Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ali Handal can rock out with the best of the boys
Look through any list of famous lead guitarists, and you’ll notice something that almost all of them have in common: a Y chromosome. If you’re a true music aficionado, you might be able to name four or five well-known female lead players, but beyond that, the names take a sharp turn for the obscure.
As an accomplished lead guitarist, L.A.-based singer/songwriter Ali Handal is well aware that she’s a bit of an anomaly. She came face-to-face with that fact when she first moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 1987. The musician recalls telling a Guitar Center employee she was unsure what gauge of guitar string she wanted. “The guy was like, ‘So, what kind of guitar does your boyfriend play?’” she recounts with a laugh.
One thing Handal’s music isn’t lacking, however, is balls. (Well, OK, maybe that’s two things.) Along with a generous helping of distortion-heavy, Joan Jett-esque rock, her latest album, Make Your Move, boasts some funkier material, a little bit of slinky, sexy stuff and even an emotional ballad or two. All throughout, Handal displays a smooth singing voice, attention-grabbing lyrics, memorable melodies and a tight, percussive guitar attack.
This fall, the music publishing company Hal Leonard will release a book that Handal has written for female guitarists. The musician explains that she sees many singer-songwriters who “just barely play enough to get the song across. I’m not even talking about lead guitars; I’m talking about rhythm. There’s a difference between really digging in and just being a strummer.” In the interest of encouraging players to explore the possibilities of the guitar more deeply, Handal’s book offers an education not only in basic guitar chords, but also in more interesting harmonic ideas, such as chords that contain open strings. Also included are inspiring quotes from female musicians, songs by women, plus information, advice and encouragement that Handal wishes she’d been exposed to as a beginner. For instance, she recalls that as a young girl, she wondered why she couldn’t play while letting her guitar hang down to her knees like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. “My arms aren’t long enough!” she explains. “That didn’t even occur to me for the first 10 years I was playing; I just thought I was so uncool. Well, that’s not uncool. It’s just different.”
Even more anomalous than Handal’s status as a female lead guitarist is that she’s a rock musician who hasn’t had much experience with drugs. “Maybe I would have been more successful if I’d smoked more pot, just kind of hung out and been more of a rebel, but I was really a good girl growing up,” she offers, adding that she got straight A’s in high school and college. “Coming from the family I came from, it was just assumed that we were all going to college, so that wasn’t even something I questioned.” Settling on UCLA “because Guns N’ Roses was here,” she worked her way through the honors program as a psychology major. “My last year, I was so miserable,” she notes. “Every time I would go out and hear music, I’m like, ‘Why am I not doing this?’”
Handal came to a crossroads while writing her thesis. “In the middle of writing it, I was like, ‘I hate this!’” she explains. “In the meantime, I saw other people around me following their dreams. It all circled back to my fear of death: ‘If this is it, is this something you want to be doing? You’ve got one life—go for it.’” Thus, she graduated magnum summa cum laude with a psychology degree, “and then I basically threw it away!”
Handal has gone on to put out three albums, sing on a Neil Young record, perform at Neverland Ranch, dance with Janet Jackson, and appear on The Price Is Right as a guitar demonstrator. This Tuesday, she appears at Don Quixote’s in a Songwriter Showcase featuring Elisabeth Carlisle, Kenny Schick and Sabine Heusler. Requests for No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” are not recommended.
Ali Handal plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $8/adv, $10/door. Call 603-2294.