Women, rock on.

You will feel pain. But keep at it. It is so worth it.

Girls, it’s going to hurt. Sometimes you won’t be able to do it for more than an hour at first. The tips of your fingers will sting. And when you start playing the barre chords, your arms will ache. You will feel pain. We are not like guys, who build muscle more quickly, have more natural strength. It will be a struggle.

But keep at it. It is so worth it. There’s no greater confidence builder, no matter what age you start. When you can stand in front of people, and you can rock out, the power surge is amazing. You will feel invincible. When you’re not playing, you’ll wonder, is that really me? Can I really do that?

I remember my first time in front of an audience. I had learned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, and had drilled it at home, crying out my heart into the mic and accompanying myself on rhythm guitar to a backing track.

At rock band class
Playing Nirvana at the beginning rock band class

That song had become my anthem during a truly horrific time in my life, when sudden ruptures in both my working and personal lives had coincided like a biorhythmic triple critical. It brought me to my knees, plummeted me into an identity crisis, and made me understand in a visceral way what the self-loathing inherent in grunge was all about.

I listened to Nirvana for two months straight.

Like a phoenix struggling to reinvent myself from the ashes, I took a music performance class at the local community college called “Beginning Rock Band.”

On the fourth or fifth Saturday of the class, I stood with my guitar in front of a microphone with the makeshift rock band assembled by the instructor from the other younger-than-me beginning musicians. My stomach clenched as the drummer counted into the song. I launched into the dissonant power chords, belting out Kurt Cobain’s disaffected lyrics like my life depended on it.

I think it actually did. The power of performing with a band backing me surged through me like godfire.

I don’t know what would have happened if the effort had failed, but it didn’t.

At the end of the song, the rest of the class didn’t just applaud, they cheered.

It was an amazing feeling. I think my pain from all those months of darkness came through.

Life only got better from then, filled with music, new friends and experiences.

Rock had saved me, once more.

When you’re up there playing, and the music is flowing through you, and your soul is in it, then you will understand why it looks like the guys are making love to their guitars. Despite society’s oppression of women, this will give you the same power as the men. You will be their equal — and not only in the eyes of the audience, but in your own mind.

Playing guitar might be the single most important cure for a girl’s low self esteem.

Women, rock on.

Girl guitar solo obsession

Obsession didn’t quite cover it. More like a fever.

More than anything else in the world, I wanted to play guitar

One problem. I’m female, was age 17, and lived in Ohio. It was the 1970s and girls from the midwest just didn’t play guitar. Not seriously, anyway.

On the coasts, there were outliers. Patti Smith. Joan Jett. I never knew about Chrissie Hynde, who lived one city to the east of me, yet had to move to London to get famous.

But girls like me, where I lived, and coming from a working class family? It’s okay to be smart enough to go to college so you can catch a husband from a well-to-do family. It wasn’t okay to be smart enough to know you didn’t want to be like those girls, needing a man to define you in society.

Girl guitarist

It was a prison born of a generation of women not quite liberated, and a fading tradition of male superiority stuck in an blue collar past.

I did not know how the chains of my upbringing would grow heavier the more I struggled against them in the years ahead.

All I knew, at age 17, was a desperate need to learn rock guitar.

Flashback

I hunched over the state-of-the-Kmart record player I got from my parents for Christmas. It was not an easy trick to retrieve the stylus and drop it on top of the same patch of spinning black vinyl, while clutching a bulky hollow body electric guitar against my awkward teenage body. Difficult and stressful, yes, but done for a noble purpose.

To learn a guitar lick.

I dropped the needle to the platter again, on that same patch of plastic worn white with misuse. A single guitar phrase, thick with unholy blues-inspired nastiness, rolled from the speakers placed strategically near the ceiling on each of the four walls of my room. I memorized the dozen notes of the phrase, then lifted the needle off the vinyl. Jabbing the guitar strings with my pick, I made a sloppy mess of duplicating Mick Taylor’s brilliant phrasing, on that stolen Harmony guitar my guy friend Steve had “left in my care” in our family’s basement.

I would never be able to play that solo like Mick Taylor, but damn it, I wanted to so badly it hurt. I put the needle to the vinyl again. And again. And again.

For hours…

…until I could play that “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” solo along with the recording – without finesse or technique, perhaps – but straight through.

Maybe I wasn’t a virtuoso, like Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones. But every bit of heart that could be mustered by a 17-year-old girl in the ’70s poured into that loosely copied guitar solo – and that’s quite a lot.

I called it “the heat” – that yearning of wanting to play like the guitarists who took my soul to the borders of heaven. Only to the borders, though. Because everybody knew, rock stars were never going to get past St. Peter.

Those rock stars would burn in hell forever. Just ask my religiously-fanatical mother.

Never mind. If I could convert that desire trapped inside of me, into a guitar solo that blazed its way into eternity like those guitar gods could, I’d gladly burn in hell with them.

Legend had it that bluesman Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads with the devil, and traded his soul for his guitar skill. I totally got that.

Don’t let a guy talk you out of playing guitar

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Don’t ever let a guy talk you out of playing guitar. You might be still early in the learning stages and not that good yet. Or you might play them a song and he’ll tell you not to give up your day job. Or when you play him the rough recording, he’ll say it sounds like warbling. That’s what happened to me. The words will smite you to the core. It will make you want to give up playing and writing songs. Don’t listen to him.

As I found out later, he’s jealous. Either he isn’t interested in music, or thinks rock is for the immature, or girls shouldn’t play instruments, but should just sing. And if he’s a rocker himself, he’s probably a drummer who always wanted to play guitar.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t stop because it makes him feel that his opinion is more important than yours. Don’t stop because it pleases him. As Journey sings, don’t stop believing. Do what pleases you. Because someday that self-centered asshole will be gone or dead, and you will be left without music and without in yourself. If you’re like me, you might have even forgotten about how great playing guitar made you feel and it might not even occur to you to pick up your guitar again until years later.

There’s one man who would never ask you to quit playing: Keith Richards. He is the ultimate guitar hero. He is and always has been my personal guitar hero. And Keith says if he was locked in jail for life, he would be just fine if he had his guitar.

Sometimes being in a oppressive relationship with a man is just like being locked up in jail. It happened to me. And if I had still been playing guitar, I wouldn’t have been in so much pain. In fact, I might have had enough belief in myself, and enough power, to break out of the prison.

But for me, that didn’t happen until much later. Don’t let it happen to you.

Girls don’t play sax

Music had always created a yearning in me. When I went to grade school, music and art were taught right along side of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Like some kind of throwback to the Victorian age in which a person had to be well rounded, no one doubted that music and art were valuable pursuits.

I found out in the fourth grade that I had the option of learning an instrument. I don’t remember if it was through a handout that was sent home with me, or if it was announced in class.

“Do you want to play an instrument?” asked my mom. When I said I did, my parents took me to a small music store where I had my choice: flute, clarinet, saxophone.

“I want to play saxophone.” I don’t even remember why. Whether it was the color or the shape. Seriously, I doubt I knew what it sounded like.

My mom said, “The saxophone is a boy’s instrument. You should play clarinet.” Of course I believed her. So the clarinet it was.

And with a small group of kids in the basement of Seiberling Elementary School, I learned to read music and play clarinet. I carried that thing to school once or twice a week, and for a little 7-year-old, it felt pretty heavy, in its hard plastic case. It felt like my arm was going to fall off by the time I got to school.

At night, I practiced a lot in my room, the music on a stand my janitor grandpa had nicked from the high school he worked at. I didn’t clean the clarinet’s innards as often as I should, and I didn’t change the reed until it was bitten and ragged at the top. Musical instruments didn’t come with instructions, and there was no one to guide me. My parents weren’t musicians. Disgusting yellow sludge grew on the inside, and became crusty until even I became disgusted and bothered to wash it. It’s a wonder I didn’t contract some awful bacterial disease – but in fact, it probably helped me build up my resistance.

At ages 8 through 10, I doubt if I was very good. But I did enjoy playing it. And I learned how not to make it squeak. And I was able to play with thicker reeds as I got better at it, and my mouth and lungs grew stronger and I developed more control.

The songs were easy concert pieces like “Clair de Lune” and “Londonderry Air.”

But what I really wanted to play was rock and roll.

I wish I had the first song I ever wrote. It was called “Bum, bum, My Baby” which was the first two lines in the chorus. It also had a few verses, and I had worked out the melody on the clarinet. I can still vaguely hear that repeated line in my head. “Bum, bum, my baby. Bum, bum, my baby.”

The tragedy, of course, is that I couldn’t play it on the clarinet and sing it at the same time. So I attempted to enlist my neighbor Debbie to do the vocals.

Debbie was a year older than me, and the coolest girl on the block, for a sixth grader. She was the new girl at school who became popular very fast, because she wore great clothes, was a band majorette, and had a bedroom that was entirely done up in black and white, with a shaggy black bedspread that felt good to lay on. Besides that, she smoked cigarettes, and you couldn’t get cooler than that.

Debbie was game to try singing my song with me accompanying her on the clarinet, but the effort didn’t last very long. It just sounded goofy. Clarinets weren’t really made for rock and roll – although punk priestess Patti Smith proved that assumption wrong in 1979.

If only I had been allowed to play sax.