Words vs. Music: On Being Female in Guitarland

Posted in music by clamour on August 25, 2009

I picked my guitar up from the shop yesterday.  The shop was a back room off the kitchen in a cat-scented Edwardian house in a residential neighborhood of Berkeley.

This guitar is an abused 30 year old low-end Fender that, if it hadn’t had some kind of accident that looks like it involved fire,would be worth about ten times what it cost new.  Because the entire finish is blistered and flaking, because the neck pickup was dead and had to be replaced, because it needed rewiring, because some ’80s punk carved cryptic almost-poetry all the way through to the wood, it’s not worth much, but it’s a playable guitar with a nice sound and some funny stories behind it.  I felt lucky when I took it in and found out that all its problems were electrical and cosmetic.  Most importantly the neck and bridge were fine.  It sounds good–warm and fat and a little remote–but I mostly love it for the neck, which is curved and thin and perfectly shaped for stumpy fingers on small hands.

When I went to drop it off last week I carried it from Oakland to Berkeley on the 51 bus in a red Galapagos Island totebag with a parrot on it.  Punk as fuck.  The real reason for the unorthodox case was that my hard case is the size of a six year old and weighs twenty pounds empty and puts a lot of strain on my already-crappy right shoulder and I had to take the bus.  Why hurt myself and smack around my fellow passengers for the well-being of a guitar that hasn’t been really played since the late eighties, when it was set on fire and carved on?  And then I walked into the shop and remembered why I quit really playing guitar–quit taking lessons, quit dreaming about starting a band, quit getting better, quit doing anything but strumming easy chords to easy songs so that my friends could sing them–I got the look.  The “what are you doing with that thing, sweetie” look.  The “you’re doing it wrong” look.  The luthier and the blues-rock guys hanging around the shop interpreted a rational decision about valuing my own body over a thoroughly trashed guitar as not knowing any better.  I felt like I was six years old.  Nobody actually called me “sweetie” but the luthier casually touched my knee during conversation.

When I picked up my guitar yesterday I felt so intimidated that I could barely play to test the repair job.  Electric guitar is so loud.  It’s such a big broadcast of your self, your thoughts, your taste, your skill.  A guitar plus an amp fills the room.  If you try to quiet down the guitar with your fingers, which is what I was doing when I tested it because I felt so small and self-conscious, you end up sounding stiff and thin and hesitant.  What goes through the amp sounds awkward and unmusical.

I wish when I was 18 and 19 and 20 I had had the strength of Kathleen Hanna or Annie Clark, to say “fuck you” and start my own genre like the former or to be tough enough to play with men like the latter, but I didn’t.  I don’t want to second guess how my life would have been if I hadn’t been so sensitive but I do know that not playing music during those years left a hole in me.  I felt sad every time I went to a show.  I went from a passionate musician to a passionate listener. I gained a whole universe of music that I didn’t even know about when I was a teenage guitarist in small town Florida or a socially awkward college student who was terrified of the cool kids who listened to the cool music, but I was sad to not be doing it myself.

When I quit really playing guitar I started writing more.  I wrote half a novel, I wrote more poems than I could count, and now I’m writing a doctoral dissertation, poetry, and a rock opera that might just be a large-scale private joke.  I’m writing at least a song a week, too.  I am proud of what I have accomplished as a writer but also feel a little shame at not being tough enough to deal with the look and the teasing and all the shit that comes with being a woman making music with men.  It’s easier for a woman to write– to work in private and be read in silence — than to make a lot of noise in public.  It was true 200 years ago and it’s true now.  It breaks my heart.

Earlier this summer I got out my guitar and played a few chords.  It felt weird and at first I couldn’t change chords in time.  I listened to some Gillian Welch albums and realized she uses the same six chords to write brilliant songs.  I learned the songs.  Then I learned some Mountain Goats songs, also based on the same six or eight chords with alterations and fills.  I started learning Belle and Sebastian songs, which are a little more complex.  Then I taught myself how to read sheet music again.  Then I relearned some jazz chords.  Then I started writing my own songs for the first time ever.  Then I started practicing improvisation over songs I like.  Then I bought an amp.  Then I relearned reading bass clef.  Then I started playing scales.  Then I signed up for a classical guitar class at the community college to work on my right hand fingerstyle technique and sightreading and arpeggios.

Then I joined a band.  The first practice is tomorrow.

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3 Responses

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  1. theadventureclub said, on August 27, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Hey I have a blog on wordpress too. It’s…..Anyways I really like yr writing and thanks for the mention in yr blog. FYI I went into a gtr store 5 years ago needing to buy two guitars for tour and drop some serious cash but left redfaced and mad when the guy, I mean assface, walked me over to the Daisy guitar section and said he thought I’d look great with a pink guitar. And for the record I get just as flustered and nervous as the next lady…
    good luck with band practice! xoxokathleen

    • clamour said, on August 28, 2009 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks for stopping by! I love the photos on your blog.

      Knowing that you get nervous after making music so well for so long makes me feel a lot better.

  2. Transubstantiation « Clamour said, on September 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    […] guitar shop dudeliness was more muted than last time around.  It sucked a little but not badly enough to get upset […]

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