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Blues For Peace

Tracy Chapman, woman guitar player
Tracy Chapman

Female Guitarists

By Mike Hayes
If you were asked to name the top ten female guitarists how would you go?

There's Mary Osborne (jazz guitarist), Carol Kaye (bassist), Jennifer Battern (rock), Emily Remler (jazz), Lita Ford (rock) and a handful of other excellent guitarists who are known exclusively for their instrumental guitar skills.

However, most of the famous women guitarists - Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman and others - are all known for their singing and songwriting. There are virtually no female counterparts to Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Andres Segovia. Why not?

In some guitar-related activities, many women are disadvantaged by physiological factors. One example is hand and arm strength. According to Dr.Theodore Hettinger of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, in studies of the four muscle groups pertaining to guitar playing activities - women possess from 55% to 75% of the strength of men, although these differences do not exist between males and females under the age of ten.

Forearm strength is particularly important in guitar playing, since the fretting hand must press down firmly with a bent wrist. Bending the wrist reduces grip strength by about 13%, and muscles in the wrist and forearm are slightly more strained than in stiff-wrist gripping; therefore the 45% female disadvantage in foreman strength may place some women below the threshold of strength necessary to play many male-designed, male-manufactured, and male-tested instruments.

Lack of strength is a likely reason why women don't take up - or stick with - the guitar. Since those troublesome fingerings, particularly barre chords, may require substantial strength which can sometimes intimidate beginning female students more than men. This is in spite of the fact that chords usually only require great strength in the beginning, and that much of the energy expended by most beginners - male and female- is wasted anyway, and that the more a person plays, the more proper chording depends upon coordination and efficiency rather than sheer strength. Nevertheless, hand strength is advantageous in guitar playing, particularly for the beginner, and a young female student may not realize that playing basic chords is not a lifelong struggle.

There are specific remedies that anyone with small or weak hands can employ to decrease the difficulties of chording during the initial period when playing is particularly awkard. Many beginners mistakenly assume that only expensive guitars are easy to play when, in fact, any decent instrument should be at least moderately comfortable. Some people do not realize that a guitar's factory-set action is often too high even for experienced players. Also, many people play the guitar for a long time before realizing just how easily a "nonadjustable" bridge maybe lowered or how inexpensive it is to have a string nut filed down by a repairman. Some teachers suggest detuning the guitar a whole step or putting a capo on the first or second fret in order to substantially reduce string tension. Finally, there are even special instruments specially designed for players with small hands.

A common sterotype is the "girl singer" who uses the guitar only as an instrument of accompaniment - with concentration on finger picking, open chords and nonmelodic techniques - rather than pursuing it's solo capabilities as well. Since women's voices do not change in adolescence, young women tend to be less self-conscious and more confident of their singing voices. Perhaps the emphasis placed by parents and school teachers on vocal training for females tends to distract them from instrumental development. One fact is certain; there is a cycle of stereotype: women perform music in certain ways, so they are expected to perform in certain ways, so they do.

However, the female guitarists who persist and overcome these physical and stereotype issues bring a depth of musicallity that is rare in their male counterparts.

Here's is two examples of female guitarists/bassists who have played a major role in the music we here today.

Carol Kaye. Never heard of her, right? but unless you've been living on Mars, I'll bet you've heard her music. Carol was probably the busiest studio bassists in Los Angles.

Remember the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"? Remember Glen Campbell's "Witchita Lineman"? Remember Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright"?

Her film credits include: Mission Impossible, Bonanza, Airport, Bill Crosby, Bob Hope, Academy Awards special etc., Busy isn't the word for it!

How's this for an impressive list of performers she's backed on record: Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, Mel Torme etc.,

Maybelle Carter: Was the creator of the "Carter Lick" on the guitar - the playing of the melody with the thumb while brushing the strings for rhythm. This style had a profound effect on guitarists of her generation and those that followed. She also incorporated hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and folk-type embellishments into her style.

Her recorded output is large, and much of her best work can still be heard. By today's standards her guitar work, has none of the flash of recent players, but its clean, understated elegance tell volumes about the times and the places that produced one of country music's most important pioneers 50 plus years ago, and about this shy, reserved woman, one of America's most infuential guitarists.

Mike Hayes is a guitar teacher, author, performing musician and session guitarist with over 30 years of professional experience. Mike's methods are legendary and have earned the praise of top authorities in guitar instruction. He reveals his guitar secrets at http://www.GuitarCoaching.com

Bonnie Riatt * Sheryl Crow

Bonnie Raitt Guitar Tab

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Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman - sheet music at www.sheetmusicplus.com
Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman Performed by Tracy Chapman. Songbook for voice, piano and guitar (chords only). 76 pages. Published by Hal Leonard. (HL.356378)
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    Bonnie Raitt: The Best of Bonnie Raitt  Performed by Bonnie Raitt. Songbook for voice, piano and guitar (chords only). 103 pages. Published by Cherry Lane Music.
    Bonnie Raitt: The Raitt, Bonnie Collection  Performed by Bonnie Raitt. Songbook for voice, piano and guitar chords. 129 pages. Published by Cherry Lane Music.
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    Bonnie Raitt: Road Tested  Performed by Bonnie Raitt. Songbook for voice, piano and guitar chords. 155 pages. Published by Cherry Lane Music.


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