Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Guest Blogger: Peggy Ehrhart

Peggy Ehrhart is a writer after my own heart. An English professor turned musician, Ehrhart (pictured above with Homer the cat) penned a smart, stylish first mystery featuring... you guessed it, a blues woman, "Maxx" Maxwell, who sings, leads the band, and also solves crime. Sweet Man is Gone is just out now, and to celebrate, Peggy posed the question...

Why don’t more women play the electric guitar?

I’m the proud owner--and player--of several Strats, but female electric guitarists are such a rarity that when it came time to create my heroine in Sweet Man Is Gone, I went with the stereotype and made her a singer.

But why is the chick always the singer, never the lead guitarist? I’ve decided it’s rooted in profound differences between men and women--a topic for the sociobiologists. But I’m going to take a stab at it.

Most people who play the electric guitar start in their teens. The electric guitar has everything to recommend it to teenage boys and almost nothing to recommend it to teenage girls. And by the time the teen years are past, it’s hard to catch up. I started playing as an adult. I’ve now been at it for fifteen years and play like a fair-to-middling teenage boy.

Guys love gear and girls don’t. Girls are put off by an instrument that seems to require a mastery of electronics.

Playing the electric guitar requires physical exertion, speed, dexterity, and endurance—the very qualities teenage boys would cultivate whether electric guitars existed or not.

Most styles played on the electric guitar require loads of time to master, much of it spent in solitude. It’s a stereotype that women talk more than men and depend on verbal interaction to relate to those around them. But stereotypes are based on fact. I’m not sure most women can cut themselves off from society and devote themselves to hours and hours of practice the way guys do. And women who are introspective loners are more likely to spend their time reading--immersing themselves in words rather than sounds. That’s certainly what I did as a teenager.

And finally, most styles played on the electric guitar stem ultimately from the blues. The archetypal blues guitarist is male. His persona is that of a virile seducer who can get any woman he wants, a virtuosic player who can outplay any other guitarist. I had a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun with that in Sweet Man Is Gone.

But it’s significant that males start playing the guitar at puberty. It’s a great way to celebrate their developing manhood, and the competitive factor dovetails nicely with the way teenage boys interact with their peers. They compete with each other in everything, and they admire the guys who star—whether at skateboarding, on the football field, or in the band.

Teenage girls interact with each other not by competing, but by cooperating and sharing. Teenage girls who take up the guitar could of course find boys to compete with, but the last thing most girls that age want to do is scare boys away.

Furthermore, for all that teenage girls want to attract the opposite sex, they want to be courted. With rare exceptions they’d be uncomfortable displaying themselves as the blatantly sexual aggressor that the guitar hero tradition demands.

So it’s not surprising that so few women play the electric guitar. The wonder is that any do.


Fat Cat said...

Your column brought a nostalgic smile to my face. When I was a young teenager, I was a singer-songwriter who played the guitar (not an electric one) and started a band. I thought I was Peter, Paul and Mary all wrapped into one. I had quite a run for a couple of years, playing dives and holes-in-the-wall and saving money for college.

Thanks for the memories!

Clea Simon said...

I play bass and your comment and this guest blog brought up a lot of memories for me, too. I was a rocker chick, always loved the loud 'n' fast stuff. But basically I played string bass in the school orchestra and bought an electric bass because my boyfriend played guitar and wanted to start a band... the good part was that for years afterward, I could always find bands because everyone (well, mostly guys) wanted to play guitar. And I really could play bass!

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Peggy,
I think you make a lot of good points -- especially about the gear -- but I think you're missing something. It's not necessarily a singing vs. electric guitar choice for a lot of women. Having played guitar since I was 14, I think it an accoustic vs. electric guitar choice.

You see quite a few women playing accoustic guitar.

For me, I just really like the sound the wood makes. Especially when I'm seeking an escape -- which is why I'm usually playing guitar. I just can't hear the music the same way when its electrified

But you are right, I'm intimidated by it too. We have at least three different electric guitars in our house -- (my husband and son play) and I've picked up the electric guitar maybe twice.
(Those necks are so freaking skinny!)

marysaums said...

Another problem that hasn't been mentioned, they're just too heavy. Maybe if I had been larger or more athletic as a teen, I might also have been able to hold up a real guitar. :) These days, they do make smaller ones, and I think some are marketed to young girls but they have flowers on them or something sissified like that. :)

I used to have a junior-size Epiphone I played around the house. You can't go out in public with one those though. If you want any kind of respect, you've got to have a Strat or a Les Paul. Right, ladies? :)

Thanks for a very interesting post, Peggy, and best of luck with Sweet Man.

Peggy Ehrhart said...

Thanks so much to everyone for your comments on my blog.

I was fascinated by Jan's observation that lots of women play the acoustic guitar--because the original version of the blog included a paragraph about that. I cut it because the blog was getting too long.

In the original, I said, "Women like words. They like to express their feelings in words. Thus when women take up the guitar, they choose acoustic guitars and they cultivate styles that underscore song lyrics. Most women's bands, even when they're electric, use a chord-based style rather than a style that focuses on fancy soloing and notes for the sake of notes."

And yes, those necks are skinny and the action is really low, but that actually makes an electric guitar easier to play. As my first teacher said, "It's easier to play but you can do harder things on it."

I can't play the acoustic guitar at all and I get totally embarrassed if someone puts one in my hands and expects me to do something.

Sandie Herron said...

I disagree that only teenage boys pick up the electric guitar at puberty. I had a friend who took the train to NY once a week for lessons on her guitar, which she brought with her. How did I know about her? Well, I was in Chorale, a group of 24 hand picked by audition and also made All-State and All-Eastern choirs where there were no guitars at all in sight.

Sandie Herron