Another Approach

Do you feel shy about playing the guitar? At a recent guitarists’ night out at a local music store, you could count the number of females on one hand, and that included a mom and a clerk. There were guys all over, checking out new instruments, plugging into bunches of amps, playing on stage… in general showing no fear of trying new things – no embarrassment. As one of the few females, I felt almost self-conscious standing there, admiring the shining electric guitars and wanting to reach out and touch one. I started thinking – do girls take a different approach to playing guitar once they finally decide they want to? Does it hold us back from “going for it”? I decided to survey some girls to find out their approach to playing guitar.

Age does not seem to be a factor in playing guitar – one girl surveyed expressed interest when she was only 2 years old. Parents were supportive in the selection of an instrument, and often helped the girls get their first guitar. However, only one expressed the interest to play professionally – by forming a band. Most just considered the guitar a hobby, for leisure, and not serious. Most guys I spoke with talked about playing in bands. While it is perfectly ok to want to play for fun (I do!), why did so few girls even think of the possibility of playing not just for fun, but as a career?

Perhaps this can be connected to their role models for playing. When asked if there were any guitarists they tried to emulate, most said no, and the rest brought up male players: Mark Knopfler, Kirk Hammet, and Fieldy from Korn. In addition, when asked what inspired them to play guitar, most of the answers included their brothers, father, or grandfather – not a female in the bunch. Does the lack of female role models hold back some potential female guitarists? One approach girls might consider taking would be to actively look for and identify some female players whose music they like. I really enjoy the Celtic/folk player Al Petteway, but soon discovered that his wife Amy White was a wonderful player too. During an intermission at a cd release concert, I said to heck with being shy and went right up to the stage to ask her some questions about her guitars and playing. What inspiration – even though we got home late, all I wanted to do was get out my guitar and play – and I did!

Girls don’t appear limited in their choice of guitar or music. The girls surveyed all said they play acoustic guitar, but half also play electric, and a few said they play bass. The selection of music interests ranged all over – from country to heavy metal, pop to alternative to rock. However, when asked about their favorite musicians and groups, the only female name that came up was Faith Hill. Are there no female musicians or groups that appeal to girls desiring to play guitar? Where are the Bangles, or Heart, for this generation? Is it the Indigo Girls? If the Bangles could be inspired by the Beatles to achieve success, what is to stop anyone from getting inspiration and creating their own image and style. But will they? There is a new movie coming out based on a comic magazine girl band – Josie and the Pussycats. It will be interesting to see how successful the movie is, and if it inspires a new group of girls to play guitar. Perhaps a “safe” method to start with is a search of the Internet. (There are links to women’s pages on this site). Doing something actively will get you farther down the road to playing than just thinking about it.

The girls surveyed had a variety of methods for learning to play guitar – videos, classes at school or with a tutor. None of them mentioned using a guitar book, although there is a wide variety of books available. The most commonly mentioned method was to learn from a friend or family member. The girls did not express any confidence in their abilities when asked what they could play. They were all young – ages 12 to 20. Their years of experience ranged from just started to about 5 years of playing. The girls said they could play basic chords and power chords, although barre chords were problematic due to “small hands”. Only one said she could fingerpick. Most expressed the ability to play simple songs or parts of songs. One did say she could play Freebird! None of the girls seemed confident in their playing – as if they had nothing to boost their self-esteem. They may not feel that is due to being female, but they might. My husband (for whom I bought a bass this Valentine’s Day) has been bugging me to learn “From the Beginning” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I had to get past a BIG crisis in confidence, but I got help – the tab, the cd, my teacher, and WOW – I’m doing it!

It is possible that many instructors are used to teaching boys who want to play single note leads on electric guitars, and they may not help girls be open about what they want to play. Some instructors may forget that girls also have other uniquely “female” issues – like holding a guitar with breasts (yes, you need to experiment a little to get comfortable with holding your guitar, or work to find one that “fits”!), and remembering to trim fingernails… You may want to play like Dolly Parton, who keeps LONG nails, but maybe you don’t. Perhaps the most important thing to do is tell your instructor what music you like, and bring music to your lessons – if you don’t have sheet music or can’t find lyrics and tab on-line, take in a tape or cd. The instructor can then figure out how to help you play what you prefer. If your teacher wants to stick to a set of books or is resistant to helping you learn what you like, don’t hesitate to get another instructor. Check the yellow pages, ask someone who loves their teacher, visit music stores for teachers or some recommendations, check the Internet – there is someone out there who will fit your needs if you spend the time to look.

Another thing that might help girls is to play more with other people (see Laura Lasley’s article Not Just Another Pretty Face). When asked if they played by themselves or with friends, all of them said they play by themselves. Only a couple said that they play with family or friends, and none on a regular basis. One thing I have found that increases ability and confidence more than anything is to play regularly with others. You will either learn from them, or be able to teach someone else. Interaction usually results in improvements in many areas of playing, with a resulting increase in confidence.

Some advice from the girls on playing the guitar:

“Get a personal tutor, or help from a friend.”

“Normally girls can express themselves (well), therefore playing guitar would actually come more naturally… Also, have patience. Music does not always come very easily.”

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t play.”

“Play to music.”

“Take it one note at a time.”

“Get an instructor, video, or try to learn by teaching yourself!”

“Guys play a lot, and every guitar player I’ve met, with the exception of one, loves to teach. You can also learn on your own. Don’t be afraid to experiment.”

All the girls expressed similar sentiments as to why they love playing: it makes them happy or feel good, it helps them express themselves, gives them energy, relieves stress, lets out frustration, and helps them “make a beautiful sound”. One girl said that playing is a challenge, but she loves to play by ear, and it was neat to play a song heard on the radio or at a concert. In addition, they all supported the idea of girls playing guitar. They agreed that girls can and should do anything they want, that being a girl does not interfere with their competency in any area.

If you are having trouble playing, sit down and identify what may be holding you back, then figure out ways to resolve those issues. Sites like this can help you in many ways. I was playing on a classical guitar that my grandfather built – but was frustrated with my lack of progress. By talking to others and reading articles, I decided I needed to find another guitar to learn on. I took a lot of time, played many guitars, and finally found THE ONE for me – my first electric acoustic (a Yamaha). I spent 3 hours with it at the store (I fight shyness too) before finally taking the plunge. I was late to a music jam, but it was worth it. It is difficult to walk by this guitar without stopping to play – it inspires me! I’ve made other changes – I pick my own music, changed my strings (to Elixirs), switched to a lighter pick (and a boy I teach had me put masking tape on it where I grip it – now it does not slip from my fingers!), learned travis picking, got a stool for my left foot… you get the idea. I also started going to music stores more often, and I play with anything I want, forcing timidness away. After a while, it felt good. Don’t be afraid to take another approach – and fight any fears you may have. If this is what you want, just do it.

About the author:

Lee Budar-Danoff has also written: Music at Mary’s and Looking And Listening.