Are you a southpaw strummer who needs a left-handed guitar but you don’t have the budget for it? And you’re not allowed to part with your right-handed one because it was a gift from your late rock-and-roller grandma? A practical recourse: convert it to match your natural inclination.
Here’s how to turn a right-handed acoustic guitar left-handed:
- Decide which conversion method to use.
- Prepare your workspace before converting the guitar.
- Swap the strings.
- Modify or replace the saddle.
- Modify or replace the nut.
- Reposition the fret markers.
- Change the pickguard.
In this post, I’ll discuss how to convert a right-handed guitar into a left-handed one. Read on to familiarize yourself with the process and decide if it’s worth your time and effort.
- Decide Which Conversion Method To Use
Professional musicians have opposing views on whether it’s easy to flip a right-handed guitar to accommodate left-handedness. Everything Burns author Anndy Negative claims it’s effortless and involves only a few steps.
Conversely, award-winning, critically-acclaimed musician Jessica Delfino says it’s possible, though tricky.
Guitar seller Marty, who runs The Acoustic Guitarist blog, agrees with Delfino, confirming that changing the orientation of a right-handed acoustic guitar to left-handed is not as simple as changing over the strings. (If you want your guitar to sound terrific, that is.)
If you’re not put off by the tug-of-war, these are two ways to do the conversion:
- If you’re a newbie guitarist: Marty suggests sticking to the restringing method and flipping the nut.
- If your skill level is mid-range: He recommends letting a professional luthier (a stringed instrument expert) do the conversion for you, especially if your instrument is rare, expensive, vintage, or has sentimental value.
According to Musical Mind, converting a standard guitar to a lefty does not pose any tonal or structural difficulties or damage. However, it is best to buy the correct guitar suited precisely for you, whatever your hand orientation may be. Understandably, it is not always possible to find the guitar you desire in a left-handed version.
So, you should do the conversion only as a last resort—if you have absolutely no other options.
How Can You Tell a Left-Handed Guitar From a Right-Handed One?
Lefty Fretz, an online resource for left-handed guitarists, states that you can determine if a guitar is left-handed or right-handed simply by holding the guitar upright.
You can easily distinguish a left-handed guitar from a right-handed guitar by placing the instrument vertically in front of you and inspecting the strings. If the thickest string is on the left, the guitar is for righties. If it’s on the right, it’s for lefties.
Why Convert When You Can Buy?
Marty, a lefty musician, explains that left-handed guitars were rare in the old days. Not anymore. You can find them online or in specialty music stores.
Holding on to a standard guitar may be a matter of being a stickler to quality. Jimi Hendrix said he preferred right-handed guitars because they had a better build. This isn’t 100% accurate anymore, thanks to the advent of CNC instrument manufacturing.
3ERP’s rapid prototyping expert Ronan Ye defines CNC (computer numerical control) machining as a subtractive manufacturing process that uses machine tools and computerized controls to remove layers from solid material to produce premium musical instruments.
Nowadays, left-handed guitars are as magnificent-sounding as right-handed ones and only slightly more expensive.
The last (and typical) answer to the above question is economics.
Left-handed guitars can be more expensive than right-handed guitars. It can also be impractical to spend loads on a brand-new instrument if you’re just starting out, so many find it more convenient to adapt a right-handed guitar, rather than spending extra on a left-handed one.
Besides, some of the best lefty guitar players in the world have converted standard guitars to left-handed versions. Three of them were:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Kurt Cobain
- Tim Armstrong from Rancid
The last one already owns a custom shop model from Gretsch, and yet he still uses an old upside-down strung ax from the same brand.
Anndy Negative sums it up succinctly: “If (a guitar) ain’t broke, just make it left-handed.”
- Prepare Your Workspace Before Converting the Guitar
Protect and secure your instrument by preparing a suitable venue to work on it. Place some cushioning (like a folded towel) under the body and headstock to keep the guitar in place and protect its back portion from being scratched or dented.
You’ll also want to dust your workspace to prevent any buildup from getting on your guitar. Make sure you have adequate lighting available, so you’re able to see everything clearly when converting it.
Lastly, keep the instrument out of reach of children and pets to avoid any damages or potential scratches.
3. Swap the Strings
Tools needed for restringing:
- A new set of strings
- String winder
- Wire cutters
- Small pliers
In place of the tools above, you can get multipurpose tools like these from Amazon.com:
- D’Addario Pro-Winder—This ergonomically designed gadget is a peg winder, bridge pin puller, and built-in steel clipper in one. You can use it on acoustic and electric guitars, basses, mandolins, and banjos. The Pro-Winder also comes in a bass guitar version.
- Ernie Ball Musician’s Tool Kit—It is an all-in-one instrument care system with set-ups, string changes, and a carrier bag.
- Prepare your right-handed guitar as per the suggestion above.
- Buy a new batch of strings, like Ernie Ball 2146 Regular Slinky acoustic guitar strings. You can buy a two or three-pack, and you’ll have spares in case you make a mistake.
- Loosen the strings. You can do it slowly, string by string, by turning the knobs individually. Or use a peg winder to do a faster job.
Note: If you have a pickup (specifically a piezo) under your guitar’s saddle, it’s better to loosen the strings one at a time because piezo pickups are quite sensitive to intense pressure. (A piezo pickup is a device that absorbs string or guitar body vibrations to generate sound, normally from the saddle.)
Loosening all the strings at once can mess up the balance. Your treble or bass sides could be louder or softer than the other. Once the balance is set, it can be hard to get it back in the desired spot. To play safe, just change one string at a time.
- Take the bridge pins out with pliers or a wire cutter. Note that doing so may scratch or crack the pins’ surface, especially if they’re made of bone. An alternative is to place a coin under the tail end of the pin with one hand and push it out from inside the guitar’s body while your other hand pulls its head out.
- Remove the old strings from the guitar.
- Clean the entire instrument, especially the grungy parts previously covered by the strings.
- Change the bridge and saddle. (See the procedure below.)
- Reverse or increase the depth of the nut. Use a knife or file. Or take the nut out, spin it around, and put it back in. Use a strong adhesive to prevent it from bouncing. (See the procedure and flipping alternative below.)
- Restring the guitar in reverse order.
- Move the strap peg on the side closest to the fretboard to the opposite side.
- Attach your shoulder strap to the repositioned peg.
The above procedure is a simplified version from Anndy Negative.
If you want more comprehensive instructions on restringing a standard acoustic guitar, watch this demonstration from a professional guitar stringer:
4. Modify or Replace the Saddle
The bridge and saddle are vital components of your guitar. The bridge is a raised wooden bar that supports the strings and secures them to the guitar’s body.
The saddle is a thin strip of bone, plastic, tusk, or ivory that sits on the bridge. It is similar to the nut because it holds the strings in place, determines their length, and spaces them out. Its role is to transmit the vibrations from the strings to the bridge and the soundboard. Otherwise, string vibration by itself is insufficient to deliver an acceptable volume.
The saddle’s position in many acoustic guitars with steel strings is typically at a slight angle instead of being parallel to the nut. The purpose of these angled (aka “compensated”) saddles is to make up for the greater thickness of the strings and improve intonation—the ability to play in tune throughout the neck.
Experts say that righty-to-lefty instrument converters should take note of the considerable compensation on playability and intonation on your guitar’s bridge. If you simply reverse the order of the strings, you may lose out on these features.
How to Change the Saddle
Switch the saddle by:
- Filling in its existing groove.
- Then reroute it on an inverted angle.
It’s better to have a pro luthier do this for you unless you’re skilled in tasks like this. Otherwise, you may ruin your guitar.
As classical guitars have lighter nylon strings and need less drastic compensation, most have non-angled bridge saddles. In some guitars, however, the bridge saddle has a slight compensation angle. If your instrument has a compensated bridge saddle, reverse it.
Novice guitarists owning classical or steel-stringed guitars need not be overly concerned with the compensation angle because often, they will be playing in the open chord position anyway, where intonation is not a big deal.
5. Modify or Replace the Nut
For the uninitiated, this is the thin cream or white bone, ivory, or plastic strip nearest the first fret. It is also the last component between the strings and the tuning keys.
The nut has grooves increasing in depth from the highest to the lowest string to make up for the extra thickness of the lower wound strings.
Because of the shape of most nuts, experts do not recommend just flipping them over. If you reverse-string your guitar without changing the nut, the instrument may produce an unintentional droning sound.
Why? The notches will be too big to encase the treble strings and too small to hold the bass strings. Even if you just carve the small grooves wider for the bass strings, you will still end up with the treble strings vibrating haphazardly in the bigger slots, generating “fret buzz.” It’s a not-so-funny noise from strings vibrating against one or more of the frets.
Also, the string with the smaller diameter (the high E) will sit lower in the notch, while the thicker low E string will be positioned higher, affecting the action (aka playability) and becoming more onerous to play.
So, instead of grappling with filling in old notches and carving out new ones like what Mr. Negative suggested above, it’s better to buy a left-handed nut. Left-handed nuts are not as plentiful as right-handed ones, but they are available online. They will also be cheaper than purchasing an entire left-hand guitar.
How to Change the Nut
- Take out the right-handed nut by removing the seal of the fixative holding it in place. Use a file or a razor blade. When you hear a snap, the glue’s seal has yielded. In most acoustic guitars, manufacturers use only a tiny amount of adhesive. So, you won’t need much exertion to remove it. This way, you will be able to safeguard the finish.
- An alternative to step one (if the nut is not ensconced in a channel) is to use a light hammer with a bit of wood placed between the hammer and the nut. This is meant to distribute the impact with minimal force. Lightly tap until the nut is dislodged.
- Clean the remaining nut channel, if necessary. Wipe off any adhesive residue. Clean and sand the surface until it is flat.
- Put in the replacement left-handed nut.
Make sure you order the correct width for your guitar’s neck by measuring the original nut before throwing it away. Do not order a blank, because if you make a mistake on it or order the wrong one, you may have to wait a long time for a replacement.
Some music stores offer a bridge saddle and nut combo. Choose bone or tusk instead of plastic. Either will give a premium look to your converted instrument and will last longer.
Marty suggests marking the slots with a graphite pencil because its residue will help the strings stretch over the grooves in the nut and protect them, particularly the wound strings, from damage.
6. Reposition the Fret Markers
On steel-stringed players, fret markers are made of plastic, wood, clay, or mother of pearl and are located on the fingerboard. Classical guitars don’t have inlay fret markers and have position indicators on the side of the neck instead.
Most classical guitars’ position markers are on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. Steel-stringed players also have their 12th, 15th, and 17th frets marked.
On a newly converted classical guitar, the fret markers will be on the wrong side. If this is an issue for you, transfer them to the correct one.
Converted classical guitar owners may want to buy stickers or decals in place of the standard fret markers.
For example, I like the Rosette Black/Ivory Fret Dots from Amazon.com. These dual-color, non-adhesive classical guitar markers are semi-permanent but easy to remove.
How to Change the Fret Markers
Some guitarists sniff at lowly fret dots. If you are one of them and prefer a professional setup, create your markers the hard way.
Marty suggests to:
- Drill a hole in the middle of each fret.
- Insert fret marker strips.
- Cut parallel to the crown of the fret.
- Sand and polish the surface until you achieve a smooth finish.
Before puncturing anything, though, check that your drill bit is the same diameter as your marker strips.
7. Change the Pickguard
A pickguard (aka scratchplate) is a thin shield next to the soundhole that protects the guitar body from scratches and dents from the pick (aka plectrum).
Be prepared to leave marks when changing the pickguard, particularly on older guitars. On a new guitar, not so much. Still, tan lines are inevitable.
Start the removal process by working a corner of the pickguard until a small section yields. Continue to ply the edges until you can remove the entire pickguard without scratching the body’s surface.
Older acoustics require sanding and refinishing the surface before the substitution can take place. If you are not bothered by the position of the pickguard, don’t replace it, recommends Marty.
Did you expect that a supposedly minor switch can generate so much work (and headaches)? Don’t all the above procedures convince you to just save up and ply the music emporiums for a lefty guitar?
Most expert musicians say it isn’t worth the hassle. What they advise is to spiff up your right-handed guitar, apologize to rocker granny, and list it on Etsy, Reverb, or eBay. Use the cash to buy a genuine lefty. Wait until you can secure one, then do a conversion—unless you’re sure it’s just a band-aid (pun intended).