Are there left-handed guitar pickups? This issue remains a mystery for a lot of guitarists who wonder if there really is a need for specialized lefty pickups. Even though there are only very few left-handed guitar players in history, some of them turned out to be great musicians and cultural icons who deeply impacted modern music. However, their fame didn’t do much to push the big brands to produce more guitars for left-handed people.
Only 10 percent of the world’s population is left-handed and a vast majority of functioning objects are designed for the right-handed majority. This is why lefty guitars are so rare that even historians are often hard-pressed to give a clear date on when the first left-handed guitar was produced.
Some experts claim that Gibson and Fender have been building lefties since the early days of their companies’ existence. Unfortunately, the difficult process of hunting for left-handed guitars from those eras are hindering guitar history buffs from obtaining a clear answer on the matter.
Perhaps this is the reason why southpaws like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Gales chose to flip a righty Strat, instead of going through the trouble of hunting for a left-handed one. Because there very few lefty guitarists in the world, even the presence of prominent left-handed players such as Albert King, Dick Dale, Tony Iommi and Kurt Cobain weren’t enough to spark a lefty guitar revolution.
Left-handed guitars are more expensive to produce because the parts, from the body to the neck, the bridge and even the tremolo bar, would require totally different specifications. To make things worse, only a limited number of these guitars will ever be produced since much fewer people will be using them.
Fortunately, guitar innovators are always in their labs finding ways to minimize the production of parts to help make guitars a little bit cheaper. Making pickups that work for both right and left-handed guitars is one of the solutions, although this issue would be solved naturally along with the evolution of fretboards and strings.
Flat pole vs Staggered Pickups
Before we answer the question whether there are left-handed guitar pickups in music stores or not, we first need to understand the difference between a flat pole pickup and a staggered pickup. These two pickup types are important to the development of a universal design that is flexible for either left or right-handed guitars.
Flat Pole pickups
The first pickups during the era of the Fender Nocaster and Broadcaster guitars started out as flat poles, meaning the poles are all equal in height. This was due to the fact that guitar pickups borrowed the concept from lap steels, which had a flat fingerboard, as opposed to the arched frets of electric guitars.
Since electric guitars had a C-shaped fretboard back in the day, flat pole pickups did not provide a perfect balance for the strings. Staggered pole pickups were invented to solve this problem, although guitar companies just reverted back to flat pole pickups, which remains the standard today.
Because of this, there are almost no left-handed guitar pickups to be found even if you search deep into the vintage instrument market..
Staggered pole pickups
Sometime in the 1960s, Fender introduced staggered pole pickups, which are mostly associated with Stratocasters and also a few Telecasters. The pole pieces are “staggered,” meaning, they vary in height depending on the strings. Because the fretboards of electric guitars have a certain radius to them, staggered poles are modified to provide balance for each string’s tone and volume.
Another reason why staggered pole pickups were needed back then were the prevalent string gauge and design of the era. Because the common string gauges used in the past were much thicker and the G string had a winding over it, the output had to be balanced by altering the height of every pole in the pickup (especially the one for the G string)..
As fretboards become much flatter, the need for staggered pickups has decreased a lot and now their usage is limited to some vintage guitars (particularly those that were crafted during the time of staggered pole pickups). Moreover, the improved string design that we have today lets the strings resonate more evenly in the pickup’s magnetic field, ending the reliance on staggered pole pieces.
Be warned however, that you shouldn’t, in any way, alter the pole pieces by hammering them or pulling them out with pliers. There are tips online claiming that you can turn your staggered pole into a flat pole, but doing so will only damage your pickups. It is highly-recommended that you leave your staggered pole pickups as it is, since you can actually still use a right-handed one for your left-handed guitar.
Is there such a thing as left-handed guitar pickups?
If you are wondering whether there are left-handed guitar pickups in music shops today, the answer is no. You won’t find left-handed guitar pickups in the market in the 21st century because guitar manufacturers only need flat pole pickups to make things work.
Since staggered pole pickups aren’t necessary anymore, left-handed guitars are fitted with flat pole pickups and the sound of the strings are very much equal in volume and tone. Also, you won’t have to worry about the pots being reversed if you buy a lefty guitar since they are already set up for left-handed playing.
Somewhere out there, there might be some staggered pole vintage pickups especially made for left-handed guitars, but they will be few and far between. This is because even Jimi Hendrix himself didn’t use a guitar for southpaws, so brands such as Gibson and Fender were not compelled to produce more lefty guitars. After all, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix’s fame did not fuel a sudden increase in left-handed guitar players.
Even if you happen to obtain a set of staggered pole pickups, you may still fit them into your lefty guitar by just rotating them. The only problem would be how your pickup cavities are routed, but if you can find a remedy for that, there is absolutely no need for left-handed guitar pickups.