Lefty or Righty? A Discussion for Starting Out on the Bass Guitar

Lefty Bass Player

Q: I play the upright bass and I use my left had on the neck and my right hand to use my bow. I’m looking to play the bass guitar, but I can’t decide if I should play right handed because that’s my dominate hand or my left because you can really only use your left hand on the neck on the upright bass.

A: That’s an interesting question. I’m assuming that you are naturally left handed but learned the upright as a right hander.

I would say to simply, do what feels the most natural for you.

Another assumption is that since you are used to plucking with the right and fretting with the left, that would make the most sense regardless of what stringed instrument you are playing. It sounds like you primarily play with a bow but I imagine that you’ve at least explored pizzicato. Retraining your brain might be worth it in the long run if it feels more natural to you, but I have a feeling that you’ll feel more comfortable relating the electric bass to your already existing muscle memory.

You could certainly try it the other way around but you would be starting over again with regards to the muscle memory that you already have. Granted, the upright is a completely different instrument in many ways but your fretting hand already has some built in muscle memory and you are also used to visualizing the fretboard from the perspective of that hand.

My general rule of thumb is, “do what feels right as long as it isn’t harmful”. Works for life, too, I suppose. I’d suggest trying them both and you’ll likely have a good sense of which speaks to you.

This question isn’t one that brings a whole lot of deep thoughts out of me and, normally, I might respond personally because it might not warrant a long enough answer for the column. However, I immediately got curious and wanted to hear from all of you readers out there.

Here’s my question for readers, and this is for the left handed players out there. How many of you learned to play right handed? How many of you tried, at some point, to switch to left handed? Did it feel as awkward as it does to me when I try and play left handed? (I can barely play a major scale left handed). Or did it feel right in some way?

I’ve always wondered why the plucking hand is the dominant hand when it’s the left that typically required more dexterity. Is it because we need the power from our dominant hand?

Any ambidextrous players out there? I’d love to get a discussion going about this. I want to hear your experiences. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Peter

    Just one practical side note: there are generally more right-handed bass guitars to choose from than left-handed.
    About the question why we use dominant hand for plucking – For me it seems that plucking hand needs to be more precise to produce consistent tone and rhythm (at least for beginners). A lot of movements (and also hand position) are similar to pen writing and therefore dominant hand is somewhat more pre trained to cope with plucking.

  2. I’m a lefty that started out on cello and now play bass. There are no left-handed cellos in the orchestra so I play both right. I think it’s a benefit to have your dominant hand triggering the volume envelope (plucking) as the timing is often more important than the fret hand. I agree with Peter, my rhythm would be just a little tighter if I had started out on left.

  3. Both I and the other bass player in our band—yes, two bass players, no guitarists (facebook.com/57dwn)—are lefties. Moreover, we both play right-handed bass guitars upside down.

    We’re both self-taught. I started playing my dad’s guitars and didn’t realise I was playing upside down until it was too late. When he was a teenager, the other bass player started playing the only bass he could afford, a right-handed precision.

    So, I think that it’s best to go with what feels natural—and you’ll find a way.

  4. kimbass

    John Patitucci is left-handed but plays both electric and upright right-handed.

  5. I am naturally a lefty – but I play bass (as well as 6-string) righty. I do have some ambidextrous ability as well – I can shoot pool/billiard with both hands equally, and I used to switch hit in baseball when i played. I started playing right handed from the start for one simple reason. My interest in playing guitar (6-string) started in elementary school, and I attended a public school. There were no left handed guitars available, so my desire to play over rode my natural (at the time) proclivity to hold the instrument as a lefty. 35+ years later I’m glad my left hand is on the fretboard. I think with retrospect, it gave me an added sense of fretboard dexterity, as well as the natural hand strength tp fret the strings properly out of the gate. I also have the natural connection between my fretted hand / fretboard, and the dominant side of my brain. This can only be an advantage.

  6. Flavio

    I’m a lefty and I’ve learned to play a right-handed bass, mainly because it was much easier to obtain when I was starting. One of the things that are definately different is strenght, speed and stamina in the right hand – I needed to work hard to develop my right hand muscles. Also, I don’t know how rhytm and timing corellate to the dominang hand – maybe I’d be a little tighter if I’d learn to play a left-handed instrument. On the other hand (haha!) I have much, much more dexterity in the left hand. Typically I can learn new figures on the fretboard very fast or adapt quickly when improvising.

  7. Lim

    I’m a lefty who learned right. I too can barely play the major scale the other way round. Plucking is just about ok, but my right hand gets super confused.

    I’ve always been a little on the ambidextrous side, and back when I started either way round felt equally awkward. A borrowed right handed instrument is clearly a bit more comfortable to hold one way than the other and the strap only works one way without modification so that’s what I ended up with.

    Although there are a lot of practical advantages to playing right handed McCartney did make left handed bass cool, and there is a nice symmetry to a band with one lefty and one righty. I don’t think technique wise it matters since you use both hands to do complicated things, and I wouldn’t regret playing left handed if that’s the way it had gone.

  8. Roli

    It’s an interesting question….I’m naturally left handed (although I do some thing like a right handed person), but when I picked up a guitar for the first time, I held it like a righty, and for some reasons, I have never tried playing lefty (on the other hand when I play the drums I use my left hand for hi-hat and I play a “right-handed” kit…to make things more complicated:)) I have just starded playing the double bass and I play it like a right handed person, however using a bow confuses my brain, and I can’t concentrate on both hands at the same time. Do you know famous (upright) bass players, who were/are left handed and still play their instrument righty?

  9. Gio

    One of my closest friends is a fantastic guitar teacher with 40 years experience. He tells all his students to learn righty. His reasons – 1) most lefties are somewhat ambidextrous anyway – it is not so hard for them to learn that way. 2) It is so much easier to find instruments that are right handed. 3) There are MANY super high end players that are lefties playing righty – using their extra dexterity on the fretting hand.

    My feeling – I think that the dominant hand SHOULD be the fretting hand – that Righties should be playing lefty instruments and vice versa. There is a lot more dexterity required in the fretting hand so lefties playing righty will have a distinct advantage.

  10. TCHall

    Look at which which hand does the complex job of fingering notes and which plucks, picks, or bows. Now guess which “handed” the person inventing the instrument might of been. If you figure this out don’t share with “eighties” they have problems enough.

  11. Chris

    Thankyou – thankyou – thankyou … for this chance to talk Lefty!

    I’m a 73 yr old gal who was fortunate to have progressive parents refusing to let the school “switch” me to Right … I’ve discovered I’m a very “staunch” Lefty & not lucky enough to be ambidextrous.

    Had my very 1st music lesson on guitar 6 yrs ago & in short order my musician instructor suggested bass & my search was on for a Lefty upright .. 4yrs ago I found
    a true factory made 3/4 I bought new in VA & had shipped to Canada .. it’s my joy to play!

    Discussions I’ve had with many player instructors basically end the same .. just how much more proficient would/could a Lefty player be if playing the instrument naturally .. it’s also sad that someone is denied the opportunity to play because of lack of available instruments .. my question to instructors is … have you tried to switch?

    This is a big topic that is complex [eg: orchestra?] however we’re here to stay – I recently counted as many as 8 Lefty actors on one TV show.
    Cheers to all you Lefty’s & to all hands … keep playing!

  12. T J Ronck

    I’m a lefty who plays electric bass right handed. I started on guitar not even thinking about my left handedness. When you start, you are mostly concentrating on the fret board so things felt pretty natural strumming and finger picking. The flat pick was my first stumbling block. That’s when I switched to bass, not realizing that Jeff Beck for example does all that amazing stuff without a pick. But I learned to love what the bass does and where it fits in the overall sound. If you’re a lefty and don’t use a pick I think playing right handed is more natural. Jaco Pastorius once told me it gave me a note advantage.

  13. Rens

    I’m a lefty playing righty and after 25 yrs of playing I decided to switch over and try lefty. A lot of people claim it to be better to have your dominant hand on the fretboard but in my experience, for really advanced techniques, you need your dominant hand as picking hand. Yes righty as lefty will go a long way, but at a certain point you’ll reach the ceiling where others (Pastorius, Wooten, Miller, Ferault) still have a lot of headroom!