Deirdre Cartwright is a mainly jazz-playing guitarist who inspired numerous girls to pick up a guitar and have a go in 1983, when she co-presented the BBC series Rock School. It’s her birthday today and we’re pleased to say that Deirdre is still playing guitar and gigging around London right now. By the start of the 80s, Punk had already sparked the idea that girls could be in bands, but Deirdre Cartwright showed us that we could aspire to play properly. We’re still aspiring.
Rock School was broadcast in an era where there were no YouTube tutorials – the only way to learn guitar was from books, or in person. For us, Deirdre became something of a guitar playing Valerie Singleton, demonstrating how something was done, ever patient and never shying away from the more tricky bits. They weren’t tricky to Deirdre obviously. However unless you had a video recorder, which was still a domestic rarity in 1983, or took notes, progress was inevitably slow. Like Blue Peter, the show was fronted by three presenters and in something of an early move for diversity by the Educational branch of the BBC they chose a Black bass tutor, Henry Thomas and a female guitar tutor, Deirdre Cartwright alongside drummer Geoff Nicholls. Now, in 2021, there aren’t many women guitarists or guitar tutors, but in 1983, we were amazed that they found one at all!
What we loved about Deirdre was that she had spiky hair, dressed in boiler suits and explained everything really clearly. Her chosen bluesy licks weren’t really what we wanted to play in our post-punk outfits influenced by the Gang of Four, but we knew that learning those scales and twiddles was essential for holding our own in a guitar shop.
Deirdre had previously been gigging with bands including all-female rock covers band Painted Lady – whose members went on to form Girlschool in 1978. At the time of Rock School, Deirdre was playing with The Guest Stars, and in 1989, she and Alison Rayner set up a monthly club night Blow The Fuse at the Vortex Jazz Club in London as part of the Alison Rayner Quintet. Blow The Fuse has gone on to raise awareness of women jazz musicians, promote tours, release recordings and campaign for musicians and jazz players. Deirdre Cartwright still plays in a number of different groups, sometime under her own name, with The Electric Landladies or busking in East London with The Four Buskateers.
We hope to interview Deirdre sometime soon about how she got started in music, her perspective on playing guitar, what it was like working on Rockschool as a renowned female guitarist and maybe she could help us understand what jazz is all about for those of us with simple punk ears.
We’re protective over all women musicians and the differing levels of support, inclusion, positivity and respect they get. Debates about the style and quality of girls’ and women’s guitar playing compared with men’s are less prominent now. There are now more girl guitarists in bands and fewer reviews saying, ‘Not Bad For A Girl’. Those women guitarists that tend to get lauded seem to be the rock shredders who reproduce the masculine gold standard whilst also being biddable, young, cute and looking the part. Jazz and punk aren’t about that; we’re not playing the same game. And yet, some reviewers do still seem to be saying Deirdre’s NBFAG.
“She’s a terrific player, but displays of blinding technique are not her style. Her strength lies in her ability to absorb the huge variety of modern approaches to the instrument, without copying any of them. and produce witty and personal music in the process.”
Dave Gelly, The Observer
We’re flipping glad that displays of blinding technique are not your style, Deirdre. We like music, communication, songs, joy – all the things that you brought to us as young kids watching Rock School nearly 40 years ago. We appreciate that we can still seek out those aspects when we get our guitars out from under the bed to play our distinctive NBFAG style.
Happy Birthday, Deirdre Cartwright and Thank You!