As a new study finds half of beginner guitarists are women, Getintothis’ Cath Bore breaks down the stats with award winning and groundbreaking artists.
Guitar maker Fender last week revealed the findings of a survey which said more women and girls are taking up the guitar than previously imagined. They found that half of those learning to play the instrument right now on both sides of the Atlantic are female, so the company will adjust their marketing strategy to fit this newly acknowledged area of growth.
Fender has the biggest market share in US acoustic and electric guitar manufacturing – in 2017 it was a meaty 37.2 percent – meaning women are contributing a considerable chunk of change to the manufacturer’s profit margins, and it’s a sign there’s more money to be made if the industry wises up across the board.
And whilst it’s true that guitar based music doesn’t dominate the charts or commercial radio airwaves as it once did, the Fender survey offers encouraging news in an industry that traditionally prioritises the male customer’s needs.
Although, please god, don’t let this mean pink guitars will suddenly be manufactured en masse.
The news from Fender has been enthusiastically received by female musicians.
‘It’s so so positive to hear that the days of repeated fedora blues scales in guitar shops could be nearing an end. I’m sure there’s always been equal interest in guitar between men and women, but the toxic masculine culture around it has rarely welcomed women,’ Poppy Hankin, singer, songwriter and guitarist from London based Girl Ray tells us.
Girl Ray – Hankin, drummer Iris McConnell and bass player Sophie Moss – brought out debut album Earl Grey last year to rave reviews, dominating best of 2017 lists, and were nominated for Best Breakthrough Act at the Q Awards. They played SXSW in the spring and returning to the US over the summer for more shows.
‘Now that women are saying ‘fuck that shit’ it’s seemingly started quite an epic domino effect… Suddenly young girls are seeing incredible female musicians in the mainstream, and then a guitar is on their Christmas list,’ Poppy says.
Louisa Roach, mainstay of She Drew The Gun, whose epic Poem was chosen in October by Steve Lamacq as a landmark song from his 25 year career at the BBC, thinks that because there are fewer guitars visible now ‘…maybe they are becoming less gendered because they are not something that you only see on men, you just don’t really see them.’
‘Also I think there are a lot more girls in bands coming through, unapologetically playing big guitar noises, maybe culturally there is something cathartic in playing something so powerful and loud and saying whatever you want.’
Hollie Singer is singer and guitarist from up and coming Welsh band Adwaith. Newly returned from a tour supporting Welsh Music Prize winner Gwenno around the UK, this month the threesome – with Gwenllian Anthony on bass, keyboard, mandolin and Heledd Owen on drums – released their debut album.
Adwaith‘s song Fel I Fod has been streamed over 300,000 times on Spotify since the beginning of the year, one of the most streamed Welsh language songs ever.
Hollie sees firsthand how things in the industry are changing, albeit slowly.
‘The amount of women in bands/the music business is growing daily. For young girls to see more of this, confident women on stage, making noise, and looking cool whilst doing so has definitely had an impact on my learning (to play),’ she says, citing Courtney Barnett, Tash Sultana, Ellie Rowsell as her own inspirations.
‘And I’m sure [it’s the case] for other people too.’
The Fender survey gives us the 50% statistic which is encouraging, but it doesn’t give us any idea about what age these new players are, social backgrounds, or other factors. What would be interesting if it told us about whether the way music is taught in schools affected how women and girls approach the instrument.
At Louisa’s school there were no other girls who played, there was nothing at school to encourage her and she didn’t take Music GCSE.
‘There were people who told me or made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to take music further and there were people who encouraged me to do it, I tried a few things but I kind of gave up on guitar and believing in myself for a long time and then one day I picked it back up and started writing songs on it,’ she says of her initial efforts at mastering the instrument.
‘I had someone show me how to play chords and how to play a few lines from my favourite pop songs but I didn’t do any practice so stopped progressing, then when I was 13 I had a personal loss in my life and I started picking up the guitar again, I got hooked on it and pushed myself to get better, so the learning part was quite solitary for me really and quite therapeutic I think, taking me to another headspace.’
It’s still the case that in many schools, the way boys and girls are encouraged to approach music making can be different, and that it’s not necessarily a conscious or conscious thing.
‘There needs to be more infrastructure to support young girls’ playing. Schools need to get in on it… Although they rarely realise it, there is definitely an unspoken culture in many schools of ‘boys play guitar and are allowed to rock out to Viva La Vida indefinitely’ and ‘girls get on your violas please it’s Bach time’,’ Poppy recalls of her own school days.
‘That kind of mentality sticks with you. Music programmes specifically for young girls would help!’
Poppy started to learn how to play aged eleven, with help from her elder brothers. What she loved at first was being able to play along to her favourite songs.
‘That kind of kept me going… It was only once I started writing songs and wanting to be in a band that I realised there wasn’t necessarily the same infrastructure in place for female musicians.’
Hollie echoes Poppy’s sentiments. ‘Encourage young girls in schools not to be afraid to have a go! That they can play instruments other than violin or piano. Give them a safe space to perform and grow as an artist.’
Adwaith hold a regular night for women musicians, FEMME, in their home town in Carmarthen. It can be intimidating to go or play your first gig, they believe.
‘FEMME is something we wanted as young girls… a chance to meet some amazing female artists from different backgrounds, different styles of music.’
The Fender survey, carried out with consultants Egg Strategy, found that the majority of guitar players start playing to gain a life skill or want to play for themselves or loved ones; they don’t necessarily have careers are professional or successful musicians in their sights.
But interestingly, 42 percent said playing the instrument guitar is part of their identity.
The performance part of being a musician is so important to Hollie.
‘Songwriting allows me to take a certain subject and really think about how it makes me feel and what words best describe this feeling. Playing live allows me to remember and acknowledge how I felt when I wrote certain songs.’
‘I still think playing is quite therapeutic just finding a nice little chord sequence or a riff, it takes your mind off other things…,’ says Louisa, who took home The GIT Award in 2017 following the release of album Memories of the Future. ‘But now it’s more about songwriting, I love the confines of a 3 or 4 minute song as a way of expressing yourself it’s like a mini essay about whatever you want it to be.’
‘…songwriting can certainly be therapeutic; sometimes you find a combination of chords and words that feel just right. It helps to package up something you’re going through in a way that doesn’t feel so ambiguous,’says Poppy.
‘Playing for an audience is just really fun though. Unless they stay completely still like a tray of 600 wholesale lollipops.’
Louisa adds a note of caution to the good news the Fender survey hints at. The thought of half new guitarists being women and girls gives us all a warm fuzzy feeling inside, there’s been organic things out there for years aimed towards female guitarists such as She Shreds magazine and SheSays. And thinking the 50 percent stats and Fender’s new strategy mean equality is won, is wide of the mark.
‘I think it all feeds off each other… more girls at gigs, more women on stages, better festival slots, more visibility, more spaces for young performers to be encouraged. As great as it is to hear the numbers for taking up the guitar are levelling out, I wonder how many will progress into the music industry and when we will see the figures for the number of women on stages at festivals doing something similar.’
And we can’t forget that some women find playing some guitars uncomfortable; the weight of the guitar can be a factor, and choice of make and model can be dependent on their own body shape and how they prefer to wear their instrument, whether low or high up. Breasts aren’t something guitar manufacturers typically address when designing instruments, leading Annie Clark aka St Vincent to design a guitar herself last year, to suit the curves of the female body.
Thought it’s quite pricey to buy – at over two thousand dollars a pop might be out of the range of learner guitarists – it’s very presence is a positive move, a sign women’s requirements are becoming to be considered. But not, if we’re honest, quickly or widespread enough.
‘I think that as gender equality is being talked about more and more,’ sums up Poppy Hankin, ‘it’s becoming clearer what a fucked up little boys club music can be.’
She Drew The Gun released second album Revolution of Mind on Skeleton Key in October and play a UK headline tour in the New Year; Girl Ray play Hackney Arts Centre on December 1 with Hinds; Adwaith‘s debut long player Melyn is out digitally now and on vinyl on November 30 via Libertino Records.