How I Learned To Play Guitar
I bought a big 1970s Fender Twin Reverb. (“Are you sure you want that amp?” the salesman said, “That’s a very loud amp. It’s really made for using on stage.” “Perfect,” I replied.) I got up the courage to audition for a few bands, but never succeeded in making the cut. So, since I was writing songs by now, I put an ad in the paper, found a drummer, then a bass player, and started my own band. We lost and gained and lost members, suffered through triangles of love and addiction, and imploded again and again. I kept on playing, sometimes as a duo, or solo, just to keep moving forward. We recorded an album under fairly insane circumstances, and when we imploded for the last time, I kept my eyes and ears open for the next opportunity. Times came over the years when things looked bleak, and I would feel almost like giving up, but always someone would come along and say, “Don’t give up! Never give up!”
Today, because I didn’t give up (this time), I am fortunate to be part of a solid and productive band that has been performing for two years, has recorded and self-released two albums, and is working on a third. It’s been ten years since I was reunited with my guitars, and I am grateful to be here.
As far as being female, I wouldn’t think about it, except that it is constantly brought to my attention — for example, by doormen who cannot believe that I’m in, not with the band, as they scour the guest list for my name. Also the opinion that I “can’t play” or “can’t sing” is still brought up, more often to Chris, my boyfriend and bandmate. There are any number of people who are absolutely flabbergasted that someone like him, who is known as a skilled musician, would have a band with me, would ‘let’ me play guitar and sing. Some assume he’s blinded by love, and that I’m just a coattail-rider. Many assume that he does all the writing for the band, too.
In reality, we each write our own songs, or we co-write: he’ll come up with a couple riffs, and I will write the lyrics and arrangement. We just fit together in a complimentary way. We both know that great rock music has less to do with ‘skill’ and ‘talent’ and more to do with a person’s ability to use music as an artistic medium. One person even told me he thought Chris (who struggled over the years with addiction) was back on drugs because his guitar playing has changed so dramatically. Instead of impressing other guitar players with fast skillful leads (which he can play in his sleep), he is playing more like me: more primitive, syncopated, dissonant — because it serves the song, and it sounds great! Maybe ‘girls’ tend to play a little differently — maybe what a lot of guys are listening for, they don’t hear when girls play, so they just decide that we can’t play. Maybe a lot of people are missing out on interesting possibilities.
In my experience, discrimination against women in rock is still pervasive, both on the surface and underneath, even today, even in a town like Portland, Oregon. But rock’n’roll, to me, is about breaking rules, challenging preconceptions, and crossing psychological, physical, and cultural barriers. It’s about making sounds that are real, beautiful, original, and universal. It’s about joining people together through voice, breath, heartbeat, sound.
Recently, I was telling my grandmother (90) about some of my daughter’s explorations into music, when my grandma stopped me mid-sentence, asking “Is she talented?” I was caught off-guard — there it was again, that strange notion of musical ‘talent’. I smiled. Of course she is talented.
I’ve found that for every person who thinks I can’t, or shouldn’t, sing or play, there is someone, usually a woman, who tells me how inspired she is by what I am doing. Inspire. The root of it means “to breathe”. Inspire originally meant to “breathe life into”. That’s a big part of what art is to me: inspiring others, and being inspired by others. I love it, I get to be part of it, both giving and receiving. I would never have made it to this place without facing my fears, processing the past, and playing through a lot of trials from both without and within.
That is why I would say to all girls and women, including myself, who want to play or perform, and who feel hesitant, fearful, or discouraged: DO IT. DON’T GIVE UP. Play the way YOU want to play, write how you want to write, and record how YOU want to record. Give yourself permission to experiment, and to devote energy to music. You have the right to be up on stage, you have the right to use your voice, you have the right to channel your creativity through music. Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.