Tuning Up: Let’s Acknowledge the Caveman in the Room
PG chief editor Shawn Hammond on why it’s time to move beyond dominant-male guitar lingo.
Almost from its inception, guitar as we know it has been drenched in sexualized machismo. The trailblazing, rock ’n’ roll-presaging 6-stringer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other women guitarists couldn’t have gotten away with it even if they’d wanted to, but go back a century or so to rambunctious early blues players, followed by the rockers they inspired, and you’ll see that guitar dudes have long wielded their axes in ways that project dominance through exhibitionistic poses and maneuvers that range from slightly suggestive to explicitly masturbatory to all-out coitus guitarus.
And the lingo we’ve developed over the ensuing years has a pretty testosterone-centric outlook, too. We describe a full, powerful sound as having “balls,” a curvaceous semi-hollow guitar wailing through a cranked amp as “woman tone,” and self-indulgent players who let their fingers fly endlessly across phallus-like fretboards as “wankers.” And to any aviation-history buffs in the crowd, sorry, I don’t buy the idea that guitarists who rave about “balls-out” or “balls-to-the-wall” solos are just using the ol’ bomber-pilot metaphor.
You could argue that a lot of this sexualized dominant-male stuff simply mirrored the gender dynamics of the times and the lyrical content of the artists’ repertoire. You could also argue that it’s no big deal because most of us simply interpret these things at their coded, 6-string-centric idiomatic level without pausing to think or care about any sort of unsavory backstory. We do this with all sorts of sayings in everyday life, so it’s nothing new. On one hand, that’s just part of living with the ceaseless evolution of language—I mean, it would take a lot of time and energy to unpack every little idiom we come across, right? Plus, a decent number of women guitarists utter these macho sayings and engage in these alpha-male-like gesticulations onstage, too. For some, I’m sure it just seems like a harmless, innocent part of the vernacular. Part of the fun—part of the coolness of guitar. For others, perhaps it’s an ironic way to reclaim what was dominated by men for far too long.
But to me, and I’m sure plenty of others, the words do matter. Casual phrases like these reveal more about our true selves than we realize. So I’m just going to come out and say it: Phallic moves and male-centric colloquialisms for 6-string awesomeness are just plain dumb. Borderline sexist—even if sometimes kind of accidentally or absentmindedly so. They’re like caveman talk: “Me like my ding-dong. Me like guitar. Me wish guitar was ding-dong.”
Yes, merely living requires a certain amount of surrendering to the tide of linguistic evolution, especially since its pace seems to increase with each passing year. But as society ostensibly progresses, should we not be willing, if not compelled, to revisit the past—isn’t there an old saying about doom and repetition?
I’m sure plenty of readers will brand me a PC-culture warrior, or worse, for bringing all this up. And that’s fine. But just know that my doing so has nothing to do with being a prude. If I were saying this 20 years ago, when I was a very different person with a very different set of beliefs, yeah, sure—it totally would’ve been.
But not now. Now all this makes me think of Maude Lebowski’s rant to the Dude in The Big Lebowski: “My art has been commended as being strongly ‘vaginal,’ which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina … they don't like hearing it and find it difficult to say, whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.” Or his balls.
Now I’m coming from what I’d like to believe is a more open-minded and aware place, a place of wanting to right some of the dumb little wrongs that are actually in our power to change—even if they don’t seem like that big a deal. Just remember that those for whom the norm has brought comfort, status, and power have rarely been mindful of the sting felt at the opposing position. If you find yourself getting riled up about my nitpicking, ask the women and girls in your life if they’re cool with the idea of normalized male dominance, objectification, and having their bodies equated with inanimate objects that you can fondle anytime you like down in your “man cave.”
So please, next time you feel like your tone is so amazing you’ve gotta shout it from the rooftops, how about describing it as “beefy,” “muscular,” or “fucking huge”? Or “fucking” anything that doesn’t have to do with your XY-derived genitalia? Don’t tell us how “ballsy” it is, nor how “balls-to-the-wall” your epic solo was. Everyone agrees sex is great. As Maude said, it’s a “natural, zesty enterprise.” But sorry, dudes, balls aren’t that big a deal.