Saturday, 7 January 2017

Is there a female guitar style?

This is a ridiculous question. How could there be a female guitar style? People are people. There's no female way of eating, or sleeping, or going to the toilet.... hang on a minute.

The proportion of female to male guitarists is tiny; there are very few females whose playing is considered noteworthy. I think there's two issues going on.

1. Confidence
2. Lack of ownership

I'll start with lack of ownership. Modern guitarring is usually about churning out lightning-speed blues runs. It needs a lot of practice and a strong wrist. Boys are often more dedicated to putting in the time with this kind of activity.

The hobby/collector/trainspotter mentality runs through guitarring, too. The memorising of names that could be lorries or amplifiers ACs and JCs, the discussions about the merits of digital, analogue, diesel. I find that my memory doesn't tend to hold these numbers and letters easily. BUT I DO KNOW WHAT I LIKE.

I won't even mention the guitar as penis thing because that's just ridiculous. But maybe also slightly relevant.

I am always pleased to see some girl or woman playing really great guitar in the traditional male style. I often see them on Facebook - some 14-year-old marvel doing something the Americans call 'shredding'. It's absolutely brilliant. It would be particularly brilliant if the girl has chosen this style for herself and has no musical family members. Often though, I suspect there's a proud dad in the background who has transferred all his technique to the next generation.

Here's a couple of female jazz guitarists playing at a London jazz club; look at the comments though - it's not rampant sexism, just a bit of male sneering at Deirdre Cartwright, who inspired me on the TV programme Rock School.

There probably isn't a 'female style of driving', but the fact that so many women drive, and that there are female driving instructors means that there's a broad range of driving styles. Some drivers are more cautious, more empathetic, slower. I don't race my car and I hardly ever sound my horn. That's not a female style of driving, but I bet more women drive like that.

So could there be a female guitar style? Before Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Elvis there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her rhythmic gospel blues picking is a wonder; she played her own style and influenced many male musicians who went on to make playing guitar a speed race and a noise competition.

One way that women have made a guitar-playing impact is with alternative tunings -like Joni Mitchell. I respect this and think it does seem like truly female playing.

But what made me want to play were the female post-punks; the Raincoats, The Slits, The Mo-Dettes, Delta 5. They had the cack-handed technique like the punk boys but their creativity was fabulous and very female.

Lesley Woods from the Au Pairs was another role model for me and I'd often be down the front at gigs watching her playing more than her singing.

So some women have made certain styles of playing guitar their own. The other big factor is confidence. I still believe that I am a rubbish guitarist because I cannot churn out a Claptonesque party piece or play the theme to Top Gear or that snooker music.

And just as women in every area of professional life believe they are not good enough, so we leave guitarring to the boys because more of them have the self-belief as well as the wrist action. But if you can conquer the confidence gap, it doesn't matter what you're actually doing. People just want to see you play with passion. Let's have some more female guitarists.

I write this because today, for the first time ever, I went into a music shop and tried out a guitar amp. Despite playing in bands for years, I have never had the courage to play in this arena of male virtuosity and hard rock judgement. Today I felt very brave and I did not care what the five men in the shop thought of my playing.


  1. So did you get one?

    (A Jenkins here in case you don't recognise my google log in)

  2. Oh yes. My ex-Showaddywaddy silver top is in retirement so I bought one made in Northampton and a distortion pedal to match my jumper!

  3. I used to have an ex-Boo Radleys Marshall.

  4. Ruth, there are no gendered playing styles. There is just a ton of sexism in the music industry. That said, the generation after us doesn't seem to be as burdened by this. I've seen all manner of groups with women guitar players in the last couple of years and some play like they want to be in arena rock bands, others are folky, some know only a few chords but play out anyway, etc. Some are very creative, like the ones you mention, but no, Joni's not being feminine when she uses alternative tunings, she's being an arty, creative guitar player. Just like John Fahey wasn't being a male guitar player when he came up with his style of playing, he was just a very creative person. Mary Timony wasn't playing "male" or "female" guitar music when she played on the power pop album of the decade so far(Ex Hex's Rips). She was just playing superbly and beating all the guys and girls at that game. Elizabeth Cotten had an unusual playing style as well, but that was because she was poor and self taught, not because she was a woman.

    But because men and women don't see things from the same perspective, there most definitely are lyrics that are gendered, though most are not. I don't think a man could have written "Danny's Boy" or "Fay". And I don't think a woman could have written "Under My Thumb" (though some have sung it), or Serge Gainsbourg's infamous "Les Sucettes". [For those who don't know this one: is a video actually played on French TV in 1966, and without knowing french you can probably guess what that song is actually about. 18 year old France Gall did not know, and she talks about how finding out affected her here: ]

    1. Glad to have opinion about the blog. You may be right, but we still need a lot more women guitarists. I'm trying to do my bit...

  5. Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family was a very interesting and highly significant female guitarist. The way she played, the fluid motion of picking a melody with the thumb and strumming with the fingers, all in one motion, is basically a banjo technique called 'frailing' which she innovated as a guitar technique in the late 1920s. Half of popular music owes a debt to her for doing that. She had a huge impact on the way the acoustic guitar is played by folk, bluegrass and country musicians: a full melody with the thumb, strumming with the fingers, all at once. The Carter Scratch, they used to call it.

    I think she's interesting because the appreciation of guitar playing is very much tied up with blues and lead playing, and is very much a boys' club, I think. Maybelle played country but her influence seems to have been across the board; such that one could wonder if she isn't actually much more influential than someone like Robert Johnson, in a way. It's difficult to imagine whole swathes of popular music from the 50s and 60s onwards, without her impact. If you go to any open mic night the people who can play, and deliver a song, tend to be the people who can play a bit like her. You won't hear many Robert Johnsons in that scenario.

  6. Thanks Danny, great useful info.