Sunday, February 6, 2011

Marnie Stern and Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Guitar Playing

I said this a few weeks back, but now I'll repeat it in bold for posterity: Marnie Stern is the best guitarist in America. She may not be the fastest, the most well-rounded, or the most technically-gifted player out there, but those were never criteria for judgment in the first place. Style and ingenuity, as well as a desire to play and sound different than anyone else in the game, have always mattered to me more than blues scale memorization skills, and she has a handle on the instrument that just seems clearer, more unique and eager to take chances than the exalted standard-bearers of 21st century guitar (we'll get to them in a second). And now that Battles has lost its singer and one if its key players, it's looking more like Marnie Stern is the last great practitioner of that most hoary of guitar tricks: fret-tapping.

When Ms. Stern does get the love she deserves, the props come almost exclusively from experimental and post-rock circles, the types that fall into the same tradition as Battles and its rough antecedents Don Caballero, Helmet and Lynx. These bands have all, at one point or another, moved past the label of "math rock," which really isn't that offensive of a term as long as you learn to associate "math" in musical terms with something entirely unrelated, namely "crazy irregular time signatures and manic, digressive drumming." Ms. Stern's closest collaborator Zach Hill came out of that tradition, having drummed for Hella and the Ladies and dozens of other poly-roly rhythm groups. Mr. Hill is the second integral component of Marnie Stern's latest album: to call such an dexterous dude a "drummer" is to call Albert Einstein a guy with some thoughts about relativity.

With or without Zach Hill's underground cred, there are other reasons why Ms. Stern won't be showing up on the cover of Rolling Stone or Guitar World anytime soon. For starters, there's that lack of a Y-Chromosome preventing her from symbolizing anything beyond token female guitarism, which is to say acoustic, feminized rock of the Joni sort. A few years ago, RS came out with its "New School Of Guitar Gods" issue, a typically embarrassing affair in which the heirs of Hendrix and Clapton were revealed to be cover stars John Frusciante (who started playing with the Chili Peppers in the late 80s), Derek Trucks (Allman Brothers royalty and the slipperiest slide player north of Gainesville) and John Mayer (have I mentioned yet today how much of a raving whore Jann Wenner is?). Also included on this list of up-and-coming firebrands: Tom Morello, Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood (paired needlessly, as usual), Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, and most alarmingly, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam. You might note that all of these people are firmly "of" the 90s. Only one female, Kaki King was featured, and she was probably the RS pick for blandly virtuosic coffeehouse offal (with some weird chords!). As usual, the message was: women are allowed to jam soothingly, acoustically, but they can't rock.

Marnie Stern's existence is a challenge to nearly every rock guitar tradition. For starters, she started playing seriously in her late 20s, which is almost unheard of for a professional musician (think of any artist at all who didn't start in their teens--all I get is Haruki Murakami). The fact that she could play as well as she does in general astonishes me, but it makes no sense that she hadn't been cultivating this style until a few years ago. Like language, musical literacy is best inculcated in the extremely young, and the fact that someone in their 30's can thrive, especially someone female and not 10 years old, shows that the spectrum of acceptable female roles in indie rock and popular music alike may have shrunk over time, causing a certain number of progressive-minded artists (I'm thinking of Janelle as well) to rebel against such stratified social roles. This is a good thing.

Fret-tapping gets a deservedly bad rap amongst guitar players with taste, but there isn't anything necessarily wrong it, as a concept. The technique, supposedly developed by Eddie Van Halen as a way to figure out a part in the middle of Jimmy Page's "Heartbreaker" solo, has seen its share of overuse, especially in the days of hair metal. Hardly anyone can do it well, and at the same time it is among the oldest of traditions for duff guitar players to add some wiggilty-wiggilty into the normalistic wahhh wahhh of blues solo-dom. Marnie Stern doesn't do anything like that. She is to fret-tapping what Zappa was to the wah-wah pedal, someone uses the notes as the vehicle for her ideas, not to show off. Her honesty comes through in her playing. If female guitarists are indeed "the new black," then Marnie Stern's music is perhaps the greatest argument for their New Prevalence.

Who are some other great female guitar players? No points for Kaki King, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Jett--it's time to get beyond the Rolling Stone mentality.


  1. Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner is another awesome guitar player.

  2. I'll add a few:

    Poison Ivy (of the Cramps)
    Carrie Brownstein (riff monster turned sketch comic)
    Christina Billotte (of Slant 6 and others)
    Pat Place (of James Chance and the Contortions)
    Elizabeth Cotten (an oldie, but fIREHOSE wrote a song about her)

    You're not alone Marnie!

  3. Marissa Pasternoster of Screaming Females:

    Annie Clark of St. Vincent:

    Gina Gleason of Misstallica and Bruce Lucy: