Women and Guitars – a Changing Relationship

by Dan Daley • in
  • October 2018
  • The Last Word
• Created: October 3, 2018

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Going back into the late 20th century (it feels so odd to say that), a combination of culturally correct string slingers paired with pulchritudinous platinum blondes on posters plastered around a store was a great way to sell guitars and amplifiers. It reflected the spirit of the times, when Van Halen was a leading prototype for acceptable machismo. Today, it seems quaint, at best, and a remnant of a less-enlightened time.

But it was, at its core, simply an advertising strategy, and one that worked. No one gave much thought to how it was reinforcing gender stereotypes as long as it sold guitars and amps. Today, gender is politicized and in flux, and electric guitars don’t sell like they once did; however, they have shown strong growth in recent years, according to a Fender spokesperson. But the need remains to sell those guitars aspirationally, just not solely to rock gods anymore, because the music that propelled those sales for a half century has been moved aside by genres that, as Fender says, use stringed instruments in unconventional ways, but not least because the goddesses have finally taken their place in the pantheon. [Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Lita Ford, Poison Ivy, and others might say they were already in the pantheon, but point taken. – Ed.]

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby (And Other Antediluvian Concepts)

Advertising in general has been acknowledging the fact that women are consumers of far more than traditional feminine products, and that the ones they do buy don’t need to be feminized. Unlike the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ‘70s that Madison Avenue leveraged by advising their cigarette clients to turn carcinogens into fashion statements like Virginia Slims (cancer is one way to lose weight, I guess), or even the unfortunate trend of simply making guitars pink and smaller, the marketing landscape today seems to be leveling out in a good way, becoming more gender neutral. Instead of trying to shape the market, MI has been more intently listening to it.

“We found that 50 percent of new guitar buyers were women and that their tendency was to buy online rather than in a brick and mortar store because the intimidation factor in a brick and mortar store was rather high,” Fender CEO Andy Mooney told Forbes. “We also found we needed to communicate more to the female audience in terms of the artists we connect with, in terms of using women in our imagery and thinking generally about the web.”

Fender CMO Evan Jones elaborated on that a few months ago, telling me, “Twenty or 30 years ago, the gender mix for guitar sales skewed 80-plus percent male. Today, it’s not only skewing more female but also dramatically younger. We see more and younger women on stage using guitars. And that’s how it needs to be portrayed.”

The advertising around this realization is beginning to reflect that portrayal, such as this Black Friday ad from Guitar Center (for whom the fate of the guitar is literally nominally existential) with women actually playing guitars instead of appearing as props for them (talking to you, Guitar World Buyer’s Guide). Jones says that women are portrayed more often – and more realistically – in Fender’s ads now. They and other guitar makers are beginning to place bets on the next generation of guitar players who will come

of age with very different understandings of gender, one far more nuanced than the admittedly Cro-Magnon imagery from what’s come to be regarded as the guitar’s golden era.

You don’t need to be a student of Joseph Campbell to understand that how we depict cultures is too often the way we ultimately perceive them, instead of vice versa. But now the depictions are beginning to reflect a data-driven reality: more women aren’t buying guitars because we’re picturing them that way; they’re in those pictures because more of them are actually buying guitars and playing them. Reality – what a concept.


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