Don't Be That Guy: Is Sexism Hurting Guitar Shops?

Open most any guitar magazine and you won’t turn many pages before you spot a half-naked woman stroking a guitar, a pedal featuring lurid graphics, glowing LED nipples, or sporting a name you’d maybe not speak aloud in front of your kids. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

While sexism is impossible to measure, it reaches beyond media, advertising and products and pervades guitar culture itself. Examples are plentiful and can create a real barrier to entry for girls and women, who have ever-increasing spending power and represent half the population. In the rush to replenish the ranks of players with teenage boys, we’re leaving girls and women in the cold. And it’s costing everyone business.

“The classic tale is the prominent female musician walks into a shop and gets asked if she’s shopping for her boyfriend. And that’s unconscionable and inexcusable,” says Mike Samos, manager at Empire Guitars in Providence, RI. “Most women I speak with want to be seen as musicians and not female musicians. What they want is respect and equality, not a separate label.”

Sexism exists both in front of and behind the counter, says Tricia Scully, product manager for Chicago Music Exchange, multi-instrumentalist and 15-year veteran of the musical instrument industry. Three years into Scully’s tenure at another gear shop, she recalls, a middle-aged man bought a pack of strings and asked if he could get his acoustic restrung.

“I said ‘absolutely,’ put the guitar on the bench and he said, ‘do you have anybody else who could do that?’ I had been working there and playing for years and had restrung my own guitar and others many times,” Scully recalls. “I got flustered and told him ‘I can do it for you, sir. It’s OK.’ But it stuck with me: that to be known and respected as a player, I’d have to work that much harder to be respected — or even recognized as someone competent enough to restring a guitar.”


To combat sexism and its negative impact on sales, many brick-and-mortar shops are actively reshaping the customer experience through more varied product offerings, training and hiring to make their shops as welcoming to women, girls and other people as possible.

At Detroit Guitar in Birmingham, MI, employees are trained to approach and address every customer, and respect that female customers, including non-playing wives, mothers and girlfriends, wield tremendous economic clout. “Often women are the decision maker, not only for their kids but for their husbands. How many times have you heard a man say ‘I have to check with my wife before I buy this guitar?’” says Eric Wolfe, co-owner.

While treating all customers with the same high level of respect, it’s also important to respect their differences. Women shoppers tend to be more open minded, observes Charlie Lorenzi, Detroit Guitar general manager, and may be more willing than men to discuss parameters, price points and options. “You have a guy coming in, and he has it in mind that he likes Martin guitars — he may never have played one before — and it’s very unlikely you’re going to talk him out of that. Women will take in information, keep an open mind and make a more-informed decision based on what’s good for them, rather than what’s trendy or what their grandparents bought.”

Whether they are shopping for themselves or family members, Wolfe stresses the importance of not making assumptions or judgments about the knowledge, ability or purchasing power of any shopper, which can be perceived as condescending and drive away business. “We’re happy to walk them through everything in a non-patronizing way. There’s an expectation in a lot of guitar stores that the customer — male or female — knows everything about guitars, and that’s not the case,” Wolfe says, which can be alienating to anyone.

Taking Inventory

To combat the perception that girls and women are not welcome, Empire’s Samos says he’s as deliberate about what he will not stock as he is about what he does.

“Particularly in the pedal world, some of the product names make me uncomfortable,” Samos says. “Immediately that’s disqualifying, no matter how good the product was. I think of a shop like ours as part of a community-based project. It’s important to offer equal access to information and gear in a way that opens the community to women. Especially at smaller shops, if those are not comfortable, accessible places for women, you’ve shrunk your opportunity and your community,” Samos says.

Detroit Guitar conscientiously stocks a wide range of styles, sizes and colors of guitars and accessories and has gone so far as to offer factory special run items, including its new Danelectro '59 Modified six strings, which feature smaller necks and bodies, and wide palette of brighter colors. “We want to have something that was female friendly,” Lorenzi says.

This image juxtaposing an issue of She Shreds with an issue of Guitar World recently sparked an extensive conversation about how women are portrayed in guitar culture.

Shops also can be on the lookout for more products endorsed by women. “One of the biggest setbacks that I faced as a young girl learning guitar was, in mainstream outlets, which for me meant guitar magazines at a big chain grocery store, struggling to find role models of substance — meaning not overly sexualized — that I could or wanted to relate to,” says Fabi Reyna, the founder and editor-in-chief of the new She Shreds magazine, the only print publication dedicated to women guitarists and bassists. "That’s a huge set back for a lot of people, specifically women, who A) aren’t immediately welcomed into that community in the first place; and B) aren’t at all catered to language-wise, lesson-wise, etc. And then we are given these expectations that make us work 10 times harder if you want to be seen as a guitar player and not just ‘good for a girl.’”

However, there does seem to be a slew of new signature models from women artists. Some have physical features intended to make instruments more comfortable and playable, but they also position players as guitar heroes and role models, helping other players to identify with guitar culture and aspire to mastery; and there’s no reason to expect this isn’t so for girls and women. While not intended as a comprehensive list, there are an increasing number of women's signature models are available. Newer signature models include:

From left to right: Reverend Charger HB, Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent, Gibson Grace Potter Flying V, Gibson Lzzy Hale Explorer, Squier Avril Lavigne Telecaster, Fender Avril Lavigne Newport

Minding Back of the House

One of the most sure-fire ways to make girls and women more comfortable in your shop is to hire more women, says Keith Grasso of Island Music Co., in Maryland. “We have a lot of female employees; it certainly helps,” he says, adding that nearly half of his 15 sales people are women.

Samantha Sause, an Island Music sales professional, says that training can have a positive impact on decreasing sexism in guitar shops. “Whenever we hire a new person, we will sit down and go over our policies and teach them how to do sales and treat customers,” Sause says. “When we do that, customers know that they can talk with anyone, male or female, on the floor, and that we know what we are talking about and that we will help them as best as we can.”

In addition to treating female customers and employees with respect, shops also should be aware of how they treat vendors.

“There are a lot of stores that won’t deal with female vendors,” says Jennifer Tabor, founder and CEO of Souldier Straps. “People have come up to me at NAMM and asked me where ‘the man’ is. It took me until they left to realize they weren’t looking for someone. They were looking for a man, because they couldn't possibly deal with me as a business owner. When they come back, I have to tell them there is no man to deal with here. They get over it because they like the product and we move on.”

While that can seem comical,Tabor says it’s not a rare occurrence; as many as 10% or 15% of the stores she visits brush her off, she says, assuming that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “I’m a confident enough person that it doesn’t really offend me,” she says. “I can meet them toe to toe, but there are lot of women who will back down, who will never address the situation and never come back.”

That Thing You Do

There are at least three good reasons to step up and do your part to end sexism in the industry: it’s the right thing to do, it’s good for business and it’s getting easier. Simply stated, consumers have too many options for any shop to turn away customers, and creating a welcoming environment for girls and women doesn’t have to be difficult, time consuming or expensive.

“They just need to be respectful, helpful and not condescending but engaging,” says Jan King, guitar player, singer and songwriter for Jan King and Medicine Ball. King has fronted rock bands for more than 30 years, including The Orchids, who were produced by Kim Fowley, posthumously accused rapist and producer of The Runaways. “I don’t think that’s asking for a lot,” King says, laughing. As a veteran rocker, King offers these suggestions to shop owners:

  1. Do hire women. “There are a lot of knowledgeable women out there,” King says, adding that by hiring a more diverse staff shops are more able to satisfy a larger and more diverse customer base.

  2. Do offer product and sales training. A more knowledgeable staff will inspire more confidence in shoppers and be able to close more sales.

  3. Do be respectful. ““It’s been such a man’s world for so long that for some guys it doesn’t occur to them that these women who come into their stores are players,” King says.

  4. Do listen and be helpful. “Do whatever you can to help them,” King says. “Teach them how to be pro, because young people, male or female, they need education. Nobody knows it all when they first start.”  

  5. Do be engaging. Greet shoppers and ask them if they need or want help. “I’d go into [big name shop] and they’d look right past me,” King recalls.

  6. Don’t make assumptions. “Just as many men as women who come in don't know what they're doing or what they are looking for,” King says. “But to just make that judgment that women don’t know what they are doing is very sexist and just wrong.”

  7. Do be encouraging. “Not all the women who come in are going to know what they are doing,” King says. “A lot of them are young, just like the young guys who come in. And they don’t need to be discouraged, they need to be encouraged.

King also has this piece of advice for girls and women. “It’s not just men who have to adjust; women also have to be more open, take the criticism and know that it’s not always just sexism,” King says. “Women need to step up to the plate and realize that not every guy is trying to keep them out of the business.”

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