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Guitar Heroines, Or Lack Thereof? - Riffs and Licks
Guitar Heroines, Or Lack Thereof?

bobhowe pointed me to a piece in today's Washington Post, by David Segal: "No Girls Allowed? In the World of Guitar Boasts, Few Women Let Their Fingers Do the Talking." The author cites the presence of only two women on Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 guitarists of all time and says that "the grand total of pantheon-worthy female rock guitarists is zero."

Segal defines his terms very narrowly, and to my mind quite revealingly, to carefully exclude almost anyone but electric lead-guitar players in rock bands. If he wanted examples of women with blazing instrumental skills, he could have looked to bluegrass (Alison Krauss, anyone?) jazz, classical, or blues.

There are lots of very talented women playing guitar out there, but part of the problem is with Segal's definition of "guitar hero(ine)." Isn't the act of dropping to your knees, throwing your head back, and hurling 450 watts of screeching and not especially musical guitar-wrangling out into the audience basically a male plumage thing? Men do all sorts of fairly stupid things that women don't usually do, and perhaps this is one of them. The Post called them "guitar boasts" in the headline, and a photo cutline quotes Heart's Nancy Wilson: "Playing lead ... feels more like an ego pose to me."

Continuing to narrow the field, he dismisses acoustic players because "the category today is rock guitar, which is electric." That's completely arbitrary when you consider that one of the best-known rock guitar parts in the world -- the opening of Stairway to Heaven -- is played on an acoustic, or that Elvis Presley, the pretender king of rock&roll, is almost always pictured with an acoustic. Acoustic rhythm guitars drive lots of hard rock songs, David Bowie's "Suffragette City" being only one example. Robert Johnson's on the Rolling Stone list and he died before the electric guitar came into general use.

What's also striking is the presence of only about a dozen black players on the list. One shorthand way to describe the invention of rock&roll is "white people playing blues faster with less swing" (and even that innovation you can primarily ascribe to Chuck Berry). And whatever in rock music didn't come from blues came from country, so where's Maybelle Carter on the list?

But back to the definition of "virtuosity" -- I think there's a big mistake in how he's defining his terms. Joni Mitchell is on the list, but dismissed because she's mainly an acoustic player who "for years ... has farmed out the lead guitar assignments on her albums to men." Segal says straight out, "she mastered tunings so exotic that after just a chord or two, you knew it was her," but apparently that level of invention isn't enough for him.

When I first started playing guitar I played "Big Yellow Taxi" out of a fake book. It's a simple three-chord song. But when my guitar teacher (a woman, by the way, who had her own rockabilly band for years in the city) showed me the tuning Joni plays it in, and the techniques she uses to play it, I realized why my version sounded so flat and boring.

That's not virtuosity? There's an awful lot of guitarists on the Rolling Stone list who aren't worthy to change Joni Mitchell's strings. She knows more about music and songwriting, more about arranging, more about voicings and melody and subtlety and just damn good musicianship, than many of those guys. And you know what? I bet if Joni Mitchell picked up a Telecaster, she could blow half of them off the stage.

He dismisses Bonnie Raitt because "she did not pioneer a style or push the instrument to places it hadn't been." You could say the same thing about quite a few people on that list -- guitarists like Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter played standard blues guitar, principally adding nothing but volume and speed. What on earth did Johnny Ramone invent? Playing loud simple guitar parts wearing a leather jacket and jeans? If Bonnie Raitt isn't up to Hendrix's standard, can you say with a straight face that Tony Iommi or Angus Young are up to Raitt's standard? Let's see them sit down next to John Lee Hooker and hold their own.

Learning to play as tastefully and soulfully as Bonnie Raitt plays, learning to say a lot with a little, to use shading and nuance and tone very subtly, is a hell of a lot harder than learning speed metal licks. It also involves being emotionally mature and confident, rather than being a perpetually insecure teenager in a 40-year-old body.

And who are the better musicians? The ones who sit alone in their rooms, practicing obsessively, learning licks and building speed and technique? I say that speed licks are "easy" because "all" you have to do is play them over and over and over and you'll master them. There's no such simple path to learning how to play real blues slide (or any form of music that involves expression of emotions other than "Mine is bigger than yours!")

A good musician needs to practice technique, but what's more important is learning what to say and how to say it. You need to spend time listening to lots of different kinds of music and to other musicians, playing in groups and learning the art of communication and subtlety and how to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I've played with guitarists who have outstanding technique but don't know how to do anything but showboat and solo, and everyone else in the room just wants to kill them. Whereas if you know how to listen, and fit what you're doing in with others, you can contribute a lot even if you're not an outstanding technical player.

And maybe some of it just comes down to socialization. This would hardly be the only arena in which boys are taught to swagger and strut while girls are taught to do things together. Girls get dolls, boys get trucks. Girl musicians become singer songwriters, boy musicians cop Rolling Stones licks. And don't underestimate the level of sexism in rock music: David Byrne legendarily resisted allowing Tina Weymouth into Talking Heads. She now routinely makes lists of the best bass players in rock, and arguably with her husband Chris Frantz, the band's drummer, was as responsible if not more so for the success of the band; their Tom Tom Club project outsold Talking Heads with several killer dance singles in the early 80s.

But back to virtuosity. In 1967, Stanley Booth wrote the following about Johnny Winter, who's also on that list although I don't know what he invented:

By now there must be in the world at least a million guitar virtuosos; but there are very few real blues players. The reason for this is that the blues -- not the form, but the BLUES -- demands such dedication. This dedication lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing the blues is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass: it is empty, it means nothing. Skill is a necessity, but a true blues player's virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible. Johnny Winter can play rings around Furry Lewis; the comparison is ridiculous. But when Furry Lewis, at Winter's age, sang "My mother's dead, my father just as well's to be," he was singing his LIFE, and that is blues. ... Most of the young guitar virtuosos don't have lives, they have record collections. OF course, they do have lives, if they would look inside and discover them. But it's much easier, and CERTAINLY more fashionable, to sing someone else's life, someone else's blues."

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Current Music: Elizabeth Cotton, "Freight Train"

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From: couscous1021 Date: August 22nd, 2004 10:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Ken, this is a great essay. Write to Rolling Stone right away- every guitar player needs to read this.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 23rd, 2004 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
My guitar teacher went off on this as well, and made a few more good points:
  • Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page was influenced strongly by Joni Mitchell and wrote a song about her, "Going to California." Jimi Hendrix was also an admirer.

  • Like Joni, quite a few of the men on the list are rhythm guitarists, not lead guitarists, most notably Pete Townshend and Keith Richards. ("Play what they play on acoustic guitar and you've got Joni.")
She also recommended a fairly recent documentary, "Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly," which isn't available from Netflix but you can order it from Video Beat, so maybe there's a video party in the future...

Finally, in the I Should Have Thought Of That dept, some additions to the list of counterexamples, from her, blues-l and my own CD collection: Lydia Lunch, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rory Block, Deobrah Coleman, Susan Tedeschi, Ani Di Franco, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, and Etta Baker.
From: polytropia Date: August 26th, 2004 12:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, Bob and steelbrassnwood. Boy, I started getting pissed off when I read this! It's true, the list is a self-selecting one, basically made up of, "People I personally like." Then the author gets to ask, "Why aren't there more women on the list of {people I personally like}? It must be because women suck."

Joni Mitchell was so influential on Led Zeppelin that she's sometimes called the fifth member. Completely changing the way everyone thinks about tuning a guitar isn't groundbreaking? Give me a break.

Nancy Wilson is, of course, amazing. And in the folk scene, there's also Patty Griffin, Susan Werner, Devon Sproule...jesus. I mean, Yes, there are fewer women in guitar, and we are not encouraged in any way shape or form to get good at it. However, there are a sizable number of women who manage to excel in it, blinding indifference be damned.

Also, as a woman and a guitarist, may I note that,

A) electric guitars cost hella bucks, and women tend not to have money to spend on 'frivolous' things like instruments? I write my songs on acoustic right now because that's all I can afford! and,

B) electric guitars are still for the most part designed physically for men, which means they are very heavy for women.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 26th, 2004 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Two more folksingers with great guitar chops: Shawn Colvin and Patty Larkin, both of whom also illustrate another aspect of the problem: the pressure by record companies to conform to an established image/sound. When I first saw Shawn Colvin live (in 1991, with Richard Thompson) she kicked ass, sang very angry songs and played intense acoustic guitar. I bought her album the next day and was disappointed in the gentle Suzanne Vega sound. Slowly her live sound gentled out and the last show I saw of hers (in 1994 or so) was much less interesting. Meanwhile Larkin actually played electric guitar in a rock band for some years but didn't hit it big until she went out as a solo singer-songwriter. (One more sorta example: She's overshadowed by David Rawlings but Gillian Welch plays well; in Central Park last week she tore up the place on bass for a couple of songs.)

The weight problem never occurred to me, but you're right. I was floored (almost literally) the first time I picked up a Les Paul. But in retrospect, I don't know why I was surprised that a big chunk of hardwood would be heavy...
From: polytropia Date: August 27th, 2004 11:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, Patty Larkin is an amazing guitar player! There's a great song of hers on All Songs Considered that I listened to over and over for about a month.

The main problem for women in music is the pointed indifference when we are starting out. I'm reminded of a quote by Bella Abzug: Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel. A woman in music who is obviously brilliant and talented will be encouraged -- granted, not as much as an equally-talented man, but encouraged nonetheless. However, real prodigies are rare, and the vast majority of musicians have to suck for a while before they can become any good. Only when women who suck are encouraged as much as men who suck, will we end up with an equal number of men and women who are good.

From: (Anonymous) Date: August 23rd, 2004 10:28 am (UTC) (Link)
absolutely--every guitar ever sold should have this essay pinned to the inside of the case.

whiteboy slim
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 28th, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

The reason why?

women are lovers not wankers. They listen to music differently. They're more texturizers than soloists. In America, it's all about hype and flash. It's macho to solo -- be loud and really fast. In a male-dominated world, that kind of play gets the kudos because it adheres to a male standard. Ever notice how men tend to quantify music as if it's possible. That's so left brain. Women are more intuitive and right brained. Eventually as more women kick ass in this world, society will be reassessing the above standard. Being a virtuoso doesn't mean being visionary and unique.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: May 29th, 2008 02:48 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: The reason why?

I absolutely agree, and this exact thought underlies a lot of my feelings about bluegrass vs. old-time music.
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