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 Erika Meyer

How I Learned To Play Guitar

How I Learned To Play Guitar
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1975 Sears Catalog page 202 - Young Miss

I guess my self-esteem was pretty bad at that point and all my self-image issues were reflected in my approach and attitude toward music. I really didn’t understand the nuances of musical practice, advancement and plateaus, muscle training, etc., nor did anyone in my family. (My dad’s two-song affair with the banjo was long over.) Still, I had grown attached to my guitar; it was becoming part of my identity. I think because my mother didn’t see my guitar playing as ‘important’, she tended to leave me alone and spared me lot of the pressure my musically talented brother suffered as he practiced the far-more-important piano.

At age 14 my friend Michelle played me some Dead Kennedys and, inspired by the energy and the intelligence and the audacity of the lyrics, I decided I was a punk rocker. Punk helped me feel a sense of belonging, and it helped me channel my soul-crushing depression into rage and artistic energy, and I knew now for sure I wanted to play rock’n’roll. However, I wasn’t sure how to do this, and no one wanted to help me get on that path. The situation was further complicated because by now my lack of ‘musical talent’ was firmly established. “Your brother is good at music,” the rap went, “while you are good at drawing and and other things.” Still, I loved music, especially rock’n’roll. I saved my money and bought myself an electric guitar. Eventually I got a teacher to show me a Chuck Berry riff. That’s what I wanted. More of that.

With rock guitar, it helps to be shown a few tricks. Most of the basic rock guitar techniques, from how to cradle the neck to how to play power chords, were a mystery to me. I played my punk rock with full bar chords.

I practiced by myself, in my room, using an old reel-to-reel tape player for an amp, training for the speed that was required in an early 80s hardcore band. I thought no one ever heard me play so I was pretty surprised when a couple decades later, one of my little brother’s old grade school friends, now a luthier, told me that he used to sit in my brother’s room and listen to me play, that he liked the way I sounded, and that I was the first guitar player he ever heard use distortion. Unbelievable!

I tried writing a song — it was an angry song about a skater boy who made me mad because of the way he talked about girls. Mostly I fantasized about playing with someone else, or getting into a band as a rhythm guitar player (like my idol John Lennon), but I couldn’t seem to make it happen. The girls weren’t into it and the boys didn’t seem to want to play with me. I’d been working on it a fairly long time so it was frustrating to see the boys form punk bands within three months of picking up an instrument. This was 1983. At that point, I really began to believe that ‘they’ were right about me. I lacked talent. Otherwise, why would would my interest in guitar be completely ignored, even by my friends in the punk rock crowd?

I do think if any of my female friends at the time could believe that THEY could play, or really wanted to, the story would have gone a bit differently. But I never was around women who wanted to be in, or form, a band. We’d joke about it, but no one would dare take it seriously. Even I was terrified to really admit it’s what I wanted to do. Not only did I want to be in a band, but I wanted it to be an all-girl band, with everyone singing, like the Beatles, and to be HUGE, like The Beatles. This was a deep dark secret. I remember being scared to even write about it in my journals. No other girls played guitar or drums and as far as I knew, there were two all-girl bands in existence: The Go-Go’s and Josie And The Pussycats. But despite the fact that Josie And The Pussycats had been the first to put the idea in my head that girls could play rock music, they weren’t real, their show was sexist and occasionally racist, and their music was awful. The Go-Go’s were good, but a bit too pop, too ‘girly girl’ for me.

Later I got into 60s girl-group pop, but to me rock’n’roll was writing your own songs and playing your own instruments. My real musical role models were all the usual suspects, all men, from Woodie Guthrie to Jello Biafra.

Sometimes I wondered what might have happened if I’d gotten to go to Evergreen College, like I wanted. Would I have found other women to play music with? I didn’t care much about college, but both my parents were teachers, so I was going. I had no idea there was a music scene in Olympia, I just liked the idea of a hippie school that didn’t give grades and of living in a small town just outside of my dad’s hometown of Seattle, where I had seen a few touring bands play. Citing ‘out of state tuition’, mom nixed Evergreen.

I didn’t quit playing music “for good” until I moved out of my parents’ home and my mother refused to let me have any of my guitars, even though I’d bought the electric guitar with my own money. It was a control thing, something to do with she didn’t like my boyfriend… nor did she like subsequent boyfriends. A few years later, living in Minneapolis, I borrowed a guitar and tried to jam with this guy, and he just laughed at me for being so shitty, for even THINKING I could play — his girlfriend informed me I couldn’t sing, either. Being as this was only the second chance I’d had to jam with another guitar player, and I admired this guy and wanted to be his peer, the humiliation was pretty huge.

What was the point in trying? Who wants to be laughed at?

There were things I was good at, and music obviously wasn’t one of them. It was 1989 and I was 21 when I finally stopped thinking I’d ever play in a band. After all, I thought (avid reader of rock biographies that I was, and am), at 21, The Beatles were rocking the clubs in Hamburg, while I had no band, no talent, and no guitar! It was time to accept reality. Clearly, by giving up music, I was doing the world a favor. I told myself that, and I made myself believe it. I moved on. I went to college, had a daughter, and focused on my role as a parent and breadwinner. I absolutely would NOT attempt play guitar after that, or sing in public. By now the thought of performing on guitar or singing was terrifying. Impossible to visualize, even.

But in the world, things were changing.

(continues overleaf)

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23 Responses to How I Learned To Play Guitar

  1. istomponurrockanthem July 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Great article

  2. Darragh July 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Love this, thanks Erika.

  3. Sadie July 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Too bloody right!! 🙂
    perfectly written erika and in my view sums up exactly why there aren’t more girls/women in rock.
    My experience has been almost precisely what you have written.
    Rock on!! X

  4. Princess Stomper July 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    “Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.”

    Abso-fucking-lutely. 🙂

  5. Culturazi July 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Great story, thanks, and congrats on overcoming such overwhelming odds.

  6. chuck July 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I still cant play for shit after all these years, but I just dug out the old beast for a quick bash… thanx for the tale…

  7. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I want you to write a book! I so enjoyed reading this. It’s funny, I was born in a different era to you, both my parents were teachers like yours and I had the same hang ups about singing as you had about guitar playing. I also felt exactly the same about classical music training. In rejecting it, I found my talent. I created my talent. Talent is bullshit. The ability to picture yourself doing something is far more important to ability to do something in real life. If more stories like ours are told and more women play music in public on their own terms, then it will be easier for other women to picture themselves doing it. I’d also like to blow the myth of talent right out of the water. It’s a bunch of rubbish. It’s a concept that kept my dream of being a singer out of reach. I had no idea that I could learn singing. I was a fool. I bought into the reality I was presented with, designed by the ‘talented’ and perpetuated by the lazy and envious to justify their specialness and their lack of balls to get out of their comfort zones and learn respectively. I came to realise that sheet music and rock music are enemies. ha ha… pretty much. Or sheet music and me anyway. When we teach our children to talk, we do not sit them down with a book of the written word at the same time. We allow them to make sounds and encourage these sounds and low and behold, language is adopted and communication is possible. It’s the same with music. I don’t know whose interest the current mode of learning it is in… but it seems to be more preventative than productive. Teaching a person scales before songs is like teaching a child the alphabet before sentences. What are they gonna do with that?
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I am currently teaching my bassist how to play bass. I have never played bass in my life and have picked one up approx four times. But she is making steady progress as I am teaching her to listen to her bass and not to be afraid of it or of breaking imaginary rules when looking for a note. I am teaching her how to own her bass and how to find her own way on it. She loves playing it. As a ‘teacher’ I can feel proud that I’ve maintained her enthusiasm and helped her through the frustrating tricky bits. I’d like to teach guitar to people for some extra cash, but my methods are not conventional so I don’t know if I can be so bold as to charge cash for them. Maybe that there is a problem to address…

  8. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I have a feeling that this piece is capable of getting a few secret dreams out of the closet. Thank you!

  9. Joan July 27, 2011 at 12:14 am

    An inspired and inspiring story, one that resonates loudly for me.

  10. Daniel July 27, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for the inspiring piece!

  11. Brigette July 27, 2011 at 2:27 am

    *Swoon

  12. Scott Creney July 27, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Thank you for writing this. So great.

  13. Billy July 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    This story is really inspiring and beautiful, and I’m not even a girl! 😉 Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry that you had so many idiotic guys telling you what you could or couldn’t do. I can’t help but feel that if you’d grown up in my circle of friends, nobody would have said those sort of sexist things about/to you. All the fellas I know would have thought it was awesome that a girl could play, and would have encouraged her, and would have freely admitted that she “could play”.

    Best of luck in the future!

  14. Yokaishinigami July 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    great article. I find that one of the biggest turn off’s to pursuing music is the overwhelming negativity towards newer or “less talented” players. There will always be haters, but just ignore them (listen for constructive criticism though) and play your heart out. play for you, yourself and you.

  15. Everett True July 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    There’s a ton of commentary about Erika’s article over on Meta Filter.

  16. hannah golightly July 27, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    The key thing to glean from this piece seems to be giving yourself/taking “Permission To Suck”. That gets rid of the fear of trying/learning/experimenting. Only then can we put our energy into playing and only by playing can we get good at doing so. Loved all the out pouring of personal stories on the link. It’s good to feel solidarity in an awkward experience.

    Write a book!!!!!!!!

  17. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Go for it Erica. I’m serious. I’ll buy a copy. There’s a lot of people who commented here and through the link who would clearly love to read it too.

    Not that I’m an Ian Brown fan or anything, but I once heard that he said to be a good songwriter you have to say the thing that is uncomfortable. It may well be a unanimous ingredient. I think whatever you create should be true to yourself and always be personal. That is the thing that we hear in someone’s voice that connects with our own spirit and feels easy to relate to. Sometimes the hardest thing in this world to be is yourself. But whenever we are, it’s worth it.

  18. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Intimacy. Maybe that’s what I love about it. Intimacy is special. Both in music and also in your piece.

  19. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Thank you, Erika! Wonderful piece, congratulations for sticking with it. I understand your heartache at not being where you wanted to be: when I took my daughter for her first music lesson (she learnt to play bass with a wonderful teacher who taught by getting the kids to play together – no sheet music, no scales, just passion and practice and making noise – so she & her friends get to skip the misery of this particular experience) I started crying from the sudden, urgent missing of amps and leads and music-making; even the airless, dark smell of the studio made me sad. I’m so glad I have music back in my life, and glad for you that you do too.

  20. Wallace Wylie August 1, 2011 at 3:30 am

    I know the main thrust of this essay is about how frustrating/demoralising it is to be a woman in the male dominated world of music, but as a 35 year old who is constantly wrestling with doubts about my ability to write songs I found it pretty inspiring from that angle too.

  21. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Yeah, I’ve heard about Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls: it sounds brilliant. That’s the same sort of ethos behind the studios I mentioned: it’s all about the joy.

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