Charlie Christian

The True History of Why We Play Guitar “Righty”

Why is it we learn guitar or play guitar “righty” when our left hand does most of the work?

It seems like it should be the opposite. What’s the logic in having the dominant hand tied to a pick ? It’s obviously an important job, but doesn’t require the same flexibility and prowess when we play guitar as the hand fretting the neck.

So why do we play guitar in the direction we call righty?


Tenor 4 String Banjo
in the 1930s, many musicians dropped their tenor banjo so they could play guitar and have more fun with their left hand.

Perhaps it has something to do with where the modern guitar comes from and how it evolved. Many think its ancestor was the lute or similar medieval instruments, but a better candidate for a precursor to the modern guitar (at least in America) would probably be the tenor banjo.

The tenor banjo actually descends from the mandolin (or mandocello). It came to prominence during the early 1920s, when Hot Jazz (or Jass as it was known then)  became the rage. It was the only string instrument (at that time) which could compete in volume with the piano, horn and percussion instruments. Its role in the band was to beat out the chords as part of the rhythm section.  The  instrument’s playing technique incorporated sophisticated flailing and strumming with the right hand while the left held down chords.

!920s Gibson L5 Ad
1920s Gibson Guitar Advertisement

In 1935, Gibson’s Lloyd Loar introduced the iconic L-5, the first archtop guitar with f-holes. Its powerful, more complex sound replaced the tenor banjo as the dominant stringed rhythm instrument of the big band era. Now players had a better opportunity to not only be heard, but to take their playing to a new level. With more strings, a less percussive tone and a plectrum replacing the fingers to strum, players began experimenting with single note runs in their solos. This era gave us amazing technicians like Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. Check em’ out. Not many people can play guitar like these guys. Hearing them might motivate you to learn guitar in a way you never considered.

Then a guy came along who changed how everyone was to learn guitar

When Charlie Christian started using amplification during his tenure with the Benny Goodman Orchestra (1939-41), modern, amplified, single-note solo guitar playing was born.

guitar player charlie christian
Christian could really play guitar. He was also one of the first player to amplify his instrument

With Christian, the dominant hand of the instrument was switched to the left hand.

So a case can be made that tradition more than evolution is why we usually play it in the direction we do. Perhaps if the modern guitar started as the lead instrument it is today, most players would be playing it in the opposite direction.

Just a Note:
Jimi Hendrix played left-handed, but used his right hand to write and draw. Country and Rock instrumental guitar iconSteve Morse plays right-handed, but is predominately a lefty.

I invite everyone to give their opinion, as I’m sure there are a lot out there.

by Jonathan Schlackman

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