The woman: Mandy Rowden, founder of Girl Guitar, a wine-guzzling troupe of amateur female guitarists.
The mission: Encourage, cajole, and intoxicate women into finding their inner musician in a weekly girls-night-out setting (and then in front of a live audience).
The tough love: “One lady didn’t want to perform at first; she cried before and after. Now you can’t get her off stage. She started a band.”
Top 3 ways she’ll change your life:
- Join a makeshift family of aspiring musicians.
- Learn an instrument the Austin way. (These are not your mother’s piano lessons. Unless mom offered the choice of Merlot or Pinot Grigio.)
- Earn the right to say, “Oh, Antone’s? I’ve played there.”
In sum: Girl Guitar is an endorphin cocktail of music, wine, and fabulous women. So instead of admiring Austin’s music scene from afar, why not join in?
Behind the scenes
It is 7:25 p.m. and I am balancing a guitar, a handful of sheet music, and a glass of wine. (Let’s call a spade a spade: in liquid volume, it’s a bowl of wine.) By the time I’ve downed my wine, I will harbor delusions of playing guitar like the musical lovechild of Clapton and Jimmy Page. And I will be less acutely aware of my ravaged, throbbing fingertips.
This is Girl Guitar, a group class in guitar, for women, by women. At the end of the six week semester, we will check off an item on every musician’s wish list: play a packed show at Austin’s legendary Antone’s.
For now, we are swilling wine and heckling Mandy Rowden: instructor, founder, musician extraordinaire. We are threatening mutiny if she doesn’t let us cheat on our bar chords. She is telling us to suck it up and quit whining. It’s going to be a good class.
“In 2006 I had just moved back from New York and I was broke,” Rowden tells me. “My cell phone was cut off. I decided to do one guitar class, one time, with eight girls. The only goal was to pay my phone bill.”
Girl Guitar turns five years old this March. Every six-week semester offers 15 or so classes, from beginner to intermediate to rock band and songwriting. At this point, Rowden’s cell phone bill has helped hundreds of Austin women find their way into music.
In her quest for a quick buck, Rowden stumbled on a magic formula: a friendly, girls’-night-out setting that helps music amateurs enjoy the learning experience, instead of getting mired in self-critique. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously with a glass of wine in one hand. And, when it’s time to play “Space Oddity,” it’s awfully satisfying when the rest of the room erupts in obscenities, too.
Rowden, who is quick to point out that she’s “not a girly-girl or anything,” says students are one big extended family. They attend each other’s open mics; they throw baby showers and reunion parties.
“We have everyone from band members to soccer moms,” Rowden says. “There’s no competition or cattiness, you just see people support each other and loving on each other.”
Strum what your mama gave you
But as we all know, sometimes family has to light a fire under your ass and make you face your fears. Lovingly.
Every class concludes with a showcase at Antone’s, packed with family and friends. And year round, students can sign up for gigs at bars and restaurants around the city. (How’d Rowden finagle these deals? “Some people call it networking,” she says. “I call it being in bars too much.”)
A packed house at Antone’s can make a music veteran reach for a hearty dose of Valium, never mind a newbie. But Rowden is firm on the importance of participating. Ask any woman who’s been through the Antone’s rite of passage, and she’ll tell you about a life-affirming experience.
“One lady didn’t want to perform, even cried before and after the show, but we pressured her into it,” Rowden says. “Now you can’t get her off stage. She started her own band.”
You’re all very pretty
Once, in a pre-show pep talk, Rowden wrote these three things on a whiteboard:
- I like jaeger
- Don’t suck
- You’re all very pretty
That’s the kind of frank, familiar approach that makes the Girl Guitar concept work. Sure enough, the women followed each other off the cliff and onto the stage.
One of my classmates was among them. As we walked to our cars after class, I asked her about it.
“I felt like I was going to pee and throw up at the same time,” she said. “It was awesome.”