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Making a play for girls

Guitar makers looking to boost sales to females are offering cute models for the younger set and lighter versions for women.

March 13, 2007|Solvej Schou | The Associated Press

"I want it!" squealed 13-year-old Hiiaka Kaneao, pointing to a sparkly, hot pink, star-shaped bass guitar hanging inside a pink fur-lined booth.

Her high-pitched voice is music to the ears of the guitar's maker, Daisy Rock Guitars.

The Los Angeles retailer's colorful and smaller guitars for girls and women have gained worldwide popularity in the last several years and signaled a growing trend within the traditionally male-dominated guitar industry.

"The industry is looking for growth opportunities given the overall slump in guitar sales," said Wall Street analyst Rick Nelson, who covers the industry. "Guitars catering to women is one area that we understand is showing some signs of strength."

The country's two top guitar retailers, Gibson Guitar Corp. and Fender Musical Instruments Corp., have debuted lines with a girl/woman-friendly focus over the last few years.

Gibson has the thinner-necked, lighter-weight Les Paul Vixen and Les Paul Goddess guitars.

Fender has its Hello Kitty guitars, with the iconic cat splashed across the bodies.

Women playing guitar is nothing new or unusual. Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow have been fierce players for years. Courtney Love pounded out rock riffs in her popular 1990s band Hole, India.Arie's acoustic guitar has become her trademark and even Madonna has strummed the strings. But for the most part, revered guitar gods have been men, including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Why the surge of girl guitars now?

"Ten years ago, statistics showed that 96% of the instruments purchased were for men," Gibson Chief Executive Henry Juszkiewicz said. "The guitar is now becoming more a part of society in general."

There have been guitars aimed at kids before: Fender, via its Squier imprint, offers a kid pack, and Gibson's Epiphone line offers a child-size guitar model around the holidays.

But Daisy Rock says its low-cost, lean and light line of electric and acoustic instruments jump-started the push specifically for girls. Guitars include butterfly, heart and daisy-shaped gear for the younger set and glossy red, black, purple and pink standard guitars for women.

Daisy Rock reported 2006 sales of $2.4 million -- a feat for the business that Tish Ciravolo, herself a bassist, started in 2000 after sketching with her then-baby daughter, Nicole.

"She drew this daisy, and then I drew a neck on it, and then a leafy headstock on it, and I thought, 'This might change the industry,' " Ciravolo said.

She took the drawing to her husband, Schecter Guitars President Michael Ciravolo, and Daisy Rock was born -- with sales doubling each year, the company said.

Recently, Ciravolo spoke passionately alongside other women retailers on the trend panel "Pretty Good for a Girl" at the International Music Products Assn.'s NAMM show in Anaheim -- the music industry's largest trade exhibition.

Twenty years ago, when Ciravolo started out as a musician, she said she didn't feel welcome in guitar stores. Now guitar-playing singers such as Avril Lavigne and Miley Cyrus of Disney's hit show "Hannah Montana" are making guitars more popular for younger women. Lavigne has a signature model Fender Telecaster set to come out this year.

"My company has started a revolution," Ciravolo, who is also Daisy Rock's president, told the audience to cheers.

Added panelist and singer-guitarist Lisa Loeb, who works with the Hello Kitty campaign, "Daisy Rock's guitars are definitely fun."

But the company's guitars, which range in price from $279 for a daisy-shaped guitar to $699 for a sleek custom black Rock Candy special, are not toys.

"They play professionally," said onetime guitar seller Dell Burchett, 51, who checked out Daisy Rock's sprawling pink booth at NAMM, formerly known as the National Assn. of Music Merchants.

Fender and Gibson acknowledge Daisy Rock's place within the industry.

"No doubt Daisy Rock was an influence in our decision" to start making the Vixen and Goddess guitars last year, Gibson's Juszkiewicz said.

The CEO, however, said Gibson's high-end guitars did not directly compete with Daisy Rock. The Les Paul Vixen retails at $1,429, and the Les Paul Goddess at $2,499, according to Guitar Center's website.

Hello Kitty guitars -- which go for about $330 -- have tapped into the tween and teen markets, said Richard McDonald, Fender's senior vice president of global marketing.

"Just to invite girls to the guitar party was important," he said. "It's more interesting for us right now because of community building with the Internet."

Fender, unlike Daisy Rock and Gibson, made the decision not to change the size and weight of Hello Kitty gear from regular Fender guitars.

"We have 12,000 skews of guitars. To say to the female market place, 'Here are three models that are right for you' ... it's an attitude that we refuse to take," he said.

Juszkiewicz said both women and men have complained about playing standard heavy gear. Hence, the lighter options.

At the NAMM show, Hiiaka Kaneao, who traveled from Hawaii with family members including her father, a guitar manufacturer employee, was starry-eyed as she touched the Daisy Rock star bass she coveted.

With a big grin on her face, she said: "I love stars and I love pink."

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