How I Learned To Play Guitar
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.