fewer left-handed options...those are not my concern at the moment -- I'm willing to consider this, but I'm hoping for more practical information)

  2. #2
    Registered User Louise NM's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Is there a physical or neurological reason for the weakness? Ever had it evaluated? If not, a consult with an occupational therapist might be enlightening. If you have worked on strength for a decade and not solved the problem, and as much as you do left-handed, it's not for lack of trying!

    If this cannot be solved, a left-handed instrument might be the way to go.

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    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    There are several exercises to focus on digit strength and muscle response. They don't just involve the playing motion. Do you have a specific disability that causes the weakness? is it only in your left hand?
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    Registered User Bruce Clausen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by dreisam View Post

    I'm an accomplished musician on clarinets (I've been playing these for nearly 20 years now), saxophone, flute, and some piano. Even after playing saxophone for about 15 years, and going through a lot of exercises to strengthen my left hand, I've still got an exceptionally weak pinky and to an extent ring finger on my left hand.
    Sounds like you might be a rare example of a person who actually should play the instrument backwards. We left-handers have the advantage of a left hand that is a little larger and stronger than our right, and so the vast majority of us play stringed instruments in the standard way, left hand on the neck. I consider it a slight advantage to be left-handed, where stretches and endurance are concerned. Co-ordination between the two hands has to be faultless, but the left hand (in the normal arrangement) has the harder work, and this is where your problem lies.

    I had a professor at college who played violin backwards owing to a badly deformed left hand. She had no choice. But virtually all violinists whether left-handed or right-handed play standard.

    Others here will no doubt have other views. Good luck in working out a plan for yourself!
    Last edited by Bruce Clausen; Apr-27-2019 at 11:05pm.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by Louise NM View Post
    Is there a physical or neurological reason for the weakness? Ever had it evaluated? If not, a consult with an occupational therapist might be enlightening. If you have worked on strength for a decade and not solved the problem, and as much as you do left-handed, it's not for lack of trying!

    If this cannot be solved, a left-handed instrument might be the way to go.

    Quote Originally Posted by MontanaMatt View Post
    There are several exercises to focus on digit strength and muscle response. They don't just involve the playing motion. Do you have a specific disability that causes the weakness? is it only in your left hand?
    Oh definitely, I've seen several doctors and physical therapists about it. I've been evaluated - no neurological or physical reason like injury or disability. And even after working with PT while I was still in ensembles on saxophone, no verifiable increase in strength even with exercises.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce Clausen View Post
    ...
    Others here will no doubt have other views. Good luck in working out a plan for yourself!
    Thank you! I'm hoping to get some perspectives so that I can make the best choice to enjoy playing. I've loved every other instrument I took up and stuck with, and I want to start out on a good foot with mandolin, too.

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    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    If you do even a half-hearted search of this forum you'll find enough info to spin your head. You will find several advocates for going either way. It sounds like your situation is unique, so my standard advice to learn right handed (I'm left handed but I play multiple stringed instruments right handed) may not apply. If your left hand is still too weak after a decade of exercise then you shouldn't try to fret with it. Mandolin is tougher to fret than guitar.

  8. #8

    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    From my perspective you are left handed and write right handed. When I was a child,many left handlers were ‘corrected’ in class but reverted outside of class to their naturally dominant hand. You need the thumb and index finger to hold the pick.

    The music is in the pick hand, sounds to me that’s your left hand.
    Play it like you mean it.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    I’ve spent years looking for a left handed piano! Seriously, if you learn to play left handed on a left handed instrument, you’ll prevent yourself from playing the vast majority of mandolins on the planet, which are mainly right handed. If you must play left handed, think about Jim Rooney, who has the ideal solution, he is left handed but plays the guitar upside down.

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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    In most instances I'd recommend playing the regular way. Each hand needs a particular and different set of skills. A lefty might actually be more agile with their fretting hand. Or not...I"m a lefty for 99% of tasks, but my right fingers are more agile and can move faster than my left. Not that it matters much at the speed I play at.
    Dreisam-- what kind of music do you want to play? I play mainly Irish trad,although I noodle around with other genres. These days I play mostly on tenor banjo which is a LOT easier to fret,so that might be an option for you. If you're into Bluegrass,of course, the 5 string would be a better choice.
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    As a lefty I watch these threads close, mostly I hear the downside of playing left handed which I tend not to agree with for the most part. I tried on several occasions to learn first the guitar then the banjo to play as a righty with absolutely no luck. Only when I bit the bullet and bought a left handed banjo did it finally click. I made the mistake of not looking long enough or hard enough for a left handed mandolin and bought right handed with the idea of flipping it to lefty. What I learned was that there are a lot of builders who do make lefty mandolins. My next purchase will be a lefty from the beginning. I ended up spending more to convert the one I now have to lefty than I would have spent by buying a lefty of the same quality. So if you do decide to go lefty this site has builders from low to high end instruments. Good luck either way.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Busman View Post
    ...
    Dreisam-- what kind of music do you want to play? I play mainly Irish trad,although I noodle around with other genres. These days I play mostly on tenor banjo which is a LOT easier to fret,so that might be an option for you. If you're into Bluegrass,of course, the 5 string would be a better choice.
    I'm looking at country, jazz - maybe some trad music and some classical, and popular music. I'm not looking at bluegrass specifically, but I might branch out to that eventually. I'll keep tenor banjo in mind when I'm testing out instruments.


    But thank you to everyone for the opinions. I'm definitely aware that if I start learning left-handed that I don't get to have the access to all the mandolins out there; it's something I'm considering. Ideally though, I want to figure out a way to enjoy and play for fun. So I'm definitely going to consider all my options.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce Clausen View Post
    We left-handers have the advantage of a left hand that is a little larger and stronger than our right, and so the vast majority of us play stringed instruments in the standard way, left hand on the neck.
    I'd be interested in seeing the evidence to back up this claim! I'm left handed at most things but right handed at some (bat & ball) & I find it physically impossible to strum/play any sort of rhythm with my right hand. No problem at all using my right to fret. I've always played guitar/mando lefty & never regretted it.

    I'd advise going with whatever feels right, not what others say. Check out www.leftyfrets.net & you'll find many discussions about playing left handed
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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    At some point, you have to just do what works. If you've struggled for years without any improvement in specific tensile strength -- how many more years to you plan to plow into that wall? If you think that playing lefty will work better for you, then go left. Don't fall into the sunk time fallacy. You should have enough evidence for your strengths that you can make an informed choice on which hand would work better on mandolin.

    It's true there may be lots of instruments you won't be comfortable with, but i own seven mandolins and generally only play one of them. It's all I need. And if playing lefty doesn't seem to be working -- well, then try it the other way around. Someone on these boards taught himself the other hand just as an exercise, iirc, so switching is possible. You play a bunch of instruments already, you can always consider left-handed and right-handed mandolin as separate instruments, if being a lefty doesn't work out. It isn't cheating to play a comfortable instrument; you won't lose any musician cred because you chose the path of least resistance. You can struggle all you want on your other instruments -- we'll give you permission to enjoy mandolin in whatever fashion works best.
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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    If you have a physical disability that prevents you from playing right-handed, and are otherwise a 'natural' left-hander, then you probably should play a left-handed instrument, despite the obvious drawbacks (many earlier threads about these). But if your weaker left hand is trainable (but apparently, it's not?), then my advice would be to stick with a right-handed instrument. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by dreisam View Post
    I've plunked around on guitar a few times, and every time I pick up a guitar, I pick it up and play around left-handed.
    I don't think anyone mentioned this: you can avoid the left-handed instrument rarity problem by playing a right-handed mandolin lefty. I know a very good musician who plays that way. His guitars and mandolins are all righty but he plays lefty. I believe that Libba Cotten played the same way.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    To some degree, you are likely to struggle with your left hand whichever `hand' instrument you go with.

    IMO, it's deciding whether your left hand would be easier trained to fret or to pick - it's easy to focus on fingering the notes as the difficult part of mandolin playing, but the longer I do it the more I realize [and more time I spend] focusing on the right hand as that's where the even, consistent rhythm comes from and when it gets to playing at top speed I find that my picking hand requires an incredible amount of work.

    Maybe I am unique in finding that once past the initial learning curve that the right hand is the `hard part', but I don't think so.

    Good luck whatever you choose.
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Based on what you're saying about your left hand, I'd say learn to play lefty so your right hand can to the fret work. And, I'm usually one of the folks touting the benefits of lefties learning to play right handed (more easily available instruments being the primary reason, Chris Thile does it being the other joking reason).

    Or, go righty and learn to play slide, Sam Bush style...

    Whatever you choose, best wishes, and enjoy the ride!
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    I don't think anyone mentioned this: you can avoid the left-handed instrument rarity problem by playing a right-handed mandolin lefty. I know a very good musician who plays that way. His guitars and mandolins are all righty but he plays lefty. I believe that Libba Cotten played the same way.

    I'd considered this option to avoid the whole "miss out on all the mandolins to play" point, but I wasn't sure how this would affect learning from another person if I take lessons. But I guess I can consider this option too, when I'm testing instruments out.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    And thank you to everyone for the ideas, thoughts and suggestions. I'm keeping these all in mind while doing research and testing out mandolins locally to find the right one. I'll definitely be checking out all my options and going through the cafe for resources.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    Hello everybody....lefty here. I've been checking this forum out for the past year or so and am really enjoying it.
    Several years ago I watched a concert video (The Last Waltz) with Levon Helm playing the mandolin at the end, and I never forgot that. So, last year when I watched it again I decided to take the plunge and learn the mandolin. I am left handed at everything except batting and drumming. My air guitar stance has always been left handed. Before I bought my first mandolin I did my reading to try to determine if I should go right or left hand. Since I never played a fretted instrument before, I was drawn to learning right handed. I bought my Ibanez mandolin and brought it to a music store in my area where they set it up for me. I am a believer in finding the voices in an instrument when I get it. That entails nothing technical...just strokes on the instrument in different intensities and different areas. I would sit there for a long time doing that, and although it is nothing technical, I love the different sounds, and the bonus was that I was building up my callouses at the same time. When I got to the point of learning chords, I really was struggling, but it was coming so I stuck with it. After doing that for 6 to 8 months, I was surprised that my air guitar stance was still lefty. That being the case I decided I was going to try left handed, so I bought a right handed Eastman MD404 black top from Mass Music and had them convert it to lefty for me. That entailed a new nut, bridge and they also did the position dots on the other side of the neck. When I got it I did the same thing as before...found some of the voices, got the feel of the instrument and started to build up the callouses on the right hand. It feels good left handed. It just feels much more natural to me. I still go back once in awhile and pick up the righty as I want to be able to at least play some right hand but will primarily do lefty.
    It seems to me that by messing around both ways my hands seem to be getting in synch better with some good grooves (being a drummer that is my specialty). Also, I don't want to lose the callouses on my left hand in case I want to or have to play righty.
    Anyway...I know I'm rambling on, but I just want to put out where I'm at. Oh and BTW...I just turned 60, so I guess it really is possible to teach and old dog new tricks!

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    I'm a great believer in testing different ways to do something to figure out what works best. This is a great idea!
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    When I took lessons over 50 years ago, there was no choice, learn right-handed even if you are left-handed......now people are more open to the question....

    Whatever you decide, just stick with it and have fun.

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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    I'm left-handed and asked the same question when I started off, with mostly right-handers telling me I should play right-handed. I didn't take their advice and never once have questioned that decision.

    In your case it seems like your choice is between not playing at all and playing left-handed. That seems like an easy choice. For me, my sense of rhthym seemed to reside entirely in my left-hand, another easy choice.

    You will never be unable to find (or convert) an instrument to play. Plenty of modern makers make lefty models. I started off with a Kentucky 150, had a new bridge and nut put in and have been happy ever since.

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    Registered User Miltown's Avatar
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    Default Re: Starting Left-handed or right

    In my opinion, writing and picking are the closest analogues one can find when comparing mandolin-playing to an everyday activity. One uses the thumb, index finger, and wrist in both activities, in a fairly similar manner. In other words, whatever hand you use to write with ought to be your picking hand. Of course, I've thought about this for all of about five minutes--while reading this thread--so take what I say with a grain of salt.

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