Who Are the Guitar Goddesses?

December 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Strings | 5 Comments

Listening to the radio on the way home from work today, I heard the DJ refer to Jimmy Page as a “guitar god.” I like Jimmy Page, but I don’t know that deifying him is necessarily called for. But that statement got me thinking about the great guitarists.

A half dozen names popped into my head immediately, followed quickly by a dozen more. But I noticed something: I couldn’t come up with a single female guitar great. In the pantheon of guitar gods, who are the guitar goddesses?

I considered that the shortcoming might be my own, so I decided to look online at other people’s lists of the best guitarists, hoping to find the women that I somehow forgot. I typed “best guitarists” into Google and then clicked the first four links (see below) that seemed pertinent. What I found was sad, but also expected, unfortunately.

Jimi Hendrix topped each list as the best guitarist of all time. Though their rankings varied, the next top nineteen guitarists were pretty consistent among all the lists: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, and Eddie Van Halen were on all, with appearances by Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and others.

Guitar World recently posted its “30 on 30,” in which thirty great guitarists were asked to name their guitar heroes. (They must have been asked not to choose someone already mentioned because no two guitarists chose the same hero.) Of those thirty guitar heroes, not a single one was a woman.

But that’s not half as concerning as DigitalDreamDoor.com’s list of the top 250 rock guitarists. (The list is actually longer, but they stop ranking them after 250.) Of 250 rock guitarists, how many do you think are women?

If you guessed twelve, you’re off by a dozen. Not a single woman appeared in that list of 250 guitarists.

The guitar world isn’t completely exclusive. LA Times Magazine‘s “guitar experts” chose their top fifty guitarists and then asked their readers to rank them. This list cast a wider musical net, including classical and Spanish guitarists. The top favorites are pretty predictable. Not until almost the end of the list do we see a glimmer of femininity: Sitting at number 48 is Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist and founder of the Juilliard School’s Guitar Department. She’s certainly an accomplished musician, but not a household name.

You can’t discuss guitarists without looking to Rolling Stone magazine. It offers its own sleek-looking list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, with Hendrix, Clapton, Page, and Richards at the top. Farther down, past photo after photo of long-haired, axe-wielding men, you’ll find Joni Mitchell sitting at number 75, sandwiched between Dick Dale and Robby Krieger. A hop, skip, and jump away, nestled between Carl Perkins and Tom Verlaine, sits that blues beauty Bonnie Raitt.

So what’s going on here? Is it true that, as Rolling Stone‘s list implies, only 2% of professional guitarists are women? Is the business of pop music inherently sexist? Are girls just not interested in learning how to play guitar? Or is that possibility not being communicated to girls during their formative years? Are they just lacking role models?

I don’t know the answers. What I know, though, is that this disparity just feels wrong. But instead of focusing on why things are the way they are, it’s better to focus on how we can change things.

As a novice guitar player and father of two boys, I don’t have a lot of sway with young women looking to branch out musically. Luckily, it isn’t just up to me. If you’re a guitarist, or if you have a daughter, and especially if you’re a guitarist who has a daughter, make sure she knows that the six-string avenue is open to her, that she isn’t limited to flute, violin, and piano. And when you find an outstanding female guitarist like Bonnie Raitt, share her music with your sons and daughters alike.

And if you’re an outstanding woman who is also an outstanding guitarist, consider following the example of Sharon Isbin — making great music, being a great role model, and passing your knowledge to tomorrow’s great female musicians.

There must be some women out there playing great guitar. Who are they, and what are their greatest performances?

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

Long Ago, in a Symphony Far, Far Away

December 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Posted in Humor, Strings | Leave a comment
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Like most people, I often wonder what the music scene might like in the world of Star Wars. Certainly we know about the little jazz combos that Jabba the Hutt prefers, but what about what we here on Earth would call “classical music”?

Finally, someone has answered this eternal question, giving us a glimpse into the rivalries of deep space cellists. Steven Sharp Nelson and ThePianoGuys show us what might happen when a cellist from the Sith Symphony Orchestra challenges a cellist from the Jedi Philharmonic.

It’s just too awesome not to share.

IWS Open Auditions

July 18, 2011 at 10:45 am | Posted in Instruments | Leave a comment

The Indiana Wind Symphony announces auditions for several open positions and for consideration on the substitute list of musicians.

The IWS is Indiana’s premiere adult concert band and is a resident ensemble of the Palladium at the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts. There are immediate openings for piccolo, oboe, bassoon, baritone saxophone, French horn, trumpet, trombone, string bass and percussion (mallet proficiency necessary), however all instruments are encouraged to audition.

The auditions will be held on Thursday, August 4 from 6-9 PM and on Saturday, August 6 from 10 AM until 2 PM at Asera Care/Golden Living (8460 Bearing Dr. Suite 300), which is near 86th and Georgetown. Please email IWS Personnel Manager Julie Burckel (creola0615 (at) sbcglobal.net) to schedule an audition or to ask questions about the IWS.

Please prepare 5 minutes of music that shows your playing at its best. Sight-reading will be part of the audition. High school musicians are welcomed to audition for substitute spots, but only players 18 and older will be considered for full positions.

ISO Mall Flash Mob

February 5, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Posted in Strings | Leave a comment

I’m such a sucker for this sort of thing. It’s very simple idea: You gather your cohorts, go somewhere public (and, these days, warm), and create some art where people aren’t expecting it.

It’s a flash mob. I’m such a sucker for a flash mob. Some of the strings from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra dropped on on the Keystone Fashion Mall on January 29 with their old friends Piotr and Antonio:

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

Attack (and Release) of the Downtown Busker

November 19, 2010 at 12:01 am | Posted in Humor, Saxophone | Leave a comment
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Late October had put a chill in the air. The grayness of the sky seemed to suck energy from everything. I shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my brown leather jacket as I trod the grimy sidewalks of downtown, heading toward its center in search of something to eat.

The sound came faintly at first, barely noticeable as it began to penetrate the rumbling of tires over brick and the white noise of water rushing from a nearby fountain. As I came closer to my destination, the wailing became eerily recognizable. As soon as I rounded the corner onto Meridian Street, I couldn’t help but cringe as I spotted him at the entrance to an alleyway, honking away in constantly changing pitches. There was no doubt—I was approaching the dreaded downtown busker.

It took several seconds of listening before I recognized the pattern of the sounds coming from his tenor saxophone. It was what can be most complimentarily described as an original rendition of “In the Mood.” I hurriedly took refuge in a nearby Mexican fast-food joint.


Now, there’s nothing wrong with being original. Music can be interpreted in different ways with variations in style. But playing every note fortissimo and clipping every phrase (well, actually, partial phrases), plus pausing a beat after each (partial) phrase is not exactly the most musical of styles and actually could be argued to not be a musical style at all. (Saxophones actually can be played quite musically, as evidenced, I’m pleased to say, by the Wind Symphony’s sax section. It might be in their interest to sue this guy for defamation of instrument.)

I hypothesize that this street musician plays loudly to be heard by as many as possible so as to maximize his handouts. (Please don’t suggest to him that a trumpet can be played even more loudly.) Consequently, he has to take deep breaths fairly frequently, creating a clipped and staccato style where too many breaks are inserted into the “music”.

But I believe his approach is less than optimal. Wouldn’t people be more likely to give and more likely to give more to a busker who shows some true musical talent and entertains them? When people move to the other side of the street or roll up their car windows (which doesn’t help much) to minimize the assault on their eardrums, one’s instrument case is not going to be filled with cash at the end of the day.

If he doesn’t realize this or just doesn’t grasp the concept of musicality, I’d recommend that he go instead for sympathy. Wearing a sign that says “Can’t afford music lessons” would, no doubt, increase the contributions.


After finishing my tacos, I found it necessary to head outside again to make my way back to my office. The busker was still honking away across the street, but in the block or so I walked before his notes faded once again below the sounds of tires and fountains, I wasn’t able recognize the new tune. Fortunately, I didn’t have to attribute that to a lack of musical knowledge.

The walk back allowed me to reflect a bit and realize that there are a couple of good aspects to the busker’s performances. He is attempting to earn a few bucks by doing something more than sit on a street corner with a cardboard sign and, as unmusical as he may be, he is still much more melodic than someone rattling coins in a plastic cup.

Do You Need Room for Some Clarinet in Your Coffee?

November 10, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Clarinet, Composers, Trombone | 1 Comment
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I just happened upon this post at the Improbable Research blog about a recent UK study testing the link between flavor and different musical sounds. The research results, encapsulated in the improbable-sounding (is that where they got the blog name?) “As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic responses in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes,” highlights the findings that even for people who are not synesthetic*, the different sounds of different instruments affect the perception of taste. To quote Martin Gardiner at Improbable Research:

For example, the piano was felt to be particularly appropriate for the taste of sugar — and quite unsuitable for brass instruments. Similarly, coffee was more woodwindy than brassy, and orange-flower was brassy rather than stringy. These newfound associations between flavours and individual instruments lead on to a new hypothesis — might similar matching effects occur with more complex sounds — and even perhaps with music in general?

The implications of this research could be felt — er, tasted — in restaurants near you. If experiments reveal that, say, low string sounds make tomato-based dishes taste more succulent, your next trip to the Olive Garden may find your family dinner conversation drowned out by an invasive, unwavering bass solo.

This may explain the existence of haggis, which may be the only food that tastes good while listening to bagpipes.

*Synesthesia is a condition in which a sensation normally felt in one sense is felt instead in another. A synesthete might, for example, hear colors, feel odors, or in this case, taste sounds. It is believed that a number of musicians were or are synesthetes, including Leonard Bernstein, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Billy Joel, Duke Ellingon, Tori Amos, and Eddie Van Halen.

Excuse Me, What’s That Instrument You’re Playing?

October 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Clarinet, Humor | 1 Comment

Frequently after concerts, someone comes up to me and asks me what my instrument is. They do this because it’s fairly visible, sticking above my head, and because they don’t recall seeing anything like it before.  So, I thought I’d make my instrument the subject for my initial blog post. And, it will more than likely factor into many of my subsequent posts.

I play…the giant paperclip.

OK, so it’s not a giant paperclip, or any kind of paperclip, but it looks like one. You might also think it resembles something from under your kitchen sink. But I certainly try to make it sound better than anything you’d find under there.

It’s actually a contrabass clarinet, the largest and lowest active member of the clarinet family.
Many may not realize that clarinets have a family, but they do. It’s a fairly large family, especially if you include the long-lost cousins. The Indiana Wind Symphony uses several family members: the E-flat and B-flat sopranos, the alto, the bass, and the contrabass. The B-flat sopranos are the ones commonly referred to simply as “clarinets.” The rest require qualifiers. For example, if a conductor says “Let’s hear the clarinets starting at Measure 21,” I know he’s not looking for me to play. When he does refer to my instrument, he usually shortens its name to where it sounds as though I’m a Nicaraguan rebel, possibly even one who is lousy at camouflage. “The contra needs to blend in more.”

My contra—er, contrabass clarinet—is wound up like a paperclip for no other reason than the fact that it’s made of about 8 feet of tubing. If it was straightened out, I’d have to sit on top of a ladder to play it, although I guess it could be held horizontally, in which case it would stick through the two rows of musicians in front of me. Contras do come in other, less amusing shapes, but they’re all basically the same instrument.

However, not all band compositions include contrabass clarinet parts, so I occasionally end up playing a bass saxophone part, if there is one of those. When neither exists, I play bass clarinet.

Well, now that I’ve introduced my instrument (well, one of my instruments) through this post, I realize it’s likely that fewer people will be coming up to me after concerts to ask me what it is, which is unfortunate, because I enjoy the attention. It lets me know they noticed my instrument—maybe not what it sounds like, but at least what it looks like.

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