Erica Clapton? Carla Santana? How about Jamie Lee Hooker?
A feminine twist to the name of an iconic male musician could be just a fun play on words. But for guitarist and music teacher October Crifasi it’s an attempt to inspire women and girls to excel in a field that has long been dominated by male images.
“Rolling Stone once listed the top 100 guitarists and only three were women,” says Crifasi, who began playing guitar with her mother when she was 7 years old. "Those days are over. It’s 2012 and the landscape has changed. There are women playing guitar. There are amazing players in blues and rock."
The walls of her Baxter Northup studio in Sherman Oaks are decorated with pictures of women guitarists: Nancy Wilson (Heart), blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi, Mary Kaye (sometimes called the First Lady of Rock and Roll), the legendary Janis Joplin and Allison Robertson of the Bay Area rock group The Donnas. There are handwritten posters on the walls listing the names of roughly 100 female musicians and bands from Adele and Joan Jett to The Bangles and Billie Holiday.
And yes, there is a sign that reads “Erica Clapton?”
Crifasi has been teaching guitar here since 2002 when she founded the Girls’ Guitar School to focus on teaching women and girls to play the instrument. She has worked with girls as young as 4 years old and women older than 70, teaching them to read music and giving them a foundation in music theory.
Students come from the surrounding areas and schools such as Dixie Canyon Elementary School, Millikan Middle School, Laurel Hall and many others. For two years, Crifasi taught the guitar program at Highland Hall in Northridge, the alma mater of former Prince musicians Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (Wendy and Lisa) who now follow her girls school on Twitter.
At a recent small recital for a few of Crifasi’s youngest students, her personality is upbeat and her style is easy and encouraging. There’s no rushing and no worrying about getting every note correct.
“It’s all good,” she encourages as one of her students flounders during her performance.
To lighten the mood Crifasi tells a story of one of her own performance mishaps as she picks up her guitar, takes a seat next to the 9 year old, and begins to play along with the child until she gets her bearing and is able to finish her song with a smile.
"You’ve got a way with the young 'uns," one mother remarks.
It’s empathy that unites Crifasi with all of her students—memories of her own bout with a lack of self confidence as a young guitar player with few female role models—and that ultimately led to the idea for a girls’ guitar school.
"I doubted myself a lot for a while," says Crifasi, the Plymouth, Mass. native who remembers being the only young woman in her high school flamenco guitar quartet. "I questioned my own skill set. I don’t want that to be the norm. [That’s why] it’s important to me that there are women and girls playing guitar."
The test ride for girls school came years before its founding and arose unexpectedly and out of need. Crifasi was teaching guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago when she recognized those old familiar feelings of self-doubt surfacing, festering and eventually conquering the confidence of the women students, eventually causing them to drop out of classes.
"Some women were intimidated by the men [in the classes]," she says. "Some lacked confidence in their skills.”
So Crifasi started a guitar ensemble for women only that focused on rock music by female artists “to build their confidence and [give them] a place to work together and build their skills.”
They played music by P.J. Harvey, Concrete Blond, Heart, Syd Straw, The Pretenders and Hole among others. This women’s ensemble (that was recently revived by a former student) set the foundation for what is now the Girls’ Guitar School.
As the website suggests, the school is “changing the face of music, one girl at a time.”
There are individual and group lessons for women and girls, and semi-private lessons with moms and daughters tailored to the interests and the goals of the student.
Quarterly parents’ nights provide tips to help the adults learn how to be parents of a guitar student, while periodic open houses, student socials and local performances give students a chance to show off their skills.
For Crifasi, “A good lesson is when 8-and 9-year-old students talk like seasoned musicians; when they’re enjoying themselves and understanding and can share it back. And the giggling is fun.”
Check out the Girls’ Guitar School at girlsguitarschool.com.