Left handed people have never had it easy. Lefties have been burned at the stake, bump elbows with righties at the dinner table, and struggled with scissors in elementary school art class. Left handed people also have limited options finding a guitar that suits them. Left handed people comprise of 10% of the population, yet (according to my totally unscientific research) less than 5% of the world’s guitars are left handed. Many players over the years have simply had to make do – Jimi Hendrix flipped 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 available for lefties, but finding the perfect guitar is still fraught with great peril. What if you come across a fabulous acoustic guitar that just happens to be right handed? When the right guitar comes along, you don’t let it get away – you can have it converted to a lefty! This process isn’t as simple as swapping the strings around – it takes skill and precision. Here’s how I recently took on a lefty conversion project.
I was tasked to convert a lovely (and expensive) Martin guitar to left handed. The guitar sounded fantastic, and even though the owner was a lefty, he bought it anyway. The key to converting an acoustic to left handed is the orientation of the bridge saddle. Acoustic saddles are angled, so they are not perpendicular to the strings. The reason this is done is to compensate for different string gauges, which helps maintain the guitar’s intonation. If you were to simply swap the strings without changing the saddle’s angle, the low strings would run sharp and the high strings would run flat.
Here’s the original, right handed bridge saddle:
Since I was going to cut a new lefty saddle into the bridge, I had to fill the old slot first. I grabbed a scrap piece of ebony that closely matched the color of the bridge, and cut it to fit in the saddle slot. Then I glued it in, and carved and sanded it down to blend into the bridge.
Next was the tricky part – how to cut a new slot, in the exact position, on a pre-made bridge? Positioning and angle are absolutely critical to get right, otherwise the guitar wouldn’t play in tune. In the past, we’ve utilized complex routing jigs and calculated scale lengths, and have done excellent work using our human skills. But we’re always looking for ways to improve our results, and now we use the PLEK to help us out with certain tasks. So I took careful measurements, and programmed the PLEK to cut the slot exactly where I wanted it. All hail our robotic overlords!
The PLEK made short work of what could have been a time consuming task, and it came out absolutely perfect! You can barely tell that this was ever a right handed bridge.
If only the PLEK could handle every job in the shop – we’d just sit around drinking coffee and watch it work. But owning a big fancy tool without any repair skills doesn’t make you a guitar tech, like owning a ’59 Les Paul doesn’t turn you into Billy Gibbons. The next few steps required a more human touch – making a left handed nut and saddle. We usually make nuts and saddles out of bone, and these are almost exclusively done by hand. This is just as much an art as it is a technical skill, and it is always satisfying to see the results of turning a couple of chunks of bone into these:
Next, I installed some side dots on the opposite side of the neck, so the lefty guitarist won’t be totally lost navigating their instrument. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they look amazing!
Lefty conversion complete! I finalized the newly left handed guitar by leveling the frets with the PLEK, and giving it a complete setup. As a right handed person myself, I can barely make a C major chord on a lefty. I can’t imagine the struggle of being left handed being forced to play right handed. But with a few simple modifications, a right handed acoustic can be converted into a lefty! Sweet!