There has been great mystery wrapped around playing the banjo left handed. The questions that we are asked tend to fall into the following categories:
- Should I learn to play left or right handed?
- Does anyone make left handed banjos?
- Are there books to teach left handed banjo?
Should I learn to play banjo left or right handed?
First, we have to remember that there are many instruments that are neither right or left handed. A few of them are: the piano, most of the wind instruments, the xylophone, the marimba, virtually all of the percussion instruments do not favor left or right hand.
Why is this relevant?
Pianists train both hands to be virtually equal in expression, precision and power. The same is true of drummers. Clarinet players, saxophone players, and many of the wind instruments rely on equal coordination development to perform on their instrument.
This is relevant because it shows that with training the difference between a right handed person and the left handed person becomes irrelevant because both hands are required to perform with equal dexterity. The key here is training.
Stringed instruments like the violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, mandolin, and banjo are one of the few groups of instruments that are designed to have two hands doing decidedly different movements. The violinist and the violin family of instruments use a bow to make the instrument sound while the other hand selects the notes on the fingerboard. The guitar and banjo use flat pics or play with fingers in some combination or other while the other hand, like the violin, selects the notes.
So unlike a piano where both hands are essentially doing the same thing, the string player has each hand doing something extremely different.
This is where several theories begin to arise.
The “Expressive” Theory
Some believe that a person’s strong hand (right hand of a right handed person or left hand of a left handed person) is capable of greater expression than the weak hand.
While I am not a physical therapist, and I do not have any kind of absolute knowledge or wisdom about this, it does strike me as interesting that pianists play with equal intensity in both hands. So I’m not absolutely certain that the expressive theory is always the predominant reality for everyone.
The “it’s all about training” Theory
Some believe that with training, a person’s weak hand can be trained to respond with virtually equal dexterity and expression.
There are some examples that are usually cited about individuals who have lost their strong hand in an accident of some sort and they responded by training their weak hand to accomplish everything they did with their strong hand. Many years ago, I met a banjo picker who was absolutely fabulous (though not famous) and he played right handed on a right handed banjo though he was left handed.
It is true that human beings are amazingly adaptable.
But, if we want to learn to play the banjo, and we’re not dealing with a severe injury to one hand, I don’t think we want to start our learning experience as a “compromise” or a, “compensation”. Whether we are right or left handed, we want to approach the banjo to give us the best chance of being successful.
So while the “it’s all about training” theory is certainly grounded in fact, I’m not supremely confident that I would use this as the sole basis for deciding whether to try playing right-handed if I was a left handed person.
So, what should I, the left handed person do?
First, if you already play a guitar, ukulele, violin or other stringed instrument, and you already play left handed then definitely buy a left handed banjo and learn to play left handed. Because these other instruments are so similar, your adaptation would be simple and immediate.
For the student who has never played another instrument of any kind, teachers in the past would commonly just suggest learning to play right handed mostly because of the greater availability and selection of right handed instruments.
However, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that there is legitimacy in the “expressive theory” as well as “it’s all about training”. Given that, I’m going to recommend that someone who is left handed, even if they have never played another instrument, buy a left handed banjo and learn to play left handed.
True, if the student is four years old, it might be different than a student whose 14 years old or 24 years old and already has some deeply ingrained training with their strong hand, which a four year old would not.
Still, we want to take advantage of our natural abilities and gifts. Playing the banjo is meant to be joyful and fruitful endeavor. And it will be more of these things if you take advantage of your natural left handedness and play left handed.
Does anyone make left handed banjos?
You bet. Virtually every model of Deering’s Goodtime banjos are available in left handed versions. Many of Deering’s upper line banjos are available in left handed versions. Every year Deering adds more models of left handed banjos to its left handed arsenal. Before too terribly long, we will likely see virtually every model of Deering banjo available left handed.
Getting a left handed banjo is not the issue. Deciding which banjo model you really want, now that’s a whole other question! (And one that we will have to discuss in another article)
Are there any books to teach left handed banjo?
The beautiful thing about learning to play left handed is that as you hold your banjo and playing position, you are truly a mirror image of right handed players / teachers. Everything that you see in a book to teach right handed players is exactly the same for the left handed player.
As a right handed player, if I sit in front of a mirror and play my banjo, my mirror image is playing the banjo left handed. The great thing is for a left handed student who is learning from a right handed teacher, is that your fretting hands and your picking hands are directly across from each other.
It’s actually easier for a teacher and a student if one is left handed and one is right handed. This is because the picking and fretting hands are directly across from each other. Any video instruction, is going to be the same way. The teacher in the video who is right handed is going to appear to be doing exactly the same thing that the left handed student will do.
Here’s another thing to remember:
The first string of a banjo is always the first string whether it’s on the left or right handed instrument. When you are reading tablature, placing your index finger on the second fret of the first string is the same right handed or left handed. The left hander is just using the other hand.
So every banjo book written for and written by right handed players are all perfectly suited for left handed players as well.
Just keep in mind that the first string, the second string, the third string, the fourth string, and the fifth string (on a five string banjo) are the same and the fret numbers are all the same and the fingers that you use are exactly the same.
It is true that you may have to “transpose” a few statements by some authors when they tell you to put your left index finger on the first fret in the second string because that will be your right index finger on the first fret on the second string. If you focus on what string you’re plucking and what fret you’re pressing, the whole right hand / left hand thing will disappear very quickly because the first string is always the first string, second string is always the second string, etc.
If you own the book that you’re looking through, it wouldn’t even be a bad thing to highlight all the “rights” and “lefts” so that you know the highlighted words are the opposite of what is written.
Celebrate your Gift!
If you are left handed, learning to play the banjo left handed will give you the advantage of your natural tendency to have greater coordination in the “expressive hand” when playing the banjo.
As we have seen, you will actually be a great advantage when learning from right handed players because your hands will be right across from other players and your teacher if they are right handed.
This is certainly a controversial topic, but I believe there is every advantage and no disadvantage to playing left handed and celebrating your gift. If you are left handed, play left handed. It will probably be simpler in the long run. I see no disadvantage in using your natural gift.