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.
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."
"He also said he feared for our health," says Lander, who called during a recent stop on Kittie's current tour. "I don't know if it was because we were screaming our heads off or what, but it became a real issue at school. My parents were really upset and they later went in to talk to the principal about it. Nothing ever came of it, but we couldn't believe it."
There were boy metal bands performing that day, there was one of those Spice Girls imitator girl groups that were the adolescent rage a while back, and nobody stopped either of them. Nobody fretted about their health.
The punch line is that Kittie ended up with a record deal a few years later, and the single from its debut album was a track called "Brackish," which the group had actually played that day at the talent show. The album has since gone gold.
"We had quite a struggle, being females in a metal band," Lander says. "We heard a lot of 'You suck' and 'Girls can't play guitar.' "
This is key. "Take off your shirt" is one of the more benign taunts that an aspiring female guitarist is likely to hear onstage.
"From other bands you'd hear things like 'I can't believe we have to open for this bitch,' " recalls Jett. She was hazed well before she played a note in front of an audience. When she asked a guy at a music store to teach her rock, he "looked at me like I had horns," she remembers. Instead, he showed her "On Top of Old Smoky." It was her last lesson.
After moving to Los Angeles and forming the Runaways, one of the original all-girl punk bands, it got even nastier. (She and her band mates were called things that nice newspapers don't print.) And when Jett went solo in 1980, she was told by record executives that a girl with an electric guitar and an attitude would never make it.
"I heard a lot of 'You've got to stop hiding behind the guitar, you'll never get signed.' It didn't make me feel hopeless. It steeled me, but I can understand why a lot of girls just say '[The heck with] this. I'll just do something that doesn't take such a toll on my self-esteem.' "
A reasonable conclusion from all this might be that men are just mastodon brutes who have kept women away from guitars, and that's not entirely wrong. Neither, though, is it the full story. Jett proved the record industry wrong every time she slayed an audience and cashed a royalty check. But she was an exception, which suggests the problem is bigger than a bunch of satin-jacket dummies who open and close the gates at the major labels. Those dummies are usually pretty good at meeting demand, and even though they're routinely blindsided by truly original talents, they don't stay blindsided for very long. If there was a fortune to be earned from Joan Jett clones there'd be a swarm of them out there.
The truth, though, is that the market out there for guitar-wielding women has never been huge, particularly among girls. The gender divide at live concerts is often pretty stark. Boys generally want to see men play guitar (hence Metallica etc.), and girls generally want to watch men and women sing (hence Christina, Hilary Duff). After a Metallica show a few thousand lads are pining for their very own black ESP Explorer with the deer skull inlay. Has anybody ever watched a Hillary Duff show and then gone shopping for a guitar?
A Neck Is Just a Neck?
This is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy -- girls don't see guitar heroines and, in the absence of role models, they never bother to pick up the instrument. An exception is instructive: it's a safe bet that Avril Lavigne plays guitar because her chief inspiration, Alanis Morissette, plays guitar. (Morissette, in turn, exalts Joni Mitchell.) But women buy just 7 percent of all the electric guitars in this country, according to Music Trades Magazine, and you can't explain that figure without confronting a glaring truth: We live in a culture where the electric guitar, at least when it's played at full and distorted blaze, is considered unladylike.
The logic of this is just as circular as the role model problem -- girls don't see women play the guitar, which stigmatizes the instrument a bit, further discouraging girls from taking up guitar, and so on. But it's not just unladylike because girls, as they grow up, get the hint. It's unladylike because the electric guitar is traditionally an almost cartoonishly macho instrument. The paradigmatic rock pose belongs to Chuck Berry: legs apart, the instrument pointed straight at the crowd, turned upward a little. Symbols don't get more phallic. To Camille Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, this isn't just because a guitar is longer than it is wide.
"Rock is a male form," she says, speaking at just under 150 miles per hour. "For an adolescent boy, your guitar speaks for you, it says what you can't say in real life, it's the pain you can't express, it's rage, hormones pumping. Women can be strangers and all of a sudden have an intimate conversation. Boys can't do that. The guitar for a boy speaks to an aggressive sexual impulse and suppressed emotionality, the things that boys can't share, even with other members of the band. It's a combination of rage and reserve and ego."
That's a combination that is rare among women, even some women who are famous because of their guitars. One is Nancy Wilson, half of the classic-rock sister act Heart, the band that gave us radio regulars including "Barracuda" and "Even It Up."
"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.
"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.