"Women are the support players in life," says Wilson, speaking on a cell phone from a tour bus in San Diego, where she and the band are promoting their latest album, "Jupiter's Darling." "I think we nurture, we support, we make the canvas for everyone else to shine on. For me it's always been more about songwriting. Playing lead is really fun, I really get off on playing lead, but that feels more like an ego pose to me."
Wilson started playing when she was 8 or 9. It was years later before she realized she'd chosen a boys-club instrument.
"Playing lead . . . feels more like an ego pose to me," says Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson (right, with sister Ann).
(Randy St. Nicholas)
"There was no sexual identity attached to it," she says of her earliest playing, inspired by watching the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show." "I was so young that there was no concept that it was the wrong thing to do."
The sociologists will tell you that sex, as opposed to gender, is key, too. Boys learn guitar to meet girls. For a girl, outplaying the boys onstage isn't necessarily a shortcut to the male heart.
"Boys are raised to attract women through their accomplishments," said John Ryan, head of the sociology department at Virginia Tech. "When women do get into display, it's more along the lines of Britney Spears. You don't hear a lot of critics raving about her music, or even her great voice. It's about her physical appearance and her fashion. On the other hand, some of the [male] guitarists you can admire independent of their looks, whether they have looks or not."
"Onstage, women seek a place of comfort -- which is usually being the singer, where they can trade on their beauty rather than compete with instrumentalists," says Richard Peterson, professor emeritus of sociology at Vanderbilt University. "The 9-year-old girl isn't badgering her daddy to buy her a guitar. She's in her room fantasizing about the clothes her band will wear while she's leading it."
Meanwhile, the boys are working out all that youthful rage and scheming to meet girls by practicing Led Zeppelin riffs in their bedrooms, for five hours at a stretch. To be great at anything, even an instrument as straightforward as the guitar, it helps to start young.
"Very few Frank Zappas start at 19 or 20," says Gretchen Menn, who plays in an AC/DC tribute band called AC/Dshe. Menn didn't start playing until she attended a concert at 16, which is strange because her dad, it turns out, wrote regularly for a magazine for electric guitarists. He was supportive as soon as she picked up the instrument, but for reasons she can't explain, it never occurred to him to recommend guitar lessons when she was a child.
Bidding for Divinity
Which brings us to the Great Kat, aka Katherine Thomas, the only woman named in Guitar One magazine's list of the "top ten fastest shredders of all time." In public relation stills, Ms. Kat wears a star-spangled bikini, and onstage she plays six-note-per-second metal with a crazed look that seems only partly an act. Talk to her on the phone and you get the sense that if a Cape buffalo could speak and it were really angry, it would sound something like this.
"I kick doors down," she shouts, in a 10-minute monologue torrent. "I literally kick doors down. I have to go buy new doors all the time."
She's totally serious. And when you ask her about the lack of guitar heroines, she has some inflammatory opinions. Mostly, she blames the women: for refusing to work hard enough, for lacking discipline and for lacking a certain part of the male reproductive anatomy, although it's safe to assume she's being figurative.
"Any idiot off the street can play the guitar," she sort of yells, without pausing for breath. "But you have to have attitude, you've got to know the basics, and women, unfortunately, whether in music or politics, they don't have the mind-set to practice and work to go [testicles] to [testicles]. Not letting guys take over. 'Get the [heck] out of my way, now! I'm going to kick your [rear]! I'm going to stomp all over you!' "
The more you know about the Great Kat, the more she seems like a walking, talking unifying theory of women and rock guitar. There's more testosterone in her voice than in the entire starting lineup of the New York Rangers. But testosterone alone can't explain her career. As it happens, when Kat was 4 years old she saw something that changed her life: a little girl playing a violin on TV.
"I said, okay, I'm doing that," she recalls. She practiced for hours and hours through her childhood, attended the Juilliard School in Manhattan, one of the country's premier music schools, and picked up the guitar only after she concluded that classical music was dead.
Then she began to transpose the work of composers like Wagner and Beethoven for the electric guitar, note for note, sped up and distorted. One of her albums, "Rossini's Rape," features a guitar-based version of the "William Tell" Overture. On the cover, she's dressed as a dominatrix, about to pummel a helpless man wearing chains and a leather hood.
I wouldn't say this to her face -- actually, I wouldn't say it to her on the phone either -- but it's unlikely that the Great Kat will show up on a list of the greatest rock guitarists in history. Playing super-fast is neat-o and updating symphonies for metal freaks is novel, but neat-o and novel aren't the same as writing and performing "Purple Haze." Still, in her origins and her hectorings you can spot all of the elements needed to build a great guitar player, male or female: a role model, an early start, discipline and an indefatigable urge to show off and dominate. Once the world is crawling with Great Kats, and once little girls know it, there's no telling what could happen.
"I consider myself a god," Kat blurts before hanging up.
All guitarists should. Guys like Beethoven don't roll over for mortals.