CHICAGO -- Back in high school, the only people Jean Kahler knew who played guitar were guys. They weren't very good, she says, but they were their own little club.
Then, sometime in college ''there started to be a cool girly guitar thing,'' recalls Kahler, a 23-year-old Chicagoan who started taking guitar lessons two years ago.
Now an instrument once associated with such male rock pioneers as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana is getting lots of interest from young women and girls. And guitar makers are taking note.
''The tide is starting to turn,'' says Tish Ciravolo, owner and designer of Daisy Rock Guitars, a line of smaller, colorful daisy- and heart-shaped electrics made with girls in mind.
Ovation Guitars, meanwhile, has begun marketing a line of Melissa Etheridge instruments and Gibson Guitars has a Sheryl Crow model.
Ciravolo introduced her guitar line last year.
She was among a handful of women playing the bass professionally in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, but gender lines in the music business shifted noticeably in the '90s with a wave of new singer-songwriters such as Ani DiFranco and Jewel.
Then came Lilith Fair, an all-women's music tour led by Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan.
These days, images of women with guitars are commonplace, from India.Arie, who played and sang at this year's Grammy awards, to up-and-comer Michelle Branch, whom Rolling Stone magazine recently said ''plays some impressive guitar.''
The trend is inspiring everyday women to join the ranks.
Laura Snyder bought her first electric guitar last fall -- a move she attributes to her ill-fated attempts to date ''bad-boy rocker types.''
''After the last one dumped me, I decided if you can't date 'em, join 'em,'' says the 23-year-old from State College, Pa., who named her guitar ''Betty.''
Michelle Clark, a 12-year-old from Monrovia, Calif., also took up the guitar last fall. She plays with fellow sixth-graders -- six other girls and two boys -- and prefers it to the violin.
''For one thing, you can sing while playing the guitar,'' she says, noting that she most often jams with the girls in her class.
Stories like that are catching the interest of guitar manufacturers. Taylor Guitars has begun donating smaller ''baby'' versions of its guitars to elementary classrooms.
C.F. Martin & Co. carries a line of smaller ''Women in Music'' guitars meant to be easier for a girl or petite woman to handle.
''The car industry has recognized that 'Gee, women buy cars, too,''' says Christian F. Martin IV, chairman and CEO of the Nazareth, Pa.-based company. ''The guitar industry needs to do the same thing.''
He says women now account for at least 15 percent of the company's overall sales -- well above the industry average of about 5 percent.
Barry Horowitz, vice president of purchasing at Sam Ash Music Corp., says guitar sales are increasing generally, in part because the cost of an instrument is dropping. While Sam Ash doesn't track who buys its guitars, Horowitz thinks ''women are more involved than they used to be.''
Some women say buying a guitar would be easier if stores added a few female sales clerks, offered classes and made it simpler to ask questions.
Kahler, who plays acoustic guitar, is one of many who says she still feels ''totally intimidated'' walking into music stores. S
he's most comfortable at Chicago's Oldtown School of Folk Music, where she's taking a guitar class featuring tunes by women artists.
Mariela Azcuy says she also felt out of place the first time she walked into a small guitar store in Manhattan's West Village.
But the 25-year-old New Yorker says the salesman put her at ease when he let her try out any number of electric guitars in a soundproof room.
A few weeks ago, she walked out with a baby-blue Fender Stratocaster and an amplifier. Now she jams regularly with a group of budding women musicians, ages 24 to 27.
''I don't think there's anything that says that only they, genetically, can be rock stars,'' says Azcuy, who's a magazine promoter by day.
Ten-year-old Carmen Vandenberg feels much the same way.
She started playing electric guitar at age 7 and now performs ''Brown-Eyed Girl'' and ''Wild Thing'' for her parents' friends at her Miami home. Being a rock star some day, she says, would ''be like a dream come true.''
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