By Samantha Harford.
When most people hear an electric guitar, they might think of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana or Jimi Hendrix – hearing a woman’s name come up in association isn’t always the most common first answer. That’s okay, it’s no breaking news that the world of guitars and rock and roll has been generally male in the past. What is exciting, however, is the news that more and more women than ever are buying guitars. From 2015, guitar sales have risen by 12% and market research from Fender shows that half of those customers are female. This is huge for the music industry and is influencing what we listen to in so many ways, with Wolf Alice being awarded the 2018 Mercury Prize for their alt-rock album Visions of a Life. While a predominantly male band, lead vocalist and guitarist Ellie Rowsell shows the world just how significant the shift in the music industry is through the success of their latest album with her vocals and guitar at the forefront of their music. And it’s not just Wolf Alice that have been successful either, As I write this article, over half the entries in the UK charts’ top ten are women. That’s right, the future is female – and the music industry heard it first.
With Fender’s market research revealing the rise in female buyers for guitars, it got me thinking. What had changed exactly? The Guardian described the explosion of guitar purchases to be down to female musicians taking the storm, and I think that they’re right. More and more women are straying away from the traditional girly pop scene and heading somewhere else – whether it be alt-rock, r’n’b, rap or hip hop, we see women everywhere now and even more so in the places that we used to not, with artists like Ellie Rowsell, St Vincent and Lzzy Hale changing the face of music, and in turn changing the reactions of the listeners, too. More girls are looking up to their favourite musicians and are wanting to join in.
Annie Clark, known mostly by her stage name St Vincent, nails this feeling perfectly in her collaboration video with company Ernie Ball Music Man in the announcement of her new signature guitar:
‘I could play it […] and make the sound, like my heroes made and I was just blown away […] I’d feel like I’d gotten the keys to the kingdom’
The St Vincent star is right. That feeling, when you pick up a guitar or bass or sit by a piano and make the same sounds your favourite musicians have made. It’s transcendent, as if each note draws you closer and closer to the person you dream to become and there’s honestly no going back when you’ve created something like that. In 2017, St Vincent released a poignant, explosive portrait of twenty-first century angst in her album Masseduction. She uses her very own custom designed guitar throughout the tracks to create an album all about power; that is technicoloured, electric, and unforgettable. Now, with the addition of a single vowel, Clark completely strips bare from the fast-paced hooks and trademarked electric guitar and gives her listeners: Masseducation. Her songs are completely transformed with the inclusion of only her voice, and friend Thomas Bartlett on piano; Masseducation is exposing and forceful, with tracks like ‘Los Ageless’ losing their technicolour vision and morphing into sounds as rough as silk, and just as slow.
She Shreds, named the world’s only print magazine dedicated to women guitarists and bassists, called Annie Clark a ‘guitar icon’ for her musical talent and ventures into the industry of guitar design. In 2016 Clark collaborated with Ernie Ball Music Man to make her very own signature guitar – and she had women in mind all throughout the design process. In her debut release on Instagram, Annie Clark writes ‘I want to design a tool that is ergonomic, lightweight and sleek’ with ‘room for a breast or two’. Her design has a thin neck and is super lightweight, weighing around seven pounds – much lighter than the traditional Gibson Les Paul which Clark admits she couldn’t play even if she wanted to, she would ‘need a chiropractor on tour in order to play those guitars’. St Vincent star goes on in an interview with Guitar World to describe the prohibitive manner a traditional electric guitar conveys; from its weight and length to the way it completely cuts across a woman’s body blocking her silhouette and squashing her breasts. That’s not the ideal way anyone would want to play guitar, right? Annie Clark’s signature design tackles all these problems which women and small-bodied people face with its super slim design and unique shape. It’s lightweight, it’s minimalistic, and it’s selling well – having been re-released last year in even more colours including the Corvette inspired Vincent Blue. Women guitarists everywhere have been applauding Clark for taking the plunge and changing the foundations of the electric guitar so that hers is more user-friendly for everyone. It’s about time someone did it, without adding flowers or colouring them pink and the St Vincent star has done it, really well.
So all this news from Fender and the papers is right, the future is female: they rock, and they can shred like hell.