While pop culture has (for the most part) embraced women musicians–especially as lead singers–it hasn’t so much embraced the women guitarists.
As Evelyn McDonnell noted in “She’s in the Band”, female lead guitarists have remained few and far between. Perhaps, McDonnell suggests, it’s because guitarists are expected to display a virtuosity and bravado not normally included on the list of desirable ‘feminine’ qualities.
“…guitars are the ultimate symbol of rock phallocentrism,” McDonnell says. And it’s a fact. (Watch “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix and look closely at his style of playing.)
While women such as Tina Weymouth (the Talking Heads) and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) began paving the way for more inclusion of female bassists, a mixed gender band with a female guitarist continues to be unusual.
“Boys like the things they do to seem real hard like it takes a lot of strength to control them. But I tell you, guitar-playing’s not hard. I mean, they’re just little strings! I don’t know why guitar playing is considered a masculine art, except it’s just been appropriated that way. It doesn’t require any great strength or some male brain pattern. In fact, it’s sort of feminine. That’s why I wish more women would play guitar, because there’d be more variety in the sound of rock music.” –Ivy Rorschach
After the Runaways disbanded, Joan Jett and Lita Ford both went on to make careers for themselves.
Through her musical talents and some connections in the rock world (for example…Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne), Ford was able to make her way onto the charts. One of her first singles to reach the charts (she had had some in previous years, but they hadn’t hit the charts) was her duet with Ozzy- “Close My Eyes Forever” (#8 on the US Hot 100).
Though Ford had released two other albums (Out For Blood and Dancin’ on the Edge) before her self titled album in 1988, it wasn’t until that self-titled album that she was noticed and felt comfortable with where she was at. She had switched managers and began working with Sharon Osbourne.
Ford’s music was that of 80s “hard rock” (honestly, genres have changed quite a bit…thus the quotes.) She did play guitar and began making a name for herself as a rock guitarist.
The quote I brought up earlier, by the Cramps guitarist Ivy Rorschach is an important quote because it so beautifully captures the way certain instruments are gendered. If you look back in history you’ll note how various instruments have been gendered male and others female. Pianos have been an acceptable form of musical expression for women, and eventually flutes were added to that list, but for a woman to play something like a trumpet was unusual. And so it remains with rock music. The gender divisions are definitely still there.
Failing to recognize women guitarists such as Ford, Chrissie Hynde, Kat Bjelland, PJ Harvey and Joni Mitchell can normally be attributed to a)ignorance that the bands exist (Not everyone is familiar with Babes In Toyland!) and b)a culture which continues to perpetuate the idea that gender divides and when men are good at one thing, women aren’t supposed to be good.
Yet, listening to any of the artists above, you’ll find that there’s a lot more to music than gender. Believe it or not, women can pick up a guitar and play, just like a guy can. Playing a guitar does not require a male body, it requires dedication, practice and above all else, passion.
Women like Lita Ford should not only be recognized as a great talent among the guys that filled (and continue to fill) the world of rock, but serve as an inspiration to grrrls and women everywhere: pick up that guitar! If he can do it, then so can you! 😉