Left-handed people have never had it easy. Left-handed people were burned at the stake, elbows bumped at the dining table with right-handed people, and scissors fought in elementary school art class. Left-handed people also have limited options in finding a guitar that will suit them. Left-handed people make up 10% of the population, but (according to my totally unscientific research) less than 5% of the world’s guitars are left-handed. Many players have just had to put up with it over the years – Jimi Hendrix turned his Stratocaster over and strung it left-handed, Robert Fripp forced himself to play right-handed, and Albert King played his guitar upside down! Nowadays there are more options for left-handers, but finding the perfect guitar is still fraught with great dangers. What if you come across a fabulous acoustic guitar that happens to be for right-handed people? If you have the right guitar with you, you can’t miss it – you can have it converted into a Lefty! This process isn’t as simple as swapping the strings – it takes skill and precision. So I recently took on a Lefty conversion project.
I was hired to convert a beautiful (and expensive) Martin guitar to be left handed. The guitar sounded fantastic and even though the owner was left handed he bought it anyway. The key to converting an acoustician to left-handed is the orientation of the bridge saddle. Acoustic riders are angled, i.e. not perpendicular to the strings. The reason for this is to compensate for different string gauges, which preserves the intonation of the guitar. If you were to simply swap the strings without changing the saddle angle, the low strings would run sharp and the high strings would run flat.
Here is the original right-handed bridge saddle:
Since I wanted to cut a new left saddle into the bridge, I had to fill in the old slot first. I grabbed a piece of ebony that matched the color of the bridge well and cut it to fit the saddle slot. Then I glued it in and carved and sanded it down to blend it into the bridge.
Next came the tricky part – how do you cut a new slot in the exact position on a prefabricated bridge? Positioning and angles are absolutely crucial, otherwise the guitar would not play in tune. In the past we have used complex milling gauges and calculated ruler lengths and did an excellent job with our human abilities. But we are always looking for ways to improve our results and we are now using the PLEK to help us with certain tasks. So I took careful measurements and programmed the PLEK to cut the slot exactly where I wanted it. Greetings to our robot overlords!
The PLEK quickly completed a time consuming task and turned out to be absolutely perfect! It’s hard to tell that this was ever a right-handed bridge.
If only the PLEK could do every job in the store – we’d just have coffee and watch it work. But having a big, fancy tool with no repair skills doesn’t make you a guitar technician, like owning a ’59 Les Paul doesn’t make you Billy Gibbons. The next steps required a more human touch – making saddles and saddles for left-handers. Normally we make nuts and saddles from bones, almost entirely by hand. This is both an art and a technical skill, and it is always satisfying to see the results of turning a few pieces of bone into these:
Next I added some side dots on the opposite side of the neck so that the left guitarist isn’t completely lost navigating his instrument. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of them so you just have to take my word for it for them to look amazing!
Lefty conversion completed! I finished the new left handed guitar by leveling the frets with the PLEK and giving it a complete setup. Since I’m right-handed myself, I can barely make a C major chord on a left-handed person. I can’t imagine the struggle to be left handed being forced to play right handed. But with a few simple modifications, a right-handed acoustic can be turned into a left-handed! Cute!