Learning to Crawl: A Female Rock Odyssey
I think it's important for all women musicians to realize their potential as players. Although women are much more prevalent in mainstream music today, the obstacles and prejudices are still there. The appropriateness of rock n' roll as a career for women, the necessity for women to look and dress a certain way (something that takes time and attention away from working on your skills as a player), or just the fact that 99.9 percent of all labels are run and managed by men puts women at a disadvantage when trying to negotiate the testosterone-fueled music industry. But to rise above the muck and really learn to play, you first have to realize that it's possible to be a girl and still rock with as much passion as any guy out there..
I remember when I was a kid, and my sister started taking guitar lessons. I watched her, as little sisters do, and I thought to myself, "I wanna do that." My mom was a piano teacher, and even though I grew up playing piano I never loved it. I loved the guitar. I loved words and I loved strings -- the way they felt under my fingers, the way my calluses got stronger, the way you could sit alone anywhere you liked and bring it with you, the way words floated through the chords. The simplicity of it and the complexity of it all at the same time.
When I was sixteen, I knew it was time for me to move on from the acoustic to the electric guitar. I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be Chrissie Hynde and David Bowie and Lou Reed. I wanted to rock. I begged my parents to buy me an electric guitar. Most girls my age wanted jewelry or clothing or a big party. I wanted a Stratocaster.
My dad took me to Sam Ash on 48th Street in New York City. Guitars of every color and size lined the walls. Long haired guys in sleeveless Black Sabbath T-shirts wailed on their instruments. Here I was, a sixteen year old girl with $300 burning a hole in my pocket and nobody in the store would even look at me. This was my introduction to the male dominated industry I had already decided would be my life. I tried to get the attention of one of the salesmen, but he was distracted by a guy who needed some pics. Dejected, we left and went across the street to Manny's.
This time my Dad took over. "Excuse me," he said to one lanky sales guy. "My daughter would like to purchase an electric guitar." And there it was, sitting proudly in the middle of all the guitars on display in the center of the store, the brand new 1983 sunburst red Fender Stratocaster. "I want that one," I said. The sales guy suggested a 30 Watt Peavey amp to play it though. It never occurred to me I would need an amp to go with it. I didn't know anything about amps. I had never read a guitar magazine or even had one single conversation with anyone I knew about what kind of guitar or amp to buy. All I knew was I had heard of Stratocaster, but they didn't make Stratocaster amplifiers. So I bought the Peavey.
Now it was time to realize my dream and start a band. But this was suburban New Jersey in the early 80's. The most progressive thing to come out of Hightstown that decade was a Who cover band. I talked to some friends I knew who also wanted to play music, but nobody wanted a girl guitar player. Everyone pretty much said the same thing. . . "You can sing."
Needless to say, I was heartbroken. I sat in my room with my amp turned to 1. The guitar never sounded like David Bowie's guitar, and no one wanted to play with me because I was a girl. Eventually, I went back to my old standby, the acoustic. I played at coffeehouses and talent shows and honed my songwriting skills, something I could do without a band.
It wasn't until I moved to New York to go to college in 1986 that I really started to meet other musicians and find out about the thing I was so determined to do with my life. One night I sat at a friend's and listened as he played the most beautiful guitar sounds I'd ever heard. What kind of guitar is that? I asked. "A Gretsch," he replied. I'd never heard of a Gretsch. But I realized then and there that I had been misled, that I didn't want a Stratocaster at all.
About a year later I was in the kitchen of my Brooklyn apartment and my acoustic guitar, which was leaning against my kitchen table slipped and fell. The dove tail smashed into about a hundred pieces. Some instrument repair shop tried to glue it back together, but it was never the same. And so, for the second time in my life, I returned to 48th Street to buy a guitar.
This time I knew a bit more, but I was still intimidated by guitar shops, so I brought my friend, Cindy Lee Berryhill with me. Cindy was already a recording artist and seemed to have a bit more confidence than I had. The first guitar I played was a beautiful jumbo maple Martin. I watched as Cindy peered down the neck to see if it was straight. After weeks of trying out instruments, I went back and bought that first one I had played. No woman ever loved a guitar the way I loved that Martin. I played it in the subways in London, on the streets in Paris, in clubs in New York, all across the Midwest. I played it on my first independent record, and the first year I was signed to Columbia Records. That guitar carried a piece of who I was in its sound, in the aura of its energy.
But my love of the electric guitar was still smoldering in the ashes of my sixteen year old defeat. I was twenty five, and had just finished touring behind my first Columbia Record, Epiphany in Brooklyn. I wanted to make an "electric record." This was a scandal. I was a songwriter and Columbia wanted to hear songs -- songs with a pretty, acoustic Dylanesque guitar behind them. They didn't want me to destroy the image they had built by putting sloppy-electric -- "girl" --playing all over my delicately crafted lyrics. This was 1993: Pre-PJ Harvey, pre-Sheryl Crow, pre-Liz Phair -- a time when no one thought women would really ever break though to the mainstream outside of the occasional pop diva. But I wouldn't have it. I insisted on doing the record my way. I teamed up with Michigan based producer Tim Patalan (Sponge, Mexico 70) and expert guitarist/bassist Oren Bloedow and headed out to Saline, Michigan to make my second album for Columbia.
Two weeks into the recording I suggested buying a new guitar for the record -- something with a little more bite. About an hour from Saline in a town called Lansing, there happened to be one of the most amazing guitar shops in America, Elderly Instruments. Armed with a Sony Music recording budget, I left Elderly with a refinished 1952 Fender Telecaster and a 1955 Gibson Jr.
Back at camp we fired up the Gibson and put down tracks for a song called "Reconcile." I left, and when I returned, Oren had just finished a guitar solo for the song, but when he played it back I was disappointed. It was perfectly executed, but for me it just wasn't right. He tried a couple other takes but it still didn't convey the feel I was trying to express with the song. Finally, Tim looked at me and said, "Why don't you take a crack at it." I had never considered playing solos on my own songs, and no one in the 14 years I had been playing had ever suggested I try. I picked up the Gibson Jr. and somehow out of the body and soul of that guitar came the perfect mess of sound and fury. It was then I began to see myself as a musician, not just a woman musician.
I've played in a lot of different bands since then, both acoustic and electric, and I've toyed with many different sounds. Most recently I've been playing my Fender though an Ampeg Rocket and experimenting with speed settings and spoken word performances. But over the years, the most essential thing I've learned is that the most important facet for a guitarist is his or her sound, and that the attention to detail in one's own musical style is paramount to establishing an identity.