You are on page 1of 9

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

‘Girl's Got Rhythm’:

The Role that the Bass Guitar plays when forming Gendered Identities and the impact that this has
had upon the influence of musical instrumental specialisation within live ensemble musical

It has become evident that in recent decades a paradigm shift has occurred within popular music

allowing the entrance of women into the live music performance environment. Because of this, it

has become commonplace to observe female musicians performing within a live musical

environment regardless of music genre or geographic location; however, it is seemingly less

common to observe the female musician adopting the role of anything other than that of the singer

and even less so of that of the guitarist or drummer. The significance of this could imply that the only

access that female musicians have into the seemingly male-dominated world of live performance is

through the perceived ‘gender-neutral’ role of the electric bass guitar. Drawing from information

gathered from interviews and observation, this ethnographic report will attempt to ascertain

whether the role of the electric bass guitar has made an impact upon the influence of gendered

identities within the occupation of ‘the musician’, particularly focusing upon the involvement of the

female musician within the mostly patriarchal world of live music performance and the impact that

this has had upon the culturally constructed gendered division of labour within ensemble musical


Much of the ethnographic research was conducted on three separate occasions at the

‘Heebies Jamboree’, a jam night organised every Wednesday evening at the Heebie Jeebies club in

Liverpool (see fig.1.) and one occasion at another jam night

organised at the Pilgrim pub. The two research sites were ideal

locations to conduct ethnographic research as both sites are in

close proximity to one and other, both sites host multiple

performances on a weekly basis and the events are held only two

days apart from one and other allowing for easy recollection of

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

the event’s details. During the attendance of the two research sites, the research adopted the

participatory position using active and naturalistic observation as the main methods of observation.

“The field worker directly observes and also participates in the sense that he has durable social

relations. He may or may not play an active role in events”. (Simmons 1969: 9) These methods of

observation were necessary in order to gain an understanding of the perspectives of both the

musician and the non-musician.

Upon arrival it became apparent that research opportunities would be limited during the

first attendance of the jam night as there were not many people attending that night; however, the

second and third attendances proved to be more beneficial. Whilst attending the Heebies Jamboree,

observation began through actively interacting with the participants in the form of ‘jamming’. This

consisted of the active involvement of musicians with different musical abilities, musical

backgrounds and all genders participating in an informal musical collaboration exploring different

musical ideas and genres. The method of active observation proved to be ineffective when

attempting to observe the interaction between the performing musicians as it was not possible to

observe musician interaction in their space from an observer’s perspective. However, integration

within the social activity of ‘jamming’ proved to be effective when attempting to establish a

relationship between researcher and participant when it came to the informal interviews. This

helped when attempting to uncover the reasons as to why female musicians begin to play the

electric bass guitar in addition to what musicians of the other genders thought of female bass

players. But primarily, it was of great significance to this ethnographic study to simply find out just

what it means to be a female bass player, particularly when concerning the role of the female bass

player within the (Meta) genre of ‘rock music’.

Firstly, it is important to establish that within rock music the Western socially constructed

dichotomies of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ play an important role within gendered musical

instrumental specialisation. On the whole, the main roles in rock music that women have a tendency

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

to adopt are that of the vocalist, the keyboard player or ‘the fan’ alternatively to the male-

dominated instruments such as the electric guitar or the drums. “Rock has variously been described

as a male form, male-run, masculine and misogynist.” (Leonard 2007: 23) This could suggest that a

gendered division of labour has occurred and remains evident within the rock music performance

environment. When one participant was asked “why do you think so many bands have female bass

players?” the response given was “probably because all the ‘lads’ play guitar.” (Local thrash metal

guitarist) One explanation for this could be that “The skills involved in playing the instrument are

perceived as ‘male’ skills, inappropriate for women”. (Bayton 1997: 43) This implies that notions of

instrumental virtuosity are saved for masculine activities and that the main purpose of this is to aid

the processes of male social bonding and the female gaze. This could suggest that women may suffer

from a lack of confidence when approaching the instrument. This may also be used to explain why

female musicians may choose to learn the electric bass guitar alternatively to other instruments

associated with rock music and rock culture. This became one of the most pertinent questions within

the ethnographic report and in some ways became the main objective in this ethnography: to

discover why female bass players choose to play the bass guitar in particular.

Whilst conducting the ethnographic research at the Heebies Jamboree a number of different

themes began to emerge during the research process. These themes became more apparent during

the interview process and continued during the final attendance at the jam night. One of the first

themes that became apparent was the notion of easier playability that is associated with the electric

bass guitar. When one participant was asked “why did the electric bass guitar appeal to you?” the

response given was “You didn’t have to learn chords, it was just easier.” (Female bass player one)

This could be used as a way to gain an understanding into the reinforced gendered roles and

identities and instrumentation specialisation, seemingly chosen for the less virtuosic and somewhat

less intimidating nature of the instrument. That being said, it could also be suggested that female

musicians see the electric bass guitar as a conduit into the male-dominated world of live

performance and by doing so legitimising their presence and status within the patriarchal cultures

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

that exist within live music performance. A participant gave a response stating “Guitar is for boys, it

feels like something we can call ‘our own’.” (Female bass player two) This suggests that female

electric bass players may not be reinforcing the originally perceived gendered division of labour by

conforming to the gendered instrumental specialisation stereotypes but instead asserting their own

identity label to the instrument as a way of gaining their own ‘feminine’ identity within the male

dominated live music environment.

Although it can be argued that the electric bass guitar can be used as a way of legitimising

the position of the female musician within ensemble performance, it has also become evident that

within the live music performance environment, the female musician adopts the role of more than

just a performer, musician or artist. “Music plays a significant part in the construction of gender and

sexuality”. (Longhurst 1995: 123) Within this culture, the significance and legitimisation of the

female musician may rely on not only the quality of music performance or musical talent but also on

the ways in which the performer’s gender and sexuality is represented through the performance.

“The focus of audience attention is not simply for what they sing but for how they look.” (Whiteley

2000: 52) This could suggest that within our postmodern epoché the content of the performance is

completely overlooked by the style of the performer. This

implies that regardless of musical talent and creative musical

innovation it is the superficial qualities of the female performer

such as body type, clothing choice and sensual signifiers within

the performance (See fig.2.) that attracts the audience to the

female performer.

Seemingly, the ‘practices of looking’ has become a

transcendental signifier within the activities of music

performance and that female musicians regardless of genre or

musical instrument specialisation have become subjected to the effects of the male gaze. This

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

became especially obvious within the research carried out at the Heebies Jamboree, when a male

participant was asked the interrogative “What do you think about female bass players?” the

response given was in the form of the one worded answer “hot”. These types of answers became

more consistent when the same question was posted on the internet electric bass guitar forum

‘’. A suggestion for the reason as to why male respondents reacted to the question in

this manner could be that the enculturation of the male gendered members of the audience may

have been influenced by the images of female sexuality portrayed in the media and cultural texts

such as music videos and lyrical content found in certain musical genres such as ‘rap’ ‘rock’ and ‘pop’.

When responses such as these began being documented it was originally thought to be destructive

to the research; however, when the answers became more consistent throughout the research this

theme began to be much more pertinent when attempting to find out the representation of the

electric bass guitar, music and identity. Subsequently, the general attitudes of male participants

towards female bass players and seemingly female musicians as a whole were a subset of

derogatory, gratuitous and even sexist opinions. However, not all of the male participant’s responses

were of a derogatory manner. One male respondent from ‘’ answered “The Bass player

for my band is a woman, though she is on hiatus at the moment. She is excellent at it, much better

than anyone else we took into account”. (Musician from Pasadena California) suggesting that

perhaps it is the male non-musician that forms the derogatory and sexist opinion of female bass

players and that this notion should not be generalised to the entire male population. Similarly, when

a female internet forum respondent was asked the same question, the response given was much

more informative, positive and in depth “Female bass players are pretty cool, look at Nicole

Fiorentino of the Smashing Pumpkins, she’s an amazing bassist.” (Female Bass player three) based

on this ethnographic research, it appears that although there are many people that view the position

of the female bass player as less of a performer and more of a symbol of sexuality, there appears to

be a number of people that are in consensus with the antithesis of this view. However, another issue

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

arose during the ethnographic research, particularly concerning the overlooked and diminishing role

of the female bass player.

The research for this third and final theme was carried out during the final attendance at the

Heebies Jamboree and one attendance at the jam night organised on a Monday evening at the

Pilgrim pub located in Liverpool’s City Centre. The main method of research used at this event took

the form of non-participant observation by observing from the point of view of a member of the

audience. Whilst conducting non-participant observation it became clear that the role of the bass

player became known and a consistent structure displaying interaction among the musicians became

almost paradigmatic. Through adopting the role as a member of the

audience it was observed that the musicians organised themselves

structurally with the bass player role located toward the rear of the

performance space and the guitarist and singer roles toward the

front. This became especially obvious when the role of bass player

was taken by a female. It also became apparent that once the

performance had concluded the audience members mostly ignored

the female bass player and it appeared that audience

members had the desire to talk to the female singers. This

could be suggesting that the only way for a female musician to gain status in a live performance

environment is to be noticed, looked at and be at the centre of attention. “Their aims as performers

are to be singers.” (Longhurst 1995: 121) It is commonplace for singers to be positioned at the front

of the performance and can often obstruct the view of the instrumentalists in order to emphasize

their own status (see fig.3.). Could this be used to explain why females choose to pursue the role of

the vocalist or has the norms and expectations of gender and sexuality already pre-determined

which position a female musician must take within ensemble musical performance?

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

The impacts of socialisation may have had a significant impact upon the ways in which the

female musician and the male musician adopt different roles within ensemble musical performance.

For instance, “as girls grow up, they learn how to be ‘feminine’ and not to engage in ‘masculine’

activities.” (Bayton 1997: 39) Engagement with instruments such as the ‘violin’, ‘recorder’ or ‘vocals’

were considered feminine activities; whereas, engagement with musical instruments typically

associated with rock music such as ‘the electric guitar’, ‘bass guitar’ or ‘drums’ were considered

masculine activities, both dichotomies of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ tend to be respected in this way.

When a participant was asked “what do you think about female bass players?” the response given

was “I don’t really know any”. (Male guitarist) This could be used to explain why the female musician

is rarely observed portraying the role of that other than the vocalist in music ensemble performance.

However, an interesting and unexpected concept came about from the final research site, there

appeared to be a number of male musicians talking about their musical ‘heroes’ and this

transcended across instrument specialisation and music genre. It was overheard from a group of

musicians that these musical ‘heroes’ were one of the primary reasons as to why an individual

decided to pursue a particular musical instrument. For the purpose of the research it was necessary

to gain access into the group in order to gain an understanding of why the female musician in the

group chose to pursue the electric bass guitar. When asked the question “Why did the bass guitar

appeal to you?” the response given was “I can’t sing, and my brother played bass so I used to play

his.” (Female bass player four) This unexpected response gave way for suggestion that female

musicians may not have the so-called musical ‘heroes’ the way that male musicians have. An

explanation for this could be that “There are few female role models to inspire them”. (Bayton 1997:

39) as an alternative, the female musician may desire a female role model that is more widely

available to them; this could include and most predominantly the female vocalist.

To summarise, from the research carried out in this ethnography it has become evident that the

roles of gender and sexuality – particularly the roles of the two dichotomies ‘masculine’ and

‘feminine’ within live music performance have had a significant impact upon the gendered identities

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’

represented within musical instrument specialisation. This ethnography has also provided the

evidence to suggest that the gender-neutral role of bass guitar has in fact provided female musicians

with the opportunity to legitimise their presence within musical ensemble performance; however,

this may also have led to a gendered division of labour within ensemble musical performance due to

the ways in which the female musician is represented through the exploitation of the gender and

sexuality of the performer. In addition to this, the female musician may choose to adopt the role of

the vocalist or bass player due to the lack of inspirational figures that result from a lack of female

guitarists or drummers in popular music.

5013POP 634130 Music and ‘The Other’



Bayton, M. (1997). Women and the Electric Guitar. In: Sheila Whiteley Sexing the groove: Popular
Music and Gender. London: Routledge.

Leonard, M (2007). Gender in the Music Industry. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Longhurst, B (1995). Popular music and society. Cambridge: Polity Press .

Simmons, M (1969). Issues in Participant Observation. Chicago: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company,


Whiteley, S (2000). Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity. New York:


Heebie Jeebies night club [image] 2013. Travelettes. Available from:
content/uploads/2013/11/IMG_3842-600x600.jpg [Accessed 26/03/14]

Female Bass Player [image] year unknown. Dreamstime. Available from [Accessed 26/03/14]

Performing female bass player [image] 2014. Author produced photo (James Lashbrooke)
[Taken 24/03/14]