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It’s still hard out there for female musicians. It’s 2015, and even legends like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth are naming their autobiographies Girl in a Band, and country radio is insisting that women’s voices are poisonous to ratings.
These are the issues that household names face. As for those of us still in the trenches of obscurity as artists, there remains that element of naivety. Like, “Aw, how cute. You want to play guitar and rock out. Here, we’ve got some heart- and butterfly-shaped instruments for you.” (I fully support Daisy Rock and their mission to teach little girls about the virtues of shredding. It’s just when it comes to playability, this woman prefers a machine with better low-end.)
I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years. I’ve been in alternative bands, bands that bordered on hair metal and bands that sounded like Belle & Sebastian. And I’ve experienced more than enough misogyny.
Whether it’s unintended or absentmindedly polite (assuming I can’t lift my amps without a strong man to assist) or flat-out ignorant (I’ve had men in other bands on the bill ask which group my boyfriend was in), it drives me nuts that so many people still consider strong female musicians a novelty.
It’s especially bad in the retail sector, where buying a pedal can be as intimidating as getting a major overhaul on your car. If you can’t talk the talk, you’ll get walked on.
My buying anxiety has been the worst at Guitar Centers. The employees of the behemoth music chain work on commission and will try to upsell at any opportunity. Certainly, this tactic goes for men and women, but since about age 18 when I’d roam those stores on my own without my dad beside me to talk shop, I felt I was treated like a dunce.
The Guitar Center in Brea, Calif., irked me in my pursuits in my teens because when seeking Fender Stratocasters, the male employees would immediately suggest the lighter Squire or, again, the girly Daisy Rock selection.
I was tired of these men making assumptions of what I wanted or could handle just because I was a girl. So I conducted an experiment this month: I would dress either tomboyishly or ultra-feminine at various Guitar Centers in Southern California. I would ask to test-drive the same pedals and amps, and ask for the same repair job on my custom Fender.
The results, thankfully, surprised me. But there is still a long road ahead in obtaining equality for female musicians and gear heads.
First stop: Guitar Center in Palm Desert.
It was a tomboy day in which I was greeted right away. A younger fellow named Sal was quick to show me around the amp selection, as I was in the market for a tube (my solid-bodies might have high wattage, but drums at even my mellowest gigs would drown out my guitar).
I purposely made my vocal inflections more “shooting the shit” and cocky than mousy and inquisitive. My tomboy character was knowledgeable but just needed some real talk about quality. Sal spent nearly 15 minutes chatting with me about those and the pedals (Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi for this ’90s alternative rock aficionada).
Over at the repair section, the mechanic gave a base price of $65 for a general setup (my Fender has a loose volume knob and output jack, a somewhat wonky neck and a custom pickup trigger that could poke an eye out). An additional $5-10 would tighten the knob, with next-day service.
Now, Palm Desert is an isolated locale with a small population (51,000), it’s understandable its turnaround time would be less than than of stores in San Bernardino (population 214,000), Rancho Cucamonga (population 171,400) or Covina (population 49,000 but in the greater Los Angeles area). And as I’d discover, the base price varied from store to store. ($83 for San Bernardino, $77 at Rancho and $65 at Covina).
I’m assuming – and relieved – those rates are determined by area wages and not by how much the mechanic likes you or your instrument (asking price ranged from about $50-$70 and were clearly posted on a sign above the repair desk). So the misogyny theory was thankfully vanquished in that aspect.
But, other than one male customer’s female companion in the Palm Desert store, I was the only woman there. Not a single female employee in sight, and certainly no other female customers.
In fact, the only woman I saw working at one of the four Guitar Centers I visited was too busy chatting with a male co-worker in the amp section in Rancho Cucamonga to acknowledge me. (It was a feminine day, and I perused the store in a flirty, low-cut cocktail dress and wavy hair.)
At other Guitar Centers I’d been to before – Pasadena and West Los Angeles – the women either handle bag check at the entrance or ring up customers at the register. Nowhere have I seen a female tech, roaming salesperson or luthier at any Guitar Center in my two decades of shopping there.
I’m speaking for myself, and perhaps other women can relate, but I feel more comfortable making a big purchase or payment when counseled by another female. This goes for parts needed for my car, my health and well-being (I only see female doctors) and travel accommodations. It would be a less intimidating browsing experience for me if there were female music experts at Guitar Center aiding in my purchase.
Second Stop: Guitar Center, San Bernadino
This time I wore the above flirty outfit and "girlier" hair and makeup.
Again, I want to express my gratitude that what seemed like Guitar Center’s blatant misogyny toward women customers has dissipated over the years. But strong-arming may have morphed into flirtation in order to make a sale.
Look, I understand that salespeople use flattery as incentive, but the San Bernardino crew laid it on thick. The pedal professional kept the double entendres flowing after I requested to test-drive the Big Muff Pi.
What else does he suggest? The Way Huge Swollen Pickle fuzz box. There are bound to be other fuzz stomps out there sans a sexy name. Did my halter-top dress infer I needed something phallic? (But damn it, the Swollen Pickle did have an excellent tone.)
Not to mention the mechanic pulled a classy move of thrusting the cable in and out of my Fender’s output jack to demonstrate how loose it was— not salacious or inappropriate, just funny.
Tally of other women present in San Bernardino: a good amount. There was a mother and daughter looking at starter guitars and a singer searching for a high-end vocal mic. The estrogen was palpable and quite welcome.
Stop 3: Guitar Center, Covina
The last Guitar Center I visited for this experiment was in Covina, about 30 minutes east of Los Angeles. Another tomboy day, another geek-out session with an employee over tube amps.
Though even in my most plain-Jane attire, slicked-back hair and unshaven legs, I was being sold on the aesthetics of the machinery, not the sound. A used, silvery Fender tube became the proverbial shiny diamond that is supposed to entice all women.
I asked the fellow if the paint job jacked up the price, and he laughed. If I were to actually buy it, I would certainly try to talk him down— and maybe repaint it to match my cerulean guitar, just out of spite and irony.
In taking on this undercover task, I knew my approach was fallible. Friendliness toward and respect of women musicians could be on an employee, not a company-wide, basis. The foot traffic in each store could affect how quickly I was helped. And my own demeanor – a pensive scowl or a come-hither-and-assist-me smile – could attract or repel a salesperson.
So bravo, Guitar Center. When it comes to customer service, you’re doing better than you used to when it comes to the “fairer” sex.
But please hire more women. We don’t need your help restringing our instruments and carrying our amps. We can do it ourselves. And we can do it for other females.