Sometime in my freshman year of college, some dudes were hanging out in my dorm room, and one of them picked up my Yamaha acoustic guitar I'd had leaning against the wall. He tuned it by ear and deftly tinkered with it, playing blues licks and some old standards. He said, "Oh, you know, I've mostly taught myself."
I'd been trying to teach myself guitar casually for years, but I couldn't figure out how to move past the basics of strumming chords. Guitar instruction textbooks mystified me. I thought if I couldn't teach myself out of books, I wasn't smart enough to learn how to play music.
It didn't help that the only people I knew who played rock 'n roll were boys, and most teenage boys I'd met were more interested in showing off than they were in encouraging self-conscious girls to play. My family wasn't unsupportive, but nobody pushed me to take lessons—the guitar itself was a Christmas gift to my brother, who wasn't remotely interested in it. There certainly wasn't a Girls' Rock Camp where I grew up in the sticks of eastern Montana.
As a whole, rock music and its subgenres remain highly gendered. None of the rock on the radio or the concerts around my hometown featured women (or people of color, for that matter.) Guitar magazines have always been a sausage fest.
In retrospect, I didn't keep after guitar for about the same reason I don't know how to change the oil in my car: Nobody ever told me not to, but nobody ever told me I could do it, either. And, I thought, why should I bother when there's a zillion dudes out there who can do it more easily than I can? After freshman year of college, I took the guitar home and left it in a closet to gather dust.
I didn't touch a guitar again for the next eight years. But I did embed myself into the Missoula music scene by DJing for KBGA and running a punk blog and helping organize Total Fest a couple times. I've met people who were welcoming of women, but I've also encountered guys who were dismissive of the idea that a woman could even have an opinion on music at all. A local musician once told me, with a sneer, "Oh, it's Kate Whittle, the queen of punk rock." I assumed people like him would be the first to laugh if I ever tried to play music again.
- photo courtesy of Tim Arrowtop
- The Blaine Janes playing a basement show in April.
But last fall, out of the blue, my friend Julia asked if I wanted to help start a feminist rock band. She promised the rest of the band would also be learning how to play for the first time. No guys would be allowed to join us, so we'd be free to screw up and improvise without fear of condescension or dismissal. I said yes, not really thinking the project would ever turn into something.
Over the next few months, we gathered other novices and began our self-taught Rock Band 101. Like, how to lug borrowed amps and hand-me-down guitars up and down treacherous basement stairs. How to get a rickety mic stand to stay up with some duct tape. How to write simple arrangements. How to carefully disagree. And yes, how to sometimes let a dude drum for us when our regular lady drummer was out of town.
After a winter of practicing in a freezing garage, we arranged a setlist and settled on a name—Blaine Janes, after the street where we practice. Julia, our infinitely determined band leader, selected a Planned Parenthood benefit in early April as our first show.
Having that date scribbled on the calendar made me nervous about having to play music in front of other people. I expected experienced musicians to make fun of our simple three-note bass lines or for a sound guy to judge my dinky little 30-watt practice amp.
But I couldn't let my bandmates down, so I loaded up my car and arrived at the ZACC for our first show in early April. I drank malt liquor in the parking lot until I felt bold. My friends showed up and they seemed excited.
When it was our turn to play and I stood up onstage, I was terrified. The stage didn't seem that tall until I stepped up on it and felt like my every flaw would be exposed. In my panic, I couldn't get my E string to tune, and the band had to make stage banter while I fiddled with it for a very long minute. But then our drummer kicked off the first song—a cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'"and away we went.
After our set, I was surprised and gratified when my Actual Musician Friends—still mostly men—turned out to be enormously supportive of my fledgling band. At the handful of shows we've played since, I haven't seen people scoffing at our four-chord progressions or earnest covers. I've seen drunk people dancing around and spilling their beers.
Maybe there are gals out there who will see us and realize, "If they can do it, I can do it." My band isn't the best band ever, but we are willing to rock out just because we can.
Though we still can't get the damn mic stand to stay up.