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 Erika Meyer

How I Learned To Play Guitar

How I Learned To Play Guitar
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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.

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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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