The girls’ guide to rocking. Grab a guitar and get going
Why leave rock’n’roll to the boys? Grab a guitar, hook up an amp, pen a catchy hook . . . you know you can do it. And if you ever had any doubts – or any questions – a new DIY guide for girls who want to rock has all the answers. Author and muso Jessica H
HEARING The Slits’ Cut for the first time. Watching Tina Weymouth in Stop Making Sense or a Madonna video on MTV. Going to a Pixies gig and seeing Kim Deal play bass. For most girls, the moment of your first musical epiphany usually leads to years of spending all your cash on records.
For others, like Jessica Hopper, it’s when you realise that you want to be in a band.
“I grew up in Minneapolis in the early 1990s, so got to see Babes in Toyland play at least once a month. They were my church. That was the big light bulb. I saw them play and two days later, I had my first guitar.”
Hopper’s Eureka moment was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music – listening to it, playing in bands and ultimately writing about it in her new book, The Girls Guide to Rocking.
A respected music critic and bassist with the band Challenger, Hopper was one of thousands of teenage girls who felt that music was something that girls needed permission to get involved in. “I meet a lot of young women who are still made to feel that rock is a boys-only endeavour, and that women should be singers and not thrashing away behind a drum kit.” Hooper’s book is a perfect starting point for young women who feel that sense of exclusion. It’s a how-to guide for everything from sound-proofing your bedroom to what kind of amp to buy.
One of the reasons the book exists, in fact, is her own experience of buying bad equipment and being afraid to ask about things.
“As plentiful as information is now, it’s often still gendered. I really wanted to make a book that had all the secrets – the stuff no one ever tells you. A lot of women I know had to figure out the hard way. You never wanted to ask questions for fear of looking like the dumb girl that people expected you to be.”
As well as an interest in music, Hopper has been involved with various zines, establishing the influential riot-grrl publication Hit It or Quit It in 1991. This collaborative zeal peppers the book – Hopper was very involved with a DIY music scene and identifies with a culture of passing on information and helping others get started. She calls it “an open circuit of exchange and knowledge”, which equally applies to The Girls Guide to Rocking.
Chapters are broken down in various sections, each containing vast amounts of advice and information. From finding the right guitar pedals to how speakers work, there is plenty of technical information on offer. “Making the Band” focuses on issues from the art of lyric-writing to finding your band name. (The list of “way overused words in band names” includes “Fire”, “Crystal” and “White”).
Hopper says that writing for a younger audience brought its own challenges. “All assumptions about being an adult musician go out the window. Most young girls don’t have much of their own money, can’t drive and don’t have a practice space, so I had to find ways to work around that.”
Clearly the project has been a huge undertaking, and getting permission for lyrics usage proved time-consuming. In a chapter on songwriting, Hopper referenced The Eagles’ Hotel California and was advised to submit a request to use it. “It included writing a personal letter to Don and Glen about why I wanted it, a CV, an outline of my work as a writer, the entire chapter in which the song was included, and various forms and legal paperwork, which was about 30 pages at this point”.
It was only when she received a reply telling her to make fun of another act mentioned in the chapter that Hopper realised she had also described Hotel California as “so dumb it’s genius”.
The book doesn’t just focus on the creative and technical aspects of being a musician. There’s advice on the business side of things, which the author has experienced. Before her journalism career, Hopper worked as the publicist for bands such as At the Drive In and The Gossip.
“Including that stuff was really important because if you look at the history of women in rock, there are a lots of sad, cautionary tales of incredibly talented women who had big hits, made terrible deals and signed away rights they didn’t know they had.”
She’s also very aware that what we think of as the “music industry” is undergoing huge change, something that facilitates the way young women are perceived in commercial terms. “The fact that it’s much easier for girls to record, produce and put their music out in the world on their own terms – and not be forced into being a certain archetype of what some label guy thinks is interesting or saleable – is huge.”
Everyone this writer has told about the book applauds it, but a handful have wondered why it’s only directed at girls. “The most fun I’ve had in my life is playing music with my friends,” says Hopper, “and I just wanted to encourage girls to pursue it for themselves, to give them the tools to do that. I wrote it in hope that it encourages girls and women to express themselves and live their lives to the fullest, so I suppose it is a Feminist book.”
Hopper spoke to artists such as Annie Clark (St Vincent) and Joan Jett (who endorsed it) and is clear about the book’s message, which she gets across via book tours that double as gigs.
“At a reading, I try to get a young female band to play, because it never occurred to me to start a band until I saw another woman onstage with a guitar – for me it was inspiration and permission.
“As great as a reading or my encouragement might be, nothing is quite like seeing another girl shredding away on the guitar and thinking to yourself: ‘Hey, that could be me.’”