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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