Right hand acoustic guitars can be strung left handed. While the shape of an acoustic guitar is symmetrical (unless featuring a cutaway) giving the impression that all that’s required to change orientation is to change the strings around, attention should also be paid to the nut and saddle which, depending on the guitar, 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 as the original markers won’t be visible when the guitar is being played.
Despite the greater availability of left hand 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 lefty.
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 instrument 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, instead are happy to learn on any guitar we might have lying around. In the majority of cases, this means adapting a right handed guitar to left handed.
Things to keep in mind when converting an acoustic guitar from left to right handed
The Bridge Saddle
Steel String Guitars
The bridge saddle is the thin strip made from either plastic or bone (sometimes ivory or tusq) seated in the bridge and 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.
As seen in the image below, many steel string acoustic guitars have an angled or ‘compensated’ bridge saddle. This is to compensate for the increasing thickness of the strings, allowing for correct intonation (e.g. remaining in tune further up the neck).
The bridge saddle also has a few additional features, including the recessed section beneath the high E string which minimises 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 lower strings ‘compensates’ for the non-wound strings which have less mass.
The other feature of the saddle is the gradual thickening of the strings first point of contact from the G to Low E String.
Additionally you may notice the bridge 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 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, if you simply flip the strings, most of these features are lost, and in many cases being to work against you.
How to change the bridge 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 bridge saddle.
The process involves filling in the existing slot for the bridge saddle and rerouting it on 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 bridge saddle is not angled, as the lighter nylon strings require less drastic compensation.
In some cases there is a slight compensation angle e.g. 2mm difference between high E and low E (as seen in the image above). In some cases, the guitar will have a compensated bridge saddle. If this is the case, I would, again, recommend reversing the bridge saddle.
For those unaware, this 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 due to the smaller diameter string (the high E) sitting lower in the slot, while the thicker low E string will sit higher in the 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 there are a few areas 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 just to upgrade from plastic to bone or graphite), only a small amount of glue has been used. This means you won’t require much force to remove it and the chances of damaging the finish is minimal.
My advice is to use a razor blade and begin working the gap between the headstock and the nut only 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 positioned between the hammer and the nut to distribute the impact and lightly tap until the nut comes away, apply 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 difficulty ordering one. However, you may find you don’t have quite as many options available, 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 waiting on a replacement after ordering the wrong once can get pretty maddening.
I’ve listed a couple of good options below. In some cases you can buy the bridge saddle and nut as a pair. In any case I’d recommend not buying a plastic one and instead opting for bone or Tusq.
It can also be a good idea to mark the slots with a graphite pencil. The graphite residue helps the strings stretch over the slots in the nut 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 a more professional job, you can drill the center of each fret using a depth stop on your drill and purchasing 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 pick guard, 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 up and continue to work the edges until you can remove the pickguard without damaging the top of the guitar.
For an older acoustic, you can remove and replace if necessary but you will need to sand and refinish the guitar. I would not recommend doing this unless you really have an issue with the pickguard position.
Sound hole pickups
Lastly, if you have a sound hole pickup in your guitar, 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 to mirror the current position.
If not, you may need to swap the orientation of the pickup which may requires some adjustments to be made to the cable. Due to the range of acoustic pickups, 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 and list it on eBay, or Reverb.com and use the money to buy a genuine lefty.
Got a question or want to share your experiences changing a right handed guitar to a lefty? Why not leave a comment below.