A few months back I was talking to our Fender rep when he was showing us the new line of Fender Performer Series guitars when he produced a Ukulele that was a signature model of a young musician named, Grace VanderWaal. He assured me that this was a great move for Fender because there is a record number of Ukuleles being sold and Grace was riding a wave of popularity among the younger demographic. Now I don’t hide the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of the four stringed noise makers but there is no denying the effect it is having on younger (and older) audiences. The Ukulele is seeing somewhat a resurgence of popularity in recent years (so much so that they usurped the venerable Recorder for schools most popular instrument to learn last year) as it’s cost of entry is so much lower than that of a guitar, it also has a bit more of a forgiving learning curve. Why is this important you may ask? Well, many of these player do eventually gravitate toward the guitar once they have gained a certain level of skill with the Ukulele. What was more interesting was the fact he mentioned that (according to Fender’s research) more than 50% of new guitarists are female. This is the first time that the female demographic has outweighed their male counterparts in picking up the instrument.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been female guitarists that have won over legions of fans with their skills as musicians and songwriters in the past. It’s just they have alway been overshadowed by the male dominated scene that is Rock, and generally society has overlooked the importance of these artists. In fact it could be argued that Rock was started by a woman. This of course was, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her cultural impact can be felt to this day as she is credited to being an influence to some of the biggest names n rock-and-roll, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
It’s a sad reflection on society that during her time masculinity was directly linked to guitar skill, Tharpe defied this gender construct, but instead of being praised for her unique style of playing, she was often offered the back handed compliment from fans and media that she merely could "play like a man".
Bringing us back into this century, how is it that so many young girls are taking up guitar? If popular YouTuber, Phillip McKnight is to believed it’s that Taylor Swift is the next Van Halen. Now I know what you’re thinking, “how can anyone possibly compare those two?”, he isn’t comparing absolute skill or music genre but the far reaching influence they have had on the guitar playing public.
McKnight founded the McKnight Music Academy for guitarists prior to finding YouTube success. He states that when he first started the academy in 2006, less than four percent of its students were women. Come 2009 that number slowly increased to eight percent. As of 2016 he says that roughly 60 percent of his students are female!
What has caused this sudden uptake of the guitar among the female demographic?
Phil says “We started asking the students, and eight out of 10 of the students attributed Taylor Swift to the reason why they’re playing the music, really, she’s doing the same thing Eddie Van Halen did in the early Eighties—she’s causing all the young players to want to take up an instrument and play.”
I have added the video for you to make your own mind up regarding his opinions on the subject but I do quite enjoy the bit where he urges companies to stop the “shrink it, and pink it” philosophy to marketing their instruments to a female audience.
See video below:
It’s no secret that Rock has starting to feel a little… stale, but it seems that this new influx of talent is keeping it alive. Artists such as St. Vincent, Snail Mail, Mitski, Courtney Barnett and the likes featuring on the "Top Albums" lists of almost all tastemaker music publications. This is only the first wave of this new talent, I look forward to seeing what comes from the younger generation that makes up the 50-60% of new players.
If these artists continue being featured on influential media outlets this can only mean more young people wanting to pick up the instrument and make their mark on the musical landscape?
Obviously sticking with the instrument in the long term is becoming a bit of a problem unto itself. With so many other things vying for the resource that is our time such as mobile phones, games consoles, social media etc, retention of the instrument is at an all time low, but that is a subject for another day. But if only 10% of these new players continue playing into their adulthood it’ll be great to see what direction the genre takes. I strongly believe that women are the much needed spice needed to reinvigorating the arguably dying genre.
Rock should not be seen as an ‘all mens club’ like it has been for the past six decades, but an all inclusive outlet for collaboration, experimentation and expression no matter what gender you are.
Don’t let it die, let it evolve.