Here's another question I get emailed about a surprising amount of times.'Hey Baz, I'm left handed and wanting to learn the ukulele. What are my options?'
Handedness is not an exact science. I know many people who are left hand dominant in some things, but do other things right handed. In fact I once knew a guitar player who despite being quite clearly right handed in all walks of life, had learned to play guitars left handed (don't ask me why, but it worked for him). There are also plenty of ambidextrous people who can do things both ways. And please don't listen to the people who claim that you should judge these things based on your dominant eye - it's really not that simple. What matters in this subject is what is comfortable to YOU. And bear in mind that playing the ukulele is a two handed skill.
I thought however that it would be helpful running through the options available to you if you are a left handed beginner, together with pros and cons associated with each. I list these in no particular order, because as I say above - it's more complicated that presenting a single solution that works for everybody. In fact, as I know different people who do each of the things listed below, that should be enough to tell you that different things work for different people.
So let's take a look...
1. Flip the ukulele and flip the strings.
That is to say you turn the ukulele upside down so the neck rests in the right hand and you strum with your left. To add to that you also then flip the strings in reverse, because then you keep the G string at the top and the A string closest to the floor.
The attraction of this option is that it creates an exact mirror image of the right handed playing technique, so perhaps it means no disadvantages for the lefty over the righty. That is to say - you strum with your dominant hand and fret with the other one. Some people claim that they even find this method more logical for reading chord boxes on song sheets as they represent a more obvious image of what is on the neck. (Again, no hard and fast rules though and I know many lefties who prefer reversed chord charts - so the point here is 'experiment and see if it works for you!). Incidentally - my Kindle Chord book has all the chord charts in left hand orientation!
The main disadvantages to this are twofold. First, if your ukulele has pickup controls, volume controls or a cutaway, they are almost certainly installed in a way to suit a right handed instrument. Flip the ukulele and all that stuff ends up on the wrong side of the instrument. Of course, some would say that people can work around that, and of course Jimi Hendrix famously played a Fender Stratocaster in reverse, but with a small ukulele I couldn't personally get on with a pickup volume control hidden on the underside of the body. Of course, with a standard pineapple or figure of 8 ukulele with no controls, this isn't an issue.
The main disadvantage though, is the need for reversing the bridge and saddle. Some people will tell you that this isn't necessary, and I suspect they must be referring to cheap ukuleles with dead straight saddles and an already questionable intonation - that's not good advice though. Increasingly these days, saddles are being set on angles, or manufacturers are installing compensated saddles to improve intonation. This refers to the scale length of each individual string, and they are NOT all the same. Quite simply if you have one of those you will need to reverse it, and with a compensated saddle that isn't as simple as just putting it in the other way around - that won't work. You will need a new one cutting. If the bridge slot is cut at an angle, you would really need to replace the whole bridge! At the nut, you may get away with it, but if your nut slots are precisely cut you may find that certain strings don't fit in the slots any longer. These things can be remedied, but they will take someone who knows what they are doing.
2. Flip the ukulele, don't flip the strings
This one gives the left handed player the benefit of keeping the fretting in the right hand and strumming in the left, but avoids the hassles of flipping the strings. I do know a couple of people who play this way, but personally I struggle with it for another simple reason. By flipping the ukulele but not the strings, when you strum, you are then effectively strumming in reverse. The A string is nearest the ceiling so a down strum sounds like an up strum. I think it does sound different and you will want to bear that in mind.
And of course the issues with control plates and cutaways also applies to this option as a problem.
Saying all of that - Albert King and Dick Dale both played left handed guitars with the strings upside down, so it can be done!
3. Play right handed
Please don't take that to mean I am acting like a strict Victorian schoolmaster who would rap the hands of left handed children if they didn't hold a pen with their right hand. But for some people, they naturally find they can do this and this is the way they choose to learn. It does of course remove all the issues I mention above, but if you are planning to go this route, you really need to be comfortable. And of course when you are starting out, you may be finding the ukulele difficult enough as it is and not be able to spot if it is hampering your learning. So it's really hard to be precise as to whether this is a good option or not, but I DO know left handed players who play righty. And there is a history of it in music also, with guitarists such as Mark Knopfler, Gary Moore, Johnny Winter and Duane Allman all being naturally left handed people who play right handed guitars...
4. Buy a left handed ukulele
Ahhh, if only it was that easy. The sad fact is, because of economies of scale, rather like guitars, ukulele brands are quite light on the true left handed ukulele. There are some notable exceptions, Blackbird, Kala, Baton Rouge for example all offer left handed models, as do one or two others. But the reality is that they are really not all that common, and you are certainly not going to get the wide choice of the right handed player. It's been a gripe of the left handed guitarists for many years, as not only do they get less choice, but they also seem to have to pay a premium for what they do get. But of course this does open up the opportunity of considering a luthier built instrument. A good luther will be able to make you a left handed ukulele to your design just as easily as they can make a right handed one. And as I have said many times before, they can cost far less than you think. Just take a look at the work of my luthier of choice - Rob Collins at Tinguitar.
So ultimately, it's about choices, and all of them tend to come with some compromises I am afraid. I would love for there to be more options out there for left handed players, but that simply isn't the case, and I wouldn't get too excited about that changing all that rapidly either. But at least there are choices, and the world of music is littered with left handed players of stringed instruments who have done rather well for themselves. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, Tony Iommi to name a few - so you really shouldn't let it put you off!
© Barry Maz