I’m a guitarist. My guitar, my amp and my pedals are the tools of my trade. I understand how to manipulate them to get the sounds I hear in my head. So far, typical of any gigging musician.
Why, then, did I feel so out of place when I overheard the guitarist (Jon Tufnell) and bass player (Ben Chernett) in my band talking about the fuzz pedal Ben recently designed and built? It’s a custom Saint Agnes pedal he made as an experiment that we’re now selling as merch. I use it alongside my Fuzz Face and my cloned Soda Meiser for a fuzz with decent note articulation (yes, all three fuzz pedals are strictly necessary).
Ben and Jon were talking about silicon and germanium transistors, trim pots, potentiometers, capacitors and so on. I’m rarely short of something to say in any conversation but on this rare occasion I genuinely had nothing to contribute. It’s not that I’m not interested. I work hard on my tone. I am obsessed with pedals. As well as regularly spending money I don’t have on my own pedals, I also “borrow” them to “try out” from both Ben and Jon on a regular basis. Much to their irritation, they often end up stuck down to my board (the ultra strength Velcro means they’re not going anywhere! 3M Dual Lock is mighty stuff!) Now Ben and Jon don’t have engineering degrees so why did they have a seemingly inherent, working understanding of the mechanics of their gear? And why didn’t I?
It’s strange to me, as someone who has been playing guitar since I was seven years old, that I have actually had very few conversations about the inner mechanics of my beloved gear. If something is broken, I take it to the menders. It never even occurred to me that I could make a pedal. Or fix a pedal. Ben just went ahead and did it.
This bothers me a lot. I’m a feminist. I fight everyday against societal expectations of what men and women historically “ought” to do and how we ought to behave. I’m in a rock band. From the studio to the road, it’s a notoriously male-dominated industry and I regularly encounter, and rebel against, sexist arseholes with warped world views. It really, really bothers me that I’ve got a blank space where my contemporary males seem to have knowledge.
Reader, I did a Google search on female pedal builders. These were my findings: lots of people on pedal forums asking, ‘‘are there more female pedal builders than Frantone and Devi Ever?” and an endless stream of misogynistic bullshit (“Big Muff” jokes were plentiful), before Google started doing that thing where it can’t find enough results so started crossing out the word “female.” I found very little information on women engineering or designing musical equipment.
I thought, perhaps, that attaching “female” to my search wasn’t yielding results because it’s often used as an unnecessary and derogatory prefix. I can tell you that when my gender has been linked to my instrument, for example “female guitarist” as opposed to “guitarist,” it’s pretty much always a demeaning experience, a surprised exclamation of “you can really play for a girl or “you don’t just play chords” blah, blah, blah. Maybe there was no need to label pedal builders by gender? Maybe it’s offensive to do so. But it seems strange to me that my research was so completely unfruitful.
Whilst I could find very few leads on the Internet, I want to make it clear that I am aware that there are women out there building gear. I’ve learnt a lot from Kirk Hammett in my life but maybe the most important thing I’ve learnt is that sweeping statements are unhelpful (I’m referring of course to that tweet where Kirk intimated that he was the only actual guitarist to make a pedal in the history of time.) I’m not saying there are no women building gear; I’m saying that the industry is male-dominated. It’s apparent that most of the big-name pedal/amp/guitar companies are made up of males designing and males building.
This points to a wider issue at play. It is a widely-recognised fact that there is huge gender disparity in fields like engineering, science, and technology. I read an interview with this badass Professor of Electrical Engineering called Kathleen Kramer who thinks the gender problem starts young. Engineering is a career choice rarely advertised to young women and there are few female role models.
From my own experience this was patently the case. My brother was gifted Meccano, Lego and model airplanes. I was always given china dolls, jewellery, and books. And I did really love those things, but it’s not as if I wasn’t interested in mechanical things too. When I was little my brilliant old grandad had a drawer he used to keep old, broken electrical appliances in ready for me to take apart, investigate and put back together. Screwdriver in hand, I would set about unscrewing an old plug or a broken doorbell with intense concentration. I would be fascinated by the innards and have him explain to me how each component worked. But the idea of being an electrician, for example, was something that I never even considered could be an option for me. My brother had, “electrician,” “plumber,” “mechanic,” constantly directed toward him as potential career options (fun fact: my nan really wanted me to be a newsreader) but those professions, and technical talk in general, weren’t included in the language used to speak to me about what I might want to do with my life. This has meant, I guess, that I [learned to] tune out of any tech speak because it never seemed relevant. Having spoken to female friends in the wake of writing this article, this seems to be a fairly common, shared experience.
Starting now, I’m going to do a number of things differently. I’m going to learn how my pedals are put together. I’m going to find out exactly what mechanism it is that makes my three fuzz pedals distinct (and necessary!). I’m going to learn how to solder. I’m going to research what the problem with my reverb tank on my amp is before I just hand it over to my amp repair(man). I’m also going to buy my niece Lego and Mechano and when she’s old enough I’m going to tell her she can be an aerospace engineer, an electrician or a guitar builder if she wants to be. To be honest I’m quite probably not going to start my own pedal range, but I want that intuitive technical knowledge that seems to have passed me by. I have, once again, been reminded that it’s not good enough to allow societal gender norms to influence the shape of my life, or the shape of my circuit board.
Guest columnist Kitty Arabella Austen is a guitarist/vocalist for London blues rock band Saint Agnes. Hear her rock the hell out of those three fuzz pedals here.