50% of New Guitarists Are Women
In 2017, the Washington Post published an infamous story announcing the death of the electric guitar. Not only did it ignite a firestorm of dissenters throughout the industry.
Fender recently released another industry-rocking story online, and we’re happy to say, this story has a lot more merit and even proves that the guitar is alive and well. Not only that, but the torch is being carried in large part by our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and girlfriends.
According to a study conducted by Fender and Egg Strategy, women account for “50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players,” and a quick look around the industry would seem to back their findings. Whether you marvel at the way Annie Clark crafts otherworldly tones as St. Vincent, closely follow the Alicia Bognanno-fronted Bully, or find your inspiration from online-heroines Melanie Faye and Lari Basilio, there’s no denying the rise of ferocious female guitarists.
While we couldn’t be more excited about this seismic shift in our industry, we still wanted to know why. What accounts for these statistics? Who are the players spurring it on? What can the rest of the industry do to ensure ALL players continue falling in love with the instrument many of us hold so dear?
We decided to go right to the source and ask some highly successful female players across a wide range of styles. From Kaki King’s groundbreaking solo acoustic work and multimedia performances and Samantha Fish’s powerful take on blues and rock to Korey Cooper’s powerhouse performance style in Skillet and Courtney Cox’s fretboard fireworks, these players definitely know their stuff.
If these women’s answers to our questions are any indication, women are set to drive guitar playing in exciting and new ways, well into the future.
From starting as a classically trained pianist to her work as a songwriter and as a member of the Grammy‐nominated and platinum-selling rock band Skillet, the Paul Reed Smith-endorsed Korey Cooper is a musical force. Cooper was also a pioneering woman in the rock industry when joining Skillet in 1998, a definite rarity at that time.
Kaki King is a true iconoclast, a visionary musician/artist whose work stands out among the easily formatted. Over her decade-long career, she has recorded five extraordinarily diverse LPs, contributed to a variety of film and TV soundtracks, and continues to play to ever-growing audiences around the globe. King has expanded the role of the solo instrumental artist, constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s expected, all while keeping her trusty Ovation guitars close at hand.
After launching her recording career in 2009, Samantha Fish quickly established herself as a rising star in the contemporary blues world. Since then, the charismatic young singer/guitarist/songwriter has earned a reputation as a rising guitar hero and powerful live performer. She has also released a series of acclaimed albums that have revealed her restless creative spirit.
Iron Maidens, Solo Artist, Femme Fatale
Courtney Cox is a fingerboard-burning solo artist and guitarist for the Iron Maidens and Femme Fatale. Having first picked up a guitar at age 13, she started touring at 15 and never looked back, earning her own signature Caparison electric guitar and sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in hard rock.
Funayūrei, Sea Mountains, Solo Artist
Mandy Kawa can be found crafting modern soundscapes on her own or with her bands Sea Mountains and Funayūrei. While she splits her passion between synths and guitar, it’s the 6-string that you’ll often find guiding her muse.
Tell us a little about yourself. What inspired you to pick the guitar?
Cooper: I joined Skillet as the keyboard player and did that for a few years before picking up the guitar. But [then I] shifted over to guitar being my main live instrument. Firstly, it’s much cooler onstage [laughs]. Secondly, it’s a different kind of expression, and I love where it sits in the overall musical landscape. Whether I am working on a Skillet project or producing/writing with other acts like Ledger or Lacey Sturm (two notable females tearing down stereotypes), the guitar riffs, lines, and tones that I build all serve the bigger picture. Lastly, I have always loved ripping down gender stereotypes and having a lot to prove. It’s an inspiring challenge for me.
King: My parents had me take classical guitar lessons when I was very young, around age five. But I kept picking up the guitar long after I had left those lessons behind. It always made sound; it wasn’t too heavy; I could boil any song in the world down to a few power chords and play it over and over. It had some weird magic that kept me coming back.
Fish: I had started on drums, but my dad played guitar, [so] I decided to pick it up. When I started soloing, around 18 or 19 years old, that was when I really connected with it. Being able to weave in and out of vocal phrases and guitar leads, it’s another emotive avenue. Rock ‘n’ roll is fun as hell! It’s hard not to be drawn to it.
Cox: I started stealing music from my older brother’s CD collection, which he wasn’t happy about. I really latched on to Metallica, and that band turned into a religion for me. And then one day I was listening to the album …And Justice for All and had this urge to get a guitar. My parents thought I was crazy and that it would end up being a major distraction from my sports life. A nasty car accident two years later would put my sports career to rest but would open this other door to music, and I never looked back.
Kawa: I don’t remember any one occurrence or circumstance that caused me to think, “Okay, I want to learn guitar.” Music has been a passion of mine since a young age, and I was naturally drawn to the guitar. I first picked one up at age six and it felt right. There weren’t any other musicians in my immediate family. [But] every year at Christmas, we would all drive up to Massachusetts where my Uncle Fred would hand me a huge stack of songs to learn for the year. I suppose that bond is what gave me such an emotional connection to the guitar.
You are all groundbreaking players that fought for your status in the industry. But Fender released findings recently that said today, 50% of “beginning and aspirational” guitarists are female, and that’s a growing number! Why do you think more women and girls are taking up the guitar?
Fish: It’s hard to pinpoint what the exact cause could be, but there are definitely more females in the industry than before. Not just guitar players. You see more instrumentalists all the way around. I think to be inspired, there’s this initial spark. There’s a connection. Seeing more women in the forefront could ignite that spark in a young girl.
Cooper: I think girls are growing up believing that anything is possible for them. They are looking for new creative outlets and avenues for expression. We are in a culture that inspires females to reach beyond where they have gone before and believe for the impossible. I mean look at Katniss. #hungergames
King: It’s part of a growing trend that we’re seeing everywhere. I may be reaching with this one, but I think that it has to do with how the guitar functions as a portable, lightweight, self-contained musical instrument that can be anything from a screaming loud sound to something to strum in quiet while writing. It’s versatile. And as women are claiming more and more independence, it would make sense that they are choosing an instrument that opens up worlds of options to them.
Cox: I was very surprised when that article came out, to be honest. For it to be 50% and not a more male-driven pull was refreshing. At the same time, maybe it was only an interesting read because it is something that most people don’t usually research or even think about. So I can’t determine why female players now make up 50% of the market. [But] I think people just want to be creative. I think we need that more than ever now with the current state of music. Great music starts with musicians and vision.
Kawa: I can only guess, and my assumption would be the destigmatization of women as electric guitarists is a leading cause. I remember even just 15 years ago, when my fourth-grade class took a trip to a music store to choose our band instruments, there was a very real understanding of which instruments were for boys and which were for girls. I don’t see that happening as much anymore.
In the past, female guitarists may have been pigeonholed into assumptions of simple strumming or having their instrumental skills overshadowed by their singing. But this article looks at women playing over a wide range of styles and genres. What accounts for the growing diversity?
Fish: Again, I think it comes down to having strong role models. The growth means that the public is responding to female players positively. There is room and a demand for feminine energy in every single genre.
Kawa: There are so many strong women in the music industry — and not just guitar players — who have opened up doors for us by being formidable pillars of independence, courage, and tenacity — especially in the pop industry. Artists like Ariana Grande and Beyoncé use their internationally extensive platform to prove that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to display intense emotion, and it’s okay to let your femininity set you apart. We’re no longer expected to be well-behaved, quiet, singer/songwriters who only write about love. We’re expressing love, yes, but also anger, angst, and sorrow, and doing a damn good job at it.
Cooper: Women aren’t growing up with the same unspoken boundaries, and breaking out of the boxes isn’t stigmatic anymore. It’s actually encouraged. I have always believed anything was possible for me, regardless of my gender. And though I started playing in a hard rock band 20 years ago, I was somewhat unaware of how much I had to prove as a female. I think girls today are not only believing that they can do anything, but they are becoming less aware of the past resistance to female presence in some of these worlds.
Cox: I could blame it on how females were promoted way back when. Only certain women were written about or broadcasted, and they usually played acoustic music. That was the marketing mold. Unfortunately it always comes down to bad representation, and a lot of players are cast to the side never to be heard. This is still a problem every musician faces today.
You mentioned the importance of having strong role models to inspire younger girls. Who are some female players that you feel paved the way for female guitarists today?
Fish: From the roots of American music — players like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. [Then there are] contemporary rock stars like Bonnie Raitt, St. Vincent (Annie Clark), and Joan Jett.
King: I’m going to be the unorthodox voice here and say that it is ok for men to pave the way for women and for women to pave the way for men. For myself, male indie rock guitarists made complete sense to me. Pretty skinny boys playing their hearts out on their telecasters, hair androgynously covering their faces, that was something interesting to me on the route to finding my own voice on guitar. And also PJ Harvey.
Cox: Being a metalhead here, I would mention Jennifer Batten. I remember seeing her solo videos as a kid and was really blown away. I’ve never seen a woman play guitar like that or rock hair like she did!
The next two players are probably the most influential female players in metal that I’ve ever seen, period. Those two women being Michelle Meldrum and Nicole Couch of Phantom Blue. In my opinion, they are probably the two most underrated female players in the genre as well.
Kawa: Joan Jett and Lita Ford are two big names that first come to mind. The Runaways as a whole inspired a lot of women, including myself. A great ’90s influencer would be Kelley Deal (The Breeders), whose tone is one of a kind. Some others who have had a substantial impact would be Kristy Marlana Wallace, a.k.a. Poison Ivy (The Cramps); Debbie Davies; June Millington (Fanny); Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads — bass); Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth); and Nancy Wilson (Heart).
Cooper: Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, and Joan Jett.
Who are some female guitarists that inspire you today?
King: I think Yvette Young is a genius, Sarah Lipstate, my dear friend Nicole Lawrence who the world needs to know more about, and of course Melanie Faye, who will be appearing at an arena next to Beyoncé sometime very soon, I hope.
Fish: Definitely the aforementioned Bonnie Raitt, St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Joan Jett. I also loved Nancy Wilson, Sheryl Crow’s well-rounded musicianship, and Barbara Lynn.
Cox: For me, it’s the young players, male or female, that I see at shows — players that just completely lose themselves in everything they hear, whether it’s good or bad. The ones, young or old, that come up and talk to you about playing guitar or any instrument, and you just see their faces light up. That is something magical. Having been in the business for quite some time now, I feel a lot of players sometimes, including myself, lose the innocence and that spark that music used to give them. It’s very inspiring to interact with these musicians that rekindle passion and perseverance.
Kawa: I’m a big fan of St. Vincent (Annie Clark), primarily because of her unorthodox approach to songwriting. I know she has a habit of writing out her guitar solos on a MIDI keyboard and then learning them on guitar, which is profoundly interesting to me.
Cooper: St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Lzzy Hale (Halestorm), and Emma Anzai (Sick Puppies — bass).
With this information coming out about female guitarists, it’s natural for music companies to focus marketing accordingly. Do you think marketing specifically to females is healthy, or divisive?
Cox: Well it definitely can’t hurt. If that is what it takes for some females to believe in themselves and pick up an instrument, then it’s worth it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think this focused type of marketing, back when I was younger, would have done more than the influence I received from going to as many live shows as I could. I subscribed to every guitar magazine outlet and was searching YouTube and all the online blogs. But I think live music and experiencing that raw power is the best exposure any musician can receive.
Fish: They have been advertising to men forever, so I say why not? I love that St. Vincent has a line of guitars that are designed with women in mind. Whatever it takes to open up a kid’s mind or open the door for an individual who might otherwise think they don’t belong. As long as you avoid the cheesy route, the added “pink tax.”
Kawa: Yes, I want to be represented in the industry, but the truth is the music industry is still inherently dominated by men. I think it’s fantastic that we’re seeing a rise in female guitarists, but when over 90% of the producers, songwriters, and executives are men, I can’t help but think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed from the top down. I am thrilled that so many women are becoming part of the music industry. That shift will usher in new changes and bring about a shift that is long overdue. Music, in general, should speak to everyone, and the more voices we have in the mix, the more people will hear our message.
King: This issue has a huge number of variables. Obviously it’s not about making pink guitars. I think guitar companies should start by hiring young women to work in their marketing departments, and as a result, actively support and promote new female guitarists across a huge spectrum, especially ones who are just starting out. Show us our options!
Cooper: On a practical level it makes sense to market to your demand. If your rising demand is female, well, it’s common sense. We are in a wonderful season of girl power. I do think it’s great to continue to erode stereotypical boundaries and inspire women to do things they didn’t think were possible…or just didn’t think about. On a philosophical level, I wonder if the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far. I don’t think equality for one gender means suppressing another. Isn’t that what we all, as females, have been fighting against? I think we should learn from our history and use it to grow instead of repeat it…not that we’re in danger of tyranny here. But there is plenty of room for all, and plenty of inspiration to go around.