The Other Side

Women's Day

Have you ever noticed that most of the people playing and talking about playing guitar are guys? Most of the authors (ok, all of the other authors) on this website are guys. Many of the artists talked about are guys. Not to say that guys aren’t great guitar players, writers and composers. But what about the Other Side?

So I thought I’d start the kick off for all you gals (what is the PC term anyway? Girls, women, femmes?) out there.

For any female out there who’s considered playing, writing or performing: Just Do It. That old Nike ad works for much more than sports. There is a fascination with guitar playing that goes beyond gender. My own experience has long been one of interest and enchantment, but I never thought I could play one of those lovely instruments until many years after I’d been in and around bands.

I grew up in a household where all you heard was either easy listening or classical. We never had the radio on (thereby missing out on some great stuff in the 60’s) and I don’t think we had much more than a tiny turntable until I went to college. I discovered popular music at friends houses (I confess, I liked the Carpenters. And Carole King.)

It was in college that I discovered Rock. It helped that my boyfriend was a bass player, and many of his friends played. I got recruited to sing, engineer and wrap cable when necessary. My 15 years of classical piano did absolutely nothing to teach me chord theory. Hanging around these guys, I started to pick up phrases like: “this one’s just a 1-4-5”, “what key is it in?”, and “let’s do this one reggae”. It’s like learning football, or other “exclusively” guy sports. If you hang around something long enough and absorb the lingo, suddenly you understand.

For years though, I settled into being the vocalist. I even took some voice lessons from a very funny teacher who assigned me a workbook of 24 Italian arias, which he nicknamed “Two Dozen Dago Ditties”. I was diligent for a few months, but discovered that good sound engineering and a monitor that works can solve a lot of problems. I found that I had a decent voice, and more importantly, I love to sing. Anything and everything. I found inspiration in all kinds of music, including some originals by the prolific David Hodge (see his guitar columns for continued inspiration). I even played some of it on keyboards (hey, all that $$ learning to read music shouldn’t go to waste). Never in a zillion years did I think I could play that music, like, you know, on a guitar…

Of course, college and medical school years do end and real life jobs took over. No more free hours to noodle alone or jam with a band. Kids followed, more job stress, and before you know it, those dreams of playing guitar are on the back burner. I still loved music; I went to concerts, bought CD’s and sang loudly in the car, but with no real thought of playing it myself.

Then one day, my husband (the aforementioned boyfriend who plays bass) bought me a guitar. He took me to a great music store near where we lived, and said, pick out whatever you like. I decided to start with an acoustic, as I’d heard that if you mastered that, electric is a piece of cake. I found the most expensive guitar in the “starter’s” room, a lovely burgundy red 6-string Guild. It sounded good just strumming it without making a chord. I figured it would look good and make me sound good, even if all I did was strum an E over and over again. I took a few lessons, was fascinated by the sounds that came out of the guitar and vowed to play forever. You know the story. Reality was that between job, kids, exercise, life etc. I never found time to practice. The Guild stayed in its case.

A move, a job change, and an attitude change later, I found my guitar again. By this time, both my kids were taking music lessons. I thought that if Mom took some lessons and practiced, it would set an example for them. I found a wonderful guitar teacher, at the same school where my children attended, and away we went. I fell in love with the guitar all over again. This time, I set reasonable goals. I didn’t have to fly through licks, I just wanted to be able to play a few chords and sing along. My teacher patiently walked me through songs that I loved, and gradually, I’ve worked my way to actually learning different strums and finding my own rhythm. I’ve found that you can play and sing at the same time (Hodge wrote a wonderful column about this – Singing In A New Year). My new toy is a red Fender Stratocaster, a milestone birthday gift from my wondrous husband. I’ve played in jams; first at the music school, encouraged by my teacher and then with local friends, and then with college friends. Oh yes, that bass player from college still plays with me when no one else can. When I’m frustrated by the guitar (it does happen), I can always fall back on vocals. Like everything else in life, you have to work at it, but the work can be fun.

So yes, Virginia, there are female guitar players, both casual and proficient. A few favorite guitarists are Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, The Bangles, Chrissie Hynde, Nancy Wilson, Tina Weymoth (must be more, just can’t think whom!). We range anywhere from Maria Von Trapp, with the acoustic, sing along with the kids stuff, to serious hard rock. I’ll admit, the jazz artists are fewer (Rory Block, anyone?), but still present. Don’t think of guitar as a male sport; it’s for anyone with a love of music.

So pick up the guitar, any guitar, and just play.

n.b. This column is the first in a series dedicated to the female musician. We hope to have several contributors and some interesting interviews. We will have our own forum in the future.

Please email me and tell me your story. I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered.