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No Girls Allowed?

In the World of Guitar Boasts, Few Women Let Their Fingers Do the Talking

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page N01

Where are all the guitar heroines?

Where are all the female guitarists who can light it up in some original, groundbreaking and influential way? Can you name any? Come to think of it, have you ever heard the phrase "guitar heroine"?

Probably not, and for good reason. This won't win you friends and maybe it can't be said out loud, but here's the hard and horrible truth: Fifty years after Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right Mama," the grand total of pantheon-worthy female rock guitarists is zero.

"Playing lead . . . feels more like an ego pose to me," says Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson (right, with sister Ann). (Randy St. Nicholas)

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There isn't a single one.

What about Bonnie Raitt? you say. (Everyone over 35 years old says, What about Bonnie Raitt?) Bonnie Raitt is a fine guitar player, and she deserves her Grammys and her fans and her fortune. But she did not pioneer a style or push the instrument to places it hadn't been, feats required for a seat on the varsity squad. She may well inspire many girls (and boys, too), but that makes her a role model, which is invaluable -- as we'll see later -- but not the same as a guitar heroine. She proved that a woman can play beautifully -- many women, let's be clear, can play beautifully -- but if she were a dude, nobody would call her a virtuoso, and she'd never be mentioned in the same company as people like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen.

That might sound sexist, but it's hardly heretical. If anything, it's the conventional, if unspoken, wisdom. Last year Rolling Stone magazine published a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and just two women made the cut: Joan Jett and Joni Mitchell. That's right: 98 men, two women. The weird part is how un-outrageous it seemed, how little debate it sparked. Any list of the greatest actors or singers or novelists that was so male-dominated would be ridiculed, and for good reason. Instead, Van Halen fans seethed that Jack White of the White Stripes landed higher on the list than Eddie.

Even Jett and Mitchell, frankly, are a stretch. Jett is a fabulous rhythm guitarist, as fans of "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and "Bad Reputation" well know, and she brought glorious tough-chick leather and a lot of swagger to rock, but that isn't the same thing as chops. Mitchell is certainly a songwriting heroine and she mastered tunings so exotic that after just a chord or two, you knew it was her. But she's an acoustic guitarist and the category today is rock guitar, which is electric. Like Jett, for years Ms. Mitchell has farmed out the lead guitar assignments on her albums to men.

Here's the thing. Reasonable people can argue about whether there are any guitar heroines, and you might insist that Jett, Mitchell and a dozen other women have earned the title. But what's beyond dispute is a stunning gender-related imbalance when it comes to this particular craft and, come to think of it, every other job in a rock band -- drummer, keyboardist, bass player -- except singer. The only interesting question is why.

Let's focus on guitarists, just to keep our inquiry to manageable size and because the conclusions for one instrument pretty much work for them all. And let's quickly ditch one possibility: Women aren't great electric guitarists because they lack innate talent or discipline or musical intuition. That's silly. Any list of the greatest living violinists of the world would include at least 50 women and probably many more. And we're not talking about the middle or bottom of the pack. We're talking near or at the top of the list, where you'd see names like Anne-Sophie Mutter, Victoria Mullova, Hilary Hahn, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg -- names provided to me by people who actually know classical music. The violin is far more difficult than the guitar. Violins terrify guitar players the way trigonometry scares high school freshmen. It looks impossible.

So all you chuckleheads out there who were thinking, This is simple: Chicks can't rock because, you know, they can't rock, take out your blue books and try again. Something else is going on here.

One thing is obvious: Women basically sat out, or were sidelined during, the first 20 years of the development of the rock guitar. There is a limit, naturally, to the number of different sounds and styles that can be wrung from any instrument, and by the time women like Raitt arrived on the scene in the early '70s, many of those sounds and styles had been staked out. More than 60 percent of the names on the Rolling Stone list earned their reputation well before Woodstock happened. It's as though there was a gold rush and the women started panning after all the good lodes were claimed. Some guitarists -- like Johnny Ramone, the guy who popularized the head-bang strum of punk guitar for the Ramones -- are great not because they did something difficult but because they did something first.

But this just reframes the question. Why didn't more women push toward the frontier of the guitar back when the frontier had plenty of acres in it? And why have so few been pushing since? For answers, I called a bunch of female guitar players -- including Joan Jett -- and a few sociologists, and asked them to cough up some theories. Here's what they said.

The Idiot Factor

First, female guitarists have long been forced to navigate an obstacle course that includes morons, hecklers and skeptics. Most had a story like this one, told by Morgan Lander of the formidable all-girl Canadian metal band Kittie:

It's 1998, at a high school talent show in London, Ontario. Lander is 16 years old and she and her band mates are two songs into their set. The group is thrashing. A drama teacher leaps onto the stage, waving his hands in the international "Stop it!" sign and shuts down the band in mid-song, ushering the girls away from the amps and the microphones as though the equipment were leaking dioxin. He later explains to Lander and the rest of Kittie that he thought the performance "inappropriate."

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