Right-hand acoustic guitars can be strung left-handed. While the shape of an acoustic guitar is symmetrical (unless a cutaway) attention should be paid to the nut and saddle which, in most cases will require replacing to ensure reliable intonation and playability. If you play a classical guitar you might want to add new fret markers to the top of the neck also as the original markers won’t be visible.
Despite the greater availability of left-hand acoustic guitars nowadays, I still see the question asked surprisingly often. In the following article, I’m going to explain why you can switch most right-handed acoustics and the best way to go about it. Hint, it’s not just a case of changing over the strings if you want your guitar to play and sound great.
Left-handed acoustic guitars – getting it right for lefties
It’s not easy being a left-hander.
I’m acutely aware of this fact, being left-handed and struggling to find a decent guitar when I was younger that I loved the look and sound of.
And while Jimi Hendrix said he preferred right-handed guitars because they were built better, in the current era of CNC manufacturing, left-handed guitars are usually every bit as good as their right-handed counterparts.
But, when you’re on a limited budget or just beginning to learn the guitar, most of us lefties aren’t going to be overly fussy, and are happy to learn on any guitar we might have laying around. In the majority of cases, this means converting a right-handed guitar to a left-handed orientation.
Things to keep in mind when converting an acoustic guitar from left to right-handed
The Bridge and Saddle
Steel String Guitars
The saddle is the thin strip made from either plastic or bone (sometimes graphite, ivory, or tusq) seated in the bridge. While it may not look like much, it is a critical component of your guitar.
The bridge saddle transfers the vibrations from the strings when plucked or strummed through to the bridge and soundboard. It also assists with spacing the strings and controlling the height of your strings (string action).
As seen in the image below, many steel-string acoustic guitars have an angled or ‘compensated’ saddle. This is to compensate for the increased thickness of the strings, allowing for correct intonation (e.g. remaining in tune further up the neck).
The saddle also has a few additional features, including a recessed section beneath the high E string which minimizes the contact area, shortening the length of the string. The B string on the other hand has a recessed area to the front of the saddle which lengthens the B string.
This difference in how the saddle is shaped for the first two strings compared to the heavier strings ‘compensates’ for the non-wound strings which have less mass.
The other feature of the saddle is the gradual thickening of the string’s first point of contact from the G to the low E String.
Additionally, you may notice the saddle’s height, which although rounded to match the guitar’s fingerboard radius also increases in height as the strings increase in thickness to prevent the lower strings from buzzing against the frets.
All things considered, there is a lot of compensation going on within the bridge of your guitar with regard to intonation and playability, and if you simply flip the strings, most of these features are lost.
How to change the saddle
With that in mind, if you care about those things, and unless you are an absolute beginner, you really should, if changing the orientation of your instrument you will need to reverse the saddle or replace the bridge entirely.
The process involves filling in the existing slot for the saddle and rerouting it at a reversed angle. Unless you have experience with this type of work, you should leave this to a skilled luthier. The chances of doing real harm to your guitar if you don’t know precisely what you are doing is very high.
The good news for classical guitar owners is in the majority of cases the saddle is not angled, as the lighter nylon strings require less drastic compensation.
In some cases, there may be a slight compensation angle e.g. 2mm difference between high E and low E (as seen in the image above) and in some cases, the guitar will have a compensated saddle. If this is the case, I would, again, recommend reversing the saddle.
Most people aren’t going to worry all that much about the compensation angle on a steel-string acoustic or classical guitar when first starting out, and I wouldn’t recommend going to the trouble of having your instrument’s saddle slot filled and rerouted. Most of the time you will be in the open chord position (e.g. the first four frets) where intonation is less of a concern.
For those unaware, the nut is the white (in most cases) thin plastic, bone, or ivory strip adjoining the 1st fret and is the last point of contact between the strings and the tuners.
If you look closely the nut has slots of increasing depth from highest to lowest string to compensate for the additional thickness of the lower, wound strings. If you change the strings without changing the nut you are likely to run into problems with fret buzz. This is due to the smaller diameter string (the high E) sitting lower in the slot, while the thicker low E string will sit higher in its designated slot, increasing the action and becoming more difficult to play.
How to Change the Nut on a Right Handed Guitar to Left Handed
Changing the nut involves removing the old one first, by breaking the seal of the adhesive, cleaning out the channel, and replacing it with a left-handed nut. But before you jump into it, there are a few things you should pay close attention to.
Protecting and securing the guitar
First, find a suitable area to work on the guitar and place some padding beneath the body and headstock where the guitar is going to come into contact with the surface of the area you are working on. This serves two purposes, protecting the back of the guitar from being scratched and securing the guitar in place while working on it.
Removing the nut
In almost every case when I’ve performed this job on a guitar (mostly to upgrade from plastic to bone or graphite), only a small amount of glue has been used. This means you won’t require a great deal of force to remove it and the chances of damaging the finish are minimal.
My advice is to use a razor blade and begin working the gap between the headstock and the nut, applying a small amount of force as you slowly work the glue away from the timber. In most cases, you will hear an audible ‘pop’ when the seal of the glue gives way.
Another option, especially if the nut is not seated inside a channel is to use a light hammer with a piece of timber between the hammer and the nut to distribute the impact. Then lightly tap until the nut comes away, applying only minimal force.
Cleaning the nut channel
Next, you should clean the remaining channel, if needed. This involves removing any excess glue and sanding the area until flat.
The Replacement Nut
Left-handed nuts aren’t as common as right-handed but you still shouldn’t have a lot of trouble ordering one. However, you may find you don’t have quite as many options, being left-handed.
It’s also important that you order the correct width for your neck (e.g. measure the old nut before discarding) and make sure you do not order a blank, as slotting a nut requires the skills of a luthier and gauged nut slotting files. Waiting on a replacement after ordering the wrong one can be pretty maddening.
In some cases, you can buy the saddle and nut as a pair. In any case, I’d recommend this as a good time to upgrade from plastic to bone or Tusq.
It can also be a good idea to mark the slots with a graphite pencil. The graphite residue helps the strings slide over the slots in the nut more easily and will also help protect the strings (especially the wound strings) from being damaged.
Another issue you might run into is the placement of the fret markers on the top side of the frets. This is more of a problem for classical guitarists than steel-string players as classical guitars don’t have inlay markers and instead mark the frets on the top side of the neck.
How to change the fret markers on a Right Handed Guitar to Left Handed
Most classical guitars have fret markers on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. For steel strings additionally, the 12th, 15th, and 17th frets are also marked.
A simple way to address this is to buy a set of decals. If you want to do things more professionally, you can drill the center of each fret using a depth stop on your drill and purchase fret marker strips.
Once the hole is drilled, just insert the strip, cut parallel to the top of the fret, and then sand and polish until you have a smooth finish. Ensure your drill bit is the exact diameter of the fret market strip you buy.
Stewmac.com’s Dan Erlewine has a great video showing how this is done.
Removing the pickguard, especially on an older guitar is, unfortunately, going to leave tan lines.
On a newer guitar, this may not be as much of a problem. In this case, manipulate a corner of the pickguard until a small section lifts, and continue to work the edges until you can remove the pickguard without damaging the top of the guitar.
Of course, if you don’t use a pick, a pickguard isn’t necessary.
Lastly, if you have a soundhole pickup installed, you may notice the pole pieces are recessed for the higher strings and raised for the lower strings. If your pickup features adjustable pole pieces you can adjust these to mirror the current position.
If not, you may need to swap the orientation of the pickup which may require some adjustments to be made to the cable. Due to the wide range of acoustic pickups available, it’s best to get advice specific to the pickup you are currently using.
You can change the orientation of a right-handed acoustic guitar to left-handed but if only starting out you may prefer to just switch the strings and/or change over the nut. For more experienced players, I’d recommend taking the guitar to a luthier and having the job done by a professional, especially if the guitar is of value to you.
Of course, if this all sounds like a lot of work the best advice is to clean up your right-handed guitar put new strings on it, list it on eBay or Reverb.com, and use the money to buy a genuine lefty.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some of my other articles on acoustic guitar maintenance.