Not Just Another Pretty Face

“Is it too much to demand, I want a full house and a rock and roll band…” – Passionate Kisses (Mary Chapin Carpenter singing a Lucinda Williams song)

I know I’ve espoused the joys of playing the guitar for yourself. Practicing alone often works well so that no one else has to suffer with you as you get the sound you want coming from your guitar. However, playing with others adds a dimension to your music, and actually frees you to find new ways to express yourself in the community of musicians. One way to do this is to get involved in music jams with others. There are some great links on this site to music jams that discuss everything from “how to” to all about specific jams. You could even post, as others have, your own jam on our jam forum, or set one up with others in your area, using our forums as a springboard.

Of course the best of all possible options is to play in a band. Now I know there are stereotypes out there about girls in bands. We’re either fluff (just a pretty face/voice, not a serious musician, as some might regard Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears, not to mention The Spice Girls) or prima donnas (just a witch on wheels). Now, don’t get me wrong, I think there’s nothing wrong with being eye candy (can anyone say Ricky Martin??). But wearing hot clothes and having a sexy attitude are completely compatible with being serious musicians. If you’ve got it, flaunt it! And if you don’t quite have it, use the oldest trick in the book, male or female. Emphasize your best attributes!

I’ll admit that the lack of testosterone has led me to take a back seat in bands before. I was tentative, didn’t want to get in the way, and didn’t want to be a bother. But I’ve found that once you prove yourself, you’ll become an essential member to the band. When I started out, I joined a band because a) my boyfriend was in one and b) I could sing. Sigh. Yes, these are rather “traditional” reasons. I was only 18 at the time, though, so going with the flow was important to me. It still is, but I’ve learned to relax in my own skin.

The best part about participating in a band is that it’s an opportunity to learn many kinds of music. I find that different people interpret the same song in so many different ways. When playing or practicing by myself, I’ve found my own interpretations of songs. Playing just like the album (umm, ok, CD) has certainly been a goal of mine. But I’ve also found that playing the song with my own flair is equally satisfying. I used to think it was cheating to play the short cuts that you’ve found or heard, but I realize now that it’s part of the creative process. After all, Chopin sounds different if I play it than if Artur Rubenstein plays it. Or for those of you without classical piano background, the blues sound differently when Clapton or B.B. King plays, than when I play. Once I get over the fact that I’d love to sound like Rubenstein, Clapton, or King, I realize that sounding like Laura isn’t so bad.

When you get a lot of people together to play regularly, you can call yourself a band, and you’ll find that the creativity that comes from several enthused musicians can be exhilarating. In those late teen years with my first band we’d get quite silly with the music. Sometimes we’d do a traditional rocker in a reggae style. A certain prolific Guitar Noise author (hello, David!) was notorious for absolutely hysterical song parodies. He’d just change a couple of words and sing them to the unsuspecting members of the band either during practice or a live gig! It was great for laughs and for letting everyone become comfortable with the music. When I’m completely relaxed (and full out giggles is a great unmedicated way to be relaxed), I was able to express myself fully. And when you feel safe and comfortable, you’ll find that you don’t feel stupid making suggestions. Occasionally people will actually heed those suggestions and tell you that you’ve got a great idea!

Taking action to share in the workload of a band earns respect as well. I’ve wrapped many cables and learned to set up and use sound boards. When I first started hanging around bands, I asked the sound engineer how to set up the board figuring that I could write notes to myself. Actually, after the discussion I had the engineer write out the complex set of notes. It saved him a lot of work in the end, as I then knew how to set up, tear down, and run the sound board. As the vocalist, I found that I had a good ear for a balanced mix (not too much lead guitar or bass or drums. You know those guys are always turning up their amps!) Plus then I learned more about how to be a band member, which is great knowledge if you find yourself in a room with other novices.

Having sung with David Hodge in college and then again at a Jam last August I was quite flattered to read in his column on the Jam : “It had been some time since I last heard Laura sing and I must say that I was impressed. I didn’t remember her having such a strong voice. … (we went back to the house for an impromptu acoustic jam) And as much as I’d been impressed with Laura’s singing before, I was very much blown away now. Sometimes it does take a little time to shake out the cobwebs and set your passion free.” Wow. I was not only moved by those comments, but I was also motivated to develop my guitar playing as strongly as I’d developed my voice. I joke that it’s taken me 10 or 20 years to perfect my musical skills. As I’ve said before, a lot of life intervened in the interim. Plus, it’s always a work in process. But it’s worth waiting 20 years for a compliment like that! It is important to remember is that the only time table out there is the one you set. If you keep working on your music, you will see results.

One of the concerns that women have about being in a band is that guys won’t like girl guitarists. One way to solve that is to be in an all girl group. However, I’ve always been one to tackle those invisible gender lines with abandon, from singing “male” songs (The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar is one saliciously sexist example) without changing the lyrics, to working in a male dominated profession. I can’t answer for all the male/female relationships here (that’s not just another column, I think that’s a PhD course) but what I’ve always found is that curiosity gets the cat in laps she wouldn’t normally land in. Most people are flattered and happy to share when you ask them serious questions about what they do and how they do it. And when people share their questions and answers, both sides end up learning things. (Hmm, I’m sure there’s a joke here about the Other Side, but I can’t quite figure it. I’ll leave that to the reader’s imagination.) That is, in large part, what Guitar Noise is all about.

Don’t forget that you don’t need to be invited to a jam or to join a band to experience the joy of playing with others. You can find and invite other musicans to gather and play. There’s a marvelous group of writers who plan to play guitar when they gather for their next writing convention. For inspiration on jamming and a place to post, see our Jam page and Jam forum. I’ve also been in many jams and bands where I’m among the junior members, musically speaking. I’ve learned a lot from listening and playing with more experienced musicians; we’re back to the “if you ask, they will share” concept. You can be bold and be the person that invites everyone to the musical feast. I think you will find that even the most experienced musician will get something out of it.

So go out there and play and remember, you’re not just another pretty face!

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. We now have our own page in the guitar forums. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.