About a month ago, Premier Guitar’s Shawn Hammond published a piece titled “Tuning Up: Let’s Acknowledge the Caveman In the Room,” calling attention to the “sexualized machismo” and “testosterone-centric outlook” of a large chunk of the rock-guitar vernacular. I think he’s right - the guitar industry is perhaps one of the last holdouts in the “sex sells” school of advertising, next to the Dollar Beard Club and all those weird male enhancement pill offers in my spam folder. It’s time to update the language and imagery we use when we talk about the electric guitar.
My memory doesn’t have to reach too far back to remember my adolescent lizard brain firing on all cylinders at images of “booth babes” at trade shows, or glossy full-page ads in guitar magazines that seemed to be selling scantily-clad “rocker chicks” more than whatever pointy-headstocked, locking tremolo-equipped, active electronified shred stick was being promoted. And you know what? For a time, it worked. I bought in. I spent night after night in my bedroom woodshedding the intro to “Crazy Train” on a super-strat plugged into a 15-watt solid-state practice amp.
By the time I got to the verse, it occurred to me that I may never be a shredder, and I would never achieve alpha male guitar god status. Did that mean that practicing that riff over and over again was a waste of time? Of course not. I set my sights a little lower (at least as far as BPMs were concerned) and studied up on the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” I had just seen Fight Club, which was standard issue for all teenage boys in the early 00s, as were inkjet-printed tablature pages of that song. I’m still surprised by how much joy I derived from those four chords, and my tone was about as far from “ballsy” as you can get.
Regarding Mr. Hammond’s article, I’d first like to say that I agree it’s time to close the curtains on what he calls guitar-centric “caveman talk.” Rock music, and with it the electric guitar, are evolving, and the time has come for new voices to enter the conversation. The paradigm shift towards digital music distribution and DIY touring has given rise to a previously silenced majority of LGBTQ individuals - and yes, women - who are now able to create and distribute music to a wider audience and with higher visibility than ever before.
As these artists breach the mainstream, it is my hope that we’ll see a greater diversity of voice in so-called “guitar” music, and if we’re lucky, my generation will have the “Ed Sullivan Beatles” or “Devo on SNL” moment we’ve been waiting for. Or the entertainment industry might be so irreparably niche these days that we’ll never see another wave of mind-blowing mass pop-culture on that scale ever again. Who the fuck knows?
Along those same lines, as DSP and amp-modeling technology continues to evolve, there might come a time when the wooly-mammoth roar of an EL-34 equipped full stack is no longer considered great tone and new sounds driven by new technology will rise to dominance. Is it crazy to think that with it a new idealized type of guitar player will emerge? There’s not an endless supply of NOS germanium transistors, you know. As new sounds and forms develop, we have no choice but to change the language we use when we talk about music, lest we abandon music journalism and cease critical engagement with music entirely.
Now here’s the hard part. Mr. Hammond’s article appeared in Premier Guitar, which as one would expect, focuses primarily on the electric guitar. I’ll admit this is somewhat unfair on my end, but I think it’s important expand the discussion to include non-guitar oriented music, and well, just music in general.
It’s easy to overlook from my rock n’ roll echo chamber, but human beings do in fact create music on instruments besides the electric guitar, and as we expand our field of vision, the scales start to look more balanced. From superstars like Beyoncé, Adele, and Lorde, to academically-minded experimental artists like Holly Herndon and Like A Villain, women are largely dominating vocal-driven music. With carefully crafted personas, impressive vocal talents, and advanced compositional and production techniques, these musicians are captivating onstage and on record and are deserving of our attention, despite the lack of amplified stringed instruments on their albums.
Does this excuse the guitar industry’s decades-long practice of presenting women as sex objects? No. Does the fantasy world of sexualized advertising and phallic “tone-talk” that we’ve been living in for so long manifest itself in objectionable real life behavior? Yes, absolutely. In my years as an audience member, and later a sound engineer and occasional performer at some combined thousands of rock shows, I’ve witnessed the hostile treatment of female performers firsthand. Whether it’s the heckler-as-catcaller line, “Show us your [insert anatomy]!” during a show, venue staff telling a female performer there are “no girlfriends allowed” backstage, and so on, it’s clear to me that we still have some work to do, because there’s a larger problem at hand - very few women are represented in this industry.
So how do we fix this? First off, let’s drop the “female” qualifier. I can think of no scenario in any industry where a person’s gender is a part of their job title, and fetishizing performers as “female” this or that isn’t going to help. Musicians are musicians. Nobody that I’m aware of referred to Elvis Presley as a “male vocalist” when he covered Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” The work speaks for itself.
Secondly, and this nearly goes without saying, but let’s assume that if a woman walks onstage or into a guitar shop, she’s a musician who knows what she wants and what she’s doing. And knock it off with the catcalling and/or sexist heckling. That’s easy, right?
And finally, let’s spill some ink (or roll tape, or do whatever it is you do with digital video) on artists who make music apart from the heteronormative, male-centric perspective. My biggest beef with Mr. Hammond’s article is that apart from mentioning Sister Rosetta Tharpe, little else is said about guitarists of any gender who eschew “caveman” posturing.
To provide just one example, Miss Alex White is on the road non-stop with her band White Mystery, self-releases an album a year, and serves as chairwoman of the Education Committee and the Membership Committee for the Chicago Chapter of Recording Academy (i.e. The Grammy Awards), yet her guitar magazine coverage is limited to being one of “Ten Female Guitarists You Should Know.” Let that sink in for a minute.
This is a complex issue, and no single blog post will correct it, but kudos to Shawn Hammond and Premier Guitar for starting the discussion, and let’s keep the ball(s) rolling. Pun absolutely intended.