“MY HANDS ARE THE TRUE STORY OF MY personality,” says Nancy Wilson of Heart. “One hand looks kind of glamorous, and the other is a real worker hand with broken nails.”
Heart’s artistic success over the long run owes as much to Nancy’s musicianship as the band’s original splash of publicity owed to her stunning stage presence. From its inception, rock and roll has been a phenomenon performed almost exclusively by men, but Heart has turned the tables somewhat with Nancy Wilson and her sister, vocalist Ann. In supplanting the ephemeral image of “two women and a rock band” with the security of an artistic identity and enduring commercial success, the Wilson sisters had to overcome entrenched stereotypes— the “chick singer,” for one. For her part, Nancy has dispatched the problem by demonstrating her talent and versatility on album after album.
What was your first guitar?
I started off with a little three-quartersize Stella—a ten-dollar special. By the time I was learning barre chords, I realized it wasn’t good enough for me—that there was no possible way to do what I wanted to do on it. So I got a Harmony nylon-string. Everywhere I went, it was there with me.
Who are some of the guitarists that influenced you?
Paul Simon was a big influence as an acoustic, fingerstyle player. When I first started on electric, Jimmy Messina was an influence, as were Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Steve Howe. I also played electric-style blues—such as B.B King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”—but my sister, Ann, and I would play it on acoustic guitars, because we didn’t have electrics back then.
You said you’ve never had guitar lessons. Do you regret not taking more formal instruction?
No. For me, and for this kind of music, playing by ear is the most important thing. So many people I know became confined by their learning to the point where they couldn’t really feel the music, or venture out into their own imaginary wanderings.
Are you an aggressive player?
I’m mainly a rhythm player, and, on acoustic, I play really hard. Acoustic players tend to overplay an electric—pushing down too hard on the strings and all that—so it’s really good for me to develop the discipline to hold back and have a lighter touch on electric.
Rhythm guitar is often overlooked.
That’s true. There are a lot of good lead players, but not a whole lot of good rhythm players. Oddly enough, I’ve never really emulated the Stones, but I think Keith Richards is a compelling rhythm player, and John Lennon is a lot like that, too. John Lennon is an amazing rhythm guitarist—he knows how to be loosely tight. John Lennon has more soul than he can almost handle. David Gilmour and Jimmy Page are other incredible players who do both great rhythms and leads.
Before you became famous, did people hesitate to take you seriously as a rock instrumentalist because you’re a woman?
Yes, that’s kind of predictable. I don’t encounter it so much now, but I did when we were first getting going. Other guitar players used to come up to me and say, “You don’t play too bad for a girl.” Well, too bad I’m a girl, I guess. I mean, what can I say to that? I was serious about learning guitar in the fifth grade, and that’s a young age to be serious about anything. But I’m glad I started as young as I did, because there was no one telling me that a woman couldn’t do that. I got into it, and the guitar became my main man. It still is.—Excerpted from the Tom Wheeler/Steve Rosen piece in the December 1979 Guitar Player