The Rise & Fall of the Female Guitarist

By Katie McAuliffe


When I was sixteen I fell for my first musician. Charlie* was a tall lacrosse boy who ran with the silently proclaimed nonconformist crowd. All of their dissension operated at a 15 degree angle. Hair an inch too long. Ears stretched a lobe too many. Mind blazed an hour too soon. Charlie had the work ethic of a Dartmouth-legacy mixed with the contrived apathy of a punk kid.

I fell fast and carelessly. I was a smart and socially ambitious groupie. He played bass in a pop-punk group that sometimes paused halfway through their songs so that the lead guitarist could facetiously spit freestyle. Like many high school boys, he uploaded videos of himself playing acoustic guitar on Facebook. We did not have real chemistry but he was intelligent and the other girls said he was good-looking and there was this thing about guitar players.

There’s always been this thing about guitar players.

From the Beatlemania-inducing charm of Paul McCartney to the dazed-out daydream of Kurt Cobain, male guitarists take up many pages in the archives of history’s sex symbols.

A surge in research over the past several years has attempted to demystify the libido-driving essence of the male guitarist. A French study published in the Psychology of Music in 2013 demonstrated that women were more attracted to ostensible musicians.

Beatles’ fans storming the gates.

The study, conducted by researchers at France’s Université de Bretagne-Sud, was orchestrated by having a conventionally attractive young man approach three-hundred women of a similar age in a moderately-sized French city and deliver the infallible line, “I think you’re really pretty,” before asking for their number. This is where you want to pay close attention.

For a third of these interactions the dapper man carried a sports bag with him, for another third he carried nothing and for the last third he carried a guitar case. The anonymous Don Juan received the most phone numbers with guitar case in tow, 31 percent, while the sports bag and empty arms received a 9 and 14 percent success rate, respectively.

Other analogous studies have had similar findings.

The French researchers proposed that heterosexual women are more sexually attracted to musicians because they are associated with both elevated physical and intellectual abilities and laudable work ethic. Since guitar cases can conjure up images of famous musicians, some heterosexual women may subconsciously conflate an instrument holder with modern notions of achievement and wealth.

Tracy Chapman plucking her way into your heart.

The sexual selection theory, supported by Darwin, proposes that human’s propensity for music developed out of early courtship rituals. That’s right. Your Santana-esque way around a guitar is just nature’s way of spreading musical pheromones.

Do I present this research to encourage young, matriculating men to purposelessly transport guitar cases around college campuses? No, there’s enough of that already.

Beyond the egregious hand heteronormativity played in all of these studies, lays another frustrating fact. Out of all of the studies I found, only one of them also touted the perceptions garnered by female musicians. That study was done as an after-thought to the male-centric first experiment.

Of course, musical talent is an attractive attribute regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, but the scientific community’s disregard to even consider women as part of this group, or rather, just acknowledge that men do not make up the whole of it, echoes a problem that has existed for centuries. An exclusion of women from music. And in its contemporary form, an evident rift between female musicians, especially guitarists, and mainstream rock music.

The proliferation of rock music in the 60s and the 70s served as an impetus for women entering the scene. Although there were certainly female guitarists in the 50s, and even 30s and 40s (see Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie) who were formative as female role models, the two following decades introduced female guitarists into the cultural diet of the United States.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Festivals like Woodstock, where guitarists like Joan Baez and Melanie were showcased, were critical in the rise of these soon-to-be folk and rock stars. The 70s brought with it the Pretender’s Chrissie Hynde, Heart’s leading-guitarist Nancy Wilson, and Patti Smith among many others. Joan Jett brought overt female sexuality into the 80s rock scene and blues-handed Bonnie Raitt began to dominate the top charts with her slide master ballads. Kim Gordon was the noise rock queen and helped carry Sonic Youth to relative commercial success in the 90s.

Although the tidal following of these female guitarists was still felt in the 90s, mainstream music was becoming a harder cultural landscape for them to prosper. The third wave of feminism brought in the riot grrrl mentality and while Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney were using rock as a subversive force, they were not as interested when it came to stirring up the sales-driven charts. So women had their place in rock, even if it regulated to late-night bustles in dive bars. The marriage between feminism and punk rock thrived upon one fact: a woman playing a guitar was still coded as a deviant behavior.

By the 2000s the mainstream female guitarist had disappeared. Well to be fair, Millennials were afforded the pleasure of cheering on Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift. Alanis Morissette and Tracy Chapman could only do so much. Pop and booze-jams ruled the charts and mainstream rock became a boy’s club once again.

So what do the prospects look like as of late?

Annie Clark, more commonly known by her musical moniker St. Vincent, is one of the contemporary faces of the female guitarist

According to Billboard’s Top 50 Alternative Songs Chart of 2014, only one female guitarist, a solo act Meg Meyers, made it on the list.

Unsurprisingly, most of the women brushing Billboard shoulders with the many, many dudes on it were vocalists.

Keyboardists were the second most common, with two represented, and guitarists and drummers were tied for last with one of each musical profession being represented.

I’m being too myopic here, right? The college radio scene is booming with leading ladies like Courtney Barnett and St. Vincent who pack full houses and capture the musical hearts of the hard-to-please critic’s circle. Sleater-Kinney is active once again and the resurgence of all-female groups has brought countless femme rockers into view. Things are moving forward. Any progress is progress!

To that I utter in a hoarse, ghoulish whisper: Brochella.

Coachella minus the men. That’s a lot of blank space.

Coachella, one of the largest music and arts festivals in the country, sits in a desert chaparral in Indio, California. Now in its 16th year, Coachella positions itself as a musically-inclusive festival, representing artists from many genres and nationalities. Unfortunately their near two-decade reign has been clumsy and tactless when it comes to gender parity. According to Slate, out of all the top-billed acts in the festival’s history, only two have been female-fronted. That’s right two. Björk headlined in 2002 and 2007 and Portishead in 2008.

That’s what progress looks like, right?

Slate reports that this year only 13.5 percent, or 22 of the 162 acts, in the full three-day Coachella line-up are female-fronted, which is another way of saying there are some female vocalists in the mix. That percentage means even less when you consider that even only having a female lead vocalist can designate an otherwise all-male group as part of the female percentage.

While Coachella is easy to villainize, other large music festivals are equally culpable. Quick break-down of percent of female-fronted groups by each festival:

Summerfest = 21%

Bonnaroo = 22%

Firefly = 24%

Lollapalooza = 25%

Governors Ball = 30%

This statistics once again are not clear representations of the true demographics of those being represented on stage. Demographics that are as bare when it comes to gender as when it comes to race, as well.

The erasure of women from the festival scene is especially jarring when you consider that the majority of festival-goers are women. According to the UK Festival Census 2013, 58 percent of festival attendees were women, while 42 percent were men.

Bonnie Raitt. One of the two women who made it onto Rolling Stone’s list of best guitarists of all-time.

Of course it goes to say that gender parity is a problem in every musical realm, with the exception of pop, and even the underground scene isn’t exempt. Meanwhile Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt still boast sold out shows with no contenders waiting in the wings to take their crowns.

So is the alternative festival world and the mainstream alternative charts a flawed barometer of women in music? Yes. But all of these observations are not without purpose. When children choose instruments to try in school or pursue privately they are never without influence. For every future guitar hero, there is an unsung guitar heroine. This is where mainstream alternative music counts. The more exposure young girls have to seeing female musicians, the more likely they are to pick it up on their own.

It should be said that the position of rock in mainstream music makes this all the more difficult. It is difficult for any rock band to break into the top 40, even for the legacy groups.

So are women being actively barred from the musical arena? And if so, why?

The ‘why’ question becomes difficult to answer, at least topically. I could decry mainstream media and question the role of public school music programs. I could stumble over theories of the guitar as a phallic symbol and the intentional exclusion of women from the rock scene as a dramatized display of machismo. I could mourn the fact that when Rolling Stone had a team of critics and musicians peg down the best 100 guitarists of all time, only two were women and no one really seemed to be upset by that fact. I could lecture all of my male guitarist friends about how uncomfortable it is to be the only woman in a Guitar Center.

This is where the rhetoric can run dry. The gatekeepers of mainstream media have historically curated notions of gender and race in order to exclude marginalized groups from infringing on their exploitative profit structure.

Is there a need for large mainstream alternative festival for female and gender non-conforming musicians? Most likely. Should we allow the presence of women in an underground scene to excuse their erasure elsewhere? Of course not. Are we in a desperate need for mainstream rock to file more women in its ranks? Absolutely.

So French social scientists, let’s think beyond the realm of superficial desire and clever haircuts. Could the historical alignment of male guitarists as sex symbols be more of a function of social exclusion than genetic wiring? If there was a Joan Jett for every Kurt Cobain, what would the male guitarist’s pick-up success rate be then? Would irrelevant scientific studies still be funded to find out? Would it even matter?

It didn’t take long in high school to see that the guitar and drummer boys could get the girls. I spent sufficient time chasing and being chased by them. I went to all of Charlie’s shows, memorized the words to his band’s awful songs and positioned myself in the mid-back of the audience to suggest a slight disinterest. Ultimately word spread that Charlie had a list of over 5 girls he had varying degrees of crushes on. I made his chauvinistic list but wasn’t picked. So I picked up guitar instead.

There’s always been this thing about guitar players.

It’s funny how little of an effect their musical charm has on you when you’re one of them.

This piece was originally published in Main Street Magazine in May 2015.

*This name has been changed to protect the remnants of an adolescent heart