Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Girls Don't Play Lead

By Kayte VanScoy

MARCH 8, 1999:  Pans clatter against pots. Babies are diapered and strapped into high chairs. Televisions prattle, doors slam. A floor and ceiling under it all, I am playing the piano in the relative tomb of the basement. I am telling myself a story: "This is about a girl who is in a haunted house by herself." I tap the black keys with my left hand, making the notes walk the girl up a spooky flight of stairs. "Suddenly, something jumps out at her!" The white keys tumble down from the right to meet the black keys in the middle. In the mishmash I find a sound that I like, an eerie chord that tells the whole creepy tale. I play the chord all at once and then dawdle about, tip-toeing up and down, up and down, up and --

"Will you stop that racket?!" The inevitable command flies down the basement steps, ripping me out of my story, my sound, and all of my ideas. "I thought you were supposed to be practicing," my mother adds with requisite intentional guilt. No, not practicing. I was supposed to be playing.

As a little kid I had to share music with my piano teachers and the church choir, not to mention Beethoven, Schumann, Bartok. But the little tunes I wrote in my basement belonged only to me. Since it drove my family nuts, making new sounds was a furtive pleasure for stolen moments of solitude. I assumed that it would always remain that way.

When I was 16 my piano got left behind in one of a long string of rented houses where I had hauled it. I instantly became a girl without an instrument. It's easy to tell yourself that another piano will come along, that you will surely move in with someone who has a piano someday, or that someone will die and leave you a piano or that you'll miraculously see a piano at a garage sale for $200 on some Saturday when you happen to have $200. But life, as you might have noticed, is not always fair.

I know I'm not the first one to notice, but guitars are more portable than pianos. The progression from piano to guitar might seem like a natural fallback. Yet, guitars did not invite me. Guitars are what my brother played; they are what Ted Nugent played. And anyway, nothing makes sense on a guitar. Chords are constellations instead of progressive points on a line. My nimble fingers cramped around the neck, picks went flying, music was not made. My piano had loomed and engulfed, casting a protective wing around me. Guitars can only punctuate, spotlighting every insecurity, every awkward posture, and seemed to me to be not so much for playing music as for striking poses.

Anyway, that's what I told myself. I knew a few basic chords -- A, E, C, D, G -- and I could sing. Plenty of people with a lot less talent than me have gone around wielding songs at innocent strangers for money. So, of course, I once had a band; or should I say, it once had me.

Ann, Kim, and I thought up a great high school band name: Naked Wicker Mannequins. Our PR campaign was to scrape NWM into newly setting cement and to scrawl NWM on bathroom walls. In reality, though, if we didn't skip school three times a week to play on the cliffs out at Lake Travis (yielding an inordinate crop of songs about fish, boats, and smoking lots of weed) then we would have had nowhere to play at all.

illustration by Michael Sieben
We all wrote songs, but I was the only one without an instrument. Sometimes, in Kim's bedroom, I got to hold a microphone, which at least gave me something to do. Otherwise, I would wait until Ann or Kim set down her guitar and then I'd pounce and try, again, to play the opening to some Two Nice Girls song or other, normally resulting in the guitar being snatched out of my hands in mid-clumsy strum. All I could do was laugh, smile, try to act cool.

What I'm trying to say is that my friends, and especially their guitars, intimidated me. A lot. And, perhaps a little bit, on purpose. It's not a bad way to dawdle through the end of your teen years, but what it felt like was one long reminder that I was a woman without a country, a songwriter without an instrument, and most importantly, I sucked.

This intimidation stuck with me through an entire tuneless decade. When confronted with guitars I developed a standard demure -- a blush, a silent shake of the head. "I'm terrible," I'd mumble.

But sometime last year the economics started lining up and it struck me one day that I could, if I wanted to, just go out and buy a guitar of my own. No one would have to know. Anyway, I am a grown woman now, not some shrinking teenager. If I want to do something I can just haul off and do it.

And so it began. Being not a very cool person by nature and mostly a nerd I went straight to the bookstore to do a little research on what guitar to buy, which turned out to be something akin to looking up "Fashion" in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Guitar time lines they got. Detailed vivisectional comparisons of the relative benefits of a humbucker to a lipstick case pickup they got. What Guitar Will Validate Kayte's Musical Yearning they ain't got.

Secretly I began examining the guitars that my favorite bands played, but really this wasn't much help either. To actually be useful I would have to walk up to the stage before the show and pick the guitar up to examine where and when it was made, and even I am not that uncool. Of course I know people who play music. I mean, I am from Austin. I could have asked absolutely anybody, but I wasn't feeling so brave.

Eventually, I wanted to stop looking and start touching, which launched an epic guitar-shop crawl. They're stores, after all, I thought. I'll just walk in and look. No big deal.

Normally, I love to shop, but my first foray into the guitar wilderness made me instantly tired. Harvested sheaves of hanging guitars, stacked bales of amplifiers, crate upon crate of gadgets and wires were all crammed into a close and over-staffed little hovel. I tried to appear nonchalant, but one of the loitering salesmen called out from the banjo section, "What can we help you find?"

As if I know. I smiled, blushed, shook my head. It would look stupid to just leave, so I pushed my feet forward toward the back wall, the hanging sheaves. Running my hands along the glossy coats of paint, I surveyed the array. Some of the guitars were so pretty -- gold fixtures and mother of pearl inlay, but I was supposed to not care about that. The only other patron in the place noisily plugged into an amplifier.

"You want this one?" The balding shop guy startled me from directly behind my left ear. "Uhhhh ... " I replied. He took down the fancy guitar and shoved it into my hands. "Why don't you plug it in?"

Exhaustion. Deflation. Complete paralysis overcame me. I stared at him, blushed, smiled. "I'm not very good," I practically whispered.

That was all he needed. He deftly grabbed the guitar back from me, whipped a leather strap around his back, and sauntered over toward the amplifiers. "Let me show you what this one can do," he called back over his shoulder. "You see, this axe here is not for ladies, really, anyway," he informed me. ("Axe?" I'm thinking. I bit my lip.) "Because this is really a lead guitar, and ladies don't play lead." With this pronouncement he cut into a feat of twiddling which caused my hands to involuntarily slap onto both ears. He turned back to smile at me as he headed up to the dogs-only section of the fretboard.

Some ladies' man from behind the counter rescued me, screaming, "Hey! Hey! I think if she's got her fingers in her ears, that means she doesn't like it!"

I crawled out of the shop, downtrodden and speechless. For the next several weeks I repeated this experience in shops all over town. Walk in, notice I'm the only girl in the place, feel disoriented, and then try to simultaneously hide and feel confident about amplifying my lousy guitar skills to a roomful of strange men. Not that it made much difference if I played the guitars or didn't play them; I wouldn't know what I was listening for anyway.

These guitar shop guys obviously know a thing or two about the instruments, I have to give them that. Not that they had any intention of sharing this knowledge with me, of course. "Why is this one so much more expensive than that one?" I'd ask, holding some dream-on Gibson. The answer would be contained in the pregnant pause between the tuck of a stringy, bleached lock of hair around an ear and the knowing roll of a tongue behind a bottom lip. "That one's got that sound, you know," he'd begin, "that big, ringy, bass-y sound but with the glassy overtones, too. And it's fast, you know, tight. I mean, the great thing about this baby is it can shred like a tank or talk like a pussycat. Listen to this." Then the baby would leave my hands and another free concert would commence.

So I learned not to ask, but regardless of what evasive maneuvers I took I would invariably find myself talking to some former first-string trumpeter about the benefits of playing a Gretsch through a Mesa Boogie, and I'd be going, "Uh-huh, uh-huh," and at the same time I'd be looking at the guy's haircut and wondering if this was the cultivated knowledge of a Guitar God or something only a mullet would do.

Eventually, of course, I started to learn the lingo which gave me some distance from the fact that every time I touched a guitar in public I felt sick. I was able to talk about pickguards and toggle switches and nine-gauge strings. Not that this semantic empowerment registered with the guitar shop jocks at all. They still approached in attack mode to inform me of the important innovations they had made on their own Twin Reverb, re-engineering it to the all-important pre-CBS configuration. Well, that was how he rigged it for that tour of Europe in '95, anyway. (Are you kidding? I did not ask.)

Toward the end of my guitar quest, though, I began to see how these water boys of the music world hid their own lack of native talent behind a flawless knowledge of the instruments. I could see how the incessant SRV leads which are, as we speak, tickling the tweeters in every guitar shop in town, were just a means, strangely, of not making music. A way of excluding any suggestion of collaboration or experimentation. I began to see myself as the brave one for even venturing into this deliberately exclusionary world.

After a month of skulking from store to store I finally realized that there was not going to be a right answer. Lots of people said that when I saw the right guitar I'd just know, but it didn't happen that way. I don't believe in love at first sight anymore anyway. I found a '75 Telecaster that I could afford and I bought it on an installment plan. And when I have a song in my head, I pick up the plain black thing, and I play it.

In my living room, I play lead.

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