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Article: Women Buying Guitars

Written by Margie Mirken
Reprinted from Play Guitar, Fall 2001
Copyright String Letter Publishing, 2001

Welcome, ladies, to the boys' locker room, a.k.a. the rude rock and roll store...

Sorry if you're intimidated by the deafening gauntlet of guys who are so lost in wailing on electric guitars of every shocking color and menacing shape that they can't even imagine you'd like to try out a guitar, too. You've just discovered one reason why so few women and girls play guitar. But guitar is too fun to give up before you start just because the neighborhood bullies won't let you play.

To the uninitiated, even a pleasant music store can seem like a private club where everyone else knows the secret C-chord handshake. But you already have the membership card in your purse. It says VISA on it. Go guitar shopping where it doesn't matter that you're not the industry's young male target customer. Look in the phone book or check the websites of top manufacturers for dealers near you. Ask guitar-playing friends where to shop and which stores to avoid. Phone ahead; if the place sounds like the movie Wayne's World, keep looking, dude. A music shop or specialized guitar store with a businesslike atmosphere will sound that way over the phone. Ask about on-site adjustments and repairs, as well as teachers and learning materials, because those things indicate a shop that is interested in turning new players into long-term customers.

For every salesman who ignores a woman guitar shopper, there is a music store owner who would love to have you as a customer. Feel good about your consumer clout and don't apologize for your humble beginner status. You're going to need a video, book or DVD that demonstrates the basics, so use that as a gambit. If you and the salesperson click and move organically from the book area into the guitar showroom, so much the better. Understand that even the warmest and fuzziest of music stores get noisy when several customers are trying instruments at the same time, and don't be afraid to ask if there's a quiet place to compare instruments.

What kind of guitar can you can picture yourself playing? Do you love the round, flowing purl of a nylon-string classical? The brassy strum and sparkle of a steel-string acoustic? Does your teen daughter want to rock out on an electric? Guitarists will debate the advantages and difficulties of starting on each these three types of instrument, but male and female beginners successfully learn to play on each of them. Try the one you dream of playing, the one you will want to spend time with. Try all three. Don't worry about deciding on your first shopping trip.

Sociology and musicology aside, the only difference between men and women that affects guitar playing is physical size. It is a wonderful testament to centuries of instrument evolution that most players, large or small, learn to navigate on standard sized necks. Only a very few, very tiny women need specially proportioned guitars. The time-tested, lap-fitting figure-eight of the acoustic guitar varies from petite to queen size. Even the most enlightened of guitar shops will probably stock more of the bigger sizes favored by men, so don't be shy about asking to try small guitars if your six-foot-tall salesman doesn't happen to think of it. The critical area for comfortable fit is between your right arm and body. A guitar that's too big will force your right arm up too high. While a svelte girl's guitar rests close to her chest, a buxom woman will find the guitar sits further out towards the knee, effectively making her arms shorter. Be sure you can reach the strings and see what you're doing without having to hunch forward. You want to hug the guitar, but you don't want to end up with a backache. Electric guitars typically have smaller, flatter bodies, and most are sculpturally friendly to sit with but heavier hanging on a strap.

Are there guitars made just for women? With the notable exception of the costly Women and Music model from venerable acoustic maker C.F. Martin and Co. and the odd, kitschy electric, the answer is no. You'll find instruments with cool names like Stratocaster, or with arcane number designations like 512, but you're not going to find The Pretty Pansy anywhere but the Barbie aisle. All manufacturers offer several sizes, shapes and degrees of ornamentation to tempt a wide range of players. When form follows function, as it must in musical instruments, even an austere guitar can be beautiful. The guitar industry produces quality levels from very fine to utter junk, with good-to-adequate in the middle, so you can follow your aesthetic style and habit. If you always buy quality, don't let a salesman talk you into something cheap just so he can make the sale that day. The color, cut, and clarity of the guitar world involve woods and construction, so study up a little. Salespeople should know the difference that solid or laminated woods make in tone and be able to explain how construction and design details affect price. Please believe me, the loss-leader $100 special will not function as a musical instrument. Most beginners are happy in the middle, and $300-$600 will get you started just fine.

The amplifier that is the other half of your electric guitar purchase is by nature a heavy beast. There are lots of small practice amps available, but don't settle for a toy if you want real tone. As more male guitarists reach an age where their backs appreciate something lighter to carry, compact versions of powerful amps are becoming more popular. If all the amps in the store are too big for you to handle, ask if they can find you a good small one. Standard hard-shell cases are also clumsy and heavy, but your guitar needs protection. Shoulder and backpack straps make a gig bag easy-going even when you have your purse (or amplifier) in one hand and are leading a toddler with the other. Good soft gig bags are very lightweight, liberally padded for protection, and look like classy luggage in Cordura or even beautiful tapestry prints. Bug the store's buyer to find you a pretty one.

Guitar players naturally accessorize as they accumulate capos, electronic tuners, picks, string clippers and bottlenecks, so get a little zipper bag or two to keep these things contained. Root past the boring straps and those decorated with bullet-riddled skulls and dripping blood (I am not making this up) and you should find a few nice floral and geometric motifs and lots of tasteful leathers. Fashionable straps exist; your local store just has to be encouraged to stock them. Women's shoulders are narrow, and a strap tied to the peghead may slip off your left shoulder and dump the guitar on the floor, so consider a strap attachment near the neck/body joint for a more secure fit.

Guitar may be a de-facto boys club, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you get to play with the nice boys. The women guitarists I know hate to admit that girls are scared off by the aggressive playing of boys or the raunchy company some guitars keep. We all wish there were more women to play with, so don't let us down. Get out there and get a guitar. Get playing. Band practice is next week.

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