Our world has a lot of boys’ clubs — Congress, the Papacy, John Boehner’s golf course — but one of the most concerted sausage fests in existence is that of the guitar nerd. Browse through Guitar World or something, and you won’t just see men all over, you’ll see really hairy men who are rubbing their manly manness all over the pages as if their masculinity is synonymous with the very idea of guitar playing.
(On the landing page of the Guitar World website, there is not a single woman mentioned, though there is a link to its “Girls of Guitar World” page, which features models holding guitars — though not always in a position suitable for playing. In the “Features” drop down menu, there’s a link to this interview with Ana Popovic, a guitarist who is a woman. I did a search for Marnie Stern, and the magazine does have a recent interview with her. These article are both in a sub-section of the site, called “Guitar Girl’d,” which is distinct from and much less prominent than the “Girls of Guitar World” page. Anyway.)
I suppose this is because guitarists tend to be focused on rock, which is pretty male-dominated, and on the technically proficient end of rock in particular, which is even more male-dominated. The result is that when guitar manufacturers want to put an artists name on one of their guitars, it’s usually a man’s name. Fender sells Eric Clapton, John Mayer, and Jeff Beck Strats, and Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore Jazzmasters. There is no Kim Gordon bass, however. In fact, of Fender’s listed “signature artists,” there are no women at all, though the company’s subdvision Squier produced a Courtney Love model, the Vista Venus back in the late ’90s.
Gibson has Eric Clapton, Chad Kroeger, and Buckethead Les Pauls; Pete Townshend and Angus Young SGs; and even a Jonas Brothers Melody Maker. The only Gibson I could find with the name of a woman attached is the Joan Jett Blackheart. (BB King’s “Lucille” doesn’t count.)
And yet, in this hostile market, Taylor Swift has had her own branded guitar for sale through her website since the early days of her career. (I’m not sure when it was first produced, but I noticed it pretty early on, and I’ve been poking around Swift’s career since her first single.) Considering the rest of Swift’s merch leans heavily toward the t-shirts and cute trinkets end of the scale, and considering she isn’t anyone’s idea of a maestro on the instrument, I think it says a lot about Swift that she’s for so long maintained a product that does not traditionally code feminine, but does make a claim for her being a musician and a songwriter.
Of course, it helps that she has a natural synergy with the label that makes her guitars. It is called Taylor as well. Its other signature models include ones for Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, and Serj Tankian, but Taylor is the only female artist represented at Taylor.
Not that I have anything particular against Ms. Swift (I don’t really listen to a whole lot of her music because it’s not my style), but the acoustic guitar is one of the two pop music instruments that code feminine, the other being piano/keyboards. Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton are the pop-oriented examples I think of, although they’re much more fleeting than Swift is if sales are anything to go on.
I’ve not kept up with Fender’s catalog since I stopped being a serious player, but there used to be a Bonnie Raitt Stratocaster. Raitt’s place in the pantheon of blues/roots/folk-based pop and guitar hero status has always been the exception that proves the rule, though. Most of the time, signature guitars are a sort of perverse economy: they’re only really affordable for experienced players who have customized guitars to the hilt, and many of them lie in the trend of older, male players who know the guitar gods in the rock canon. I see them as a vanity. Additionally, while Taylors are great guitars, many of those same rock names tend to be Martin players — it’s telling that the Taylor signature list is either singer-songwriters or the really obscure type of guitar great that only other players know of (Leo Kottke & Doyle Dykes are very much a part of that camp.)
Guitar World has always been the macho, metal-oriented entry in the American guitar mag world. While I liked a lot of the songs it provided tabs for, I ditched it for Guitar Player once I became a bit more serious, because it treated genres outside mainstream or contemporary rock radio as valid (not that GP didn’t have its own troubles with female artists, but its editors were willing to admit there was a problem and went out of their way to tell its readers about say, Kaki King or remind them of somewhat-forgotten folks like Emily Remler.) Short version: don’t go looking in Guitar World for equitable distribution; it’s too tied up in rock & roll’s past glories.