When Tish Ciravolo launched Daisy Rock Guitars almost two decades ago, it wasn’t to get rich or capitalize on a particular demographic. Her intention was a natural extension of the challenges she had faced as a woman and bassist: finding a properly sized and weighted instrument that would fit comfortably in her hands and around her neck, and a company that would nurture instead of patronize, and encourage rather than condescend.
From NAMM shows to stages to music stores, Ciravolo witnessed and experienced gender bias that left women of all ages feeling excluded, trivialized, and uncomfortable. She was determined to fill that void with specialized guitars and basses, as well as a welcoming online presence where women could gather and connect.
The Daisy Rock prototype was simple: a daisy drawn on paper by her daughter Nicole when she was 18 months old. In Ciravolo’s mind and hand, the stem became a neck and a leaf became a headstock. She presented the idea to her husband, Michael Ciravolo, president of Schecter Guitars, and an instrument was born. Initial response to the first Daisy Rock booth at NAMM was predictable: the guitar was “cute,” but it would never take off, at least not according to countless men who viewed it as a curiosity or a one-off. Millions of instruments sales later, Ciravolo is enjoying the last laugh — and the satisfaction of knowing that she has changed the world for young women who aspire to play.
Last year brought changes to Daisy Rock. A 14-year distribution partnership with Alfred Music Publishing ended when the company, under new leadership, decided to focus solely on books. Ciravolo signed a global distribution and licensing agreement with KMC Music, which saw the reintroduction of twenty Daisy Rock models at the 2017 winter NAMM show. This year, Daisy Rock is presenting a ukulele line, and some new guitar designs are in the works for late spring/early summer. Ciravolo is optimistic about what’s ahead for Daisy Rock and its role in bringing more women of all ages into the music industry.
If She’s a Player, Treat Her Like a Player:
An Interview with Tish Ciravolo of Daisy Rock Guitars
Daisy Rock debuted in 2000. How has the company grown and what steps did you take to grow it?
When I started the company, nobody believed me. That was my first impression. The first thing I did was the Rockrgrl Conference in Seattle in November, and I met Courtney Love and she signed my first sample guitar that now hangs in the NAMM Museum, because I was inducted into the Museum in 2006. I did my first NAMM show and I had a 3×3 area. I was a division of Schecter at that point, and a thousand times people would walk by and say, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cute,” and every guy would say, “That will never work. Girls don’t walk into music stores and buy guitars.” So I started my company doing consignment sales. I would say to dealers, “I know there’s nothing like that on the market. I know you’ve never seen a pink flower guitar before. But if you put it in your window, I will let you sell it and then pay me for it.” Which is unheard of in the music business, but I was convinced that there were girls out there who would walk into music stores who had never walked into music stores before because they were not an inviting place for girls to be prior to 2000. I started getting immediate success doing consignment sales. Musician’s Friend was one of the first companies who jumped on board with me.
So, it took a handful of guys in our male-dominated industry to say, “This is important, and it’s about time somebody did something for the girls in this scenario.” Immediately I started having a press impact. In 2002, Newsweek called me. The reporter said, “I don’t really believe in this brand, I don’t think it’s important at all, but if you have somebody famous that can talk to me and tell me that it is important, I’ll write an article about you.” The only person I knew, that my husband knew, was Robert Smith from The Cure, and he thought the brand was fantastic. We had Robert Smith and the reporter from Newsweek get on the phone together. They had an hour-long conversation and he said, “Of course, it’s important. It’s important to get more girls to play guitar and get into the music business.” So Newsweek did a little paragraph about it, which I thought was huge. Because Newsweek did a piece about it, Time magazine called me. They did an article about do more girls need to play guitar, and they did a quote from me and a paragraph about the company in a full-page article. Because Time magazine called me, People magazine called me. People did a photo shoot and a full page about it’s time to let the girls rock, it’s time to get more girls rocking. Then I did the Today Show with Katie Couric.
Why is there a girl guitar? Why is there a flower guitar?
So there was this press impact that happened that really played into why the guitars started selling, because people wanted to understand what’s a girl guitar. Why is there a girl guitar? Why is there a flower guitar? Why is there something in the marketplace that has never been there before? Over the course of 17 years I’ve heard the same stories all the time, like, “I can’t believe nobody did this before you did this. I can’t believe nobody ever thought of it before you thought of it.” The only reason I thought of it is because I lived it. I was a musician in the ’80s, playing around Los Angeles, and the first time I went to buy the first bass that I wanted to buy, my boyfriend and the guy behind the counter decided what bass I would play because girls didn’t go to music stores. There was just no community feeling. As I started playing out in clubs, I was dealing with “She’s not bad for a girl,” and “We don’t soundcheck the girl bands.” All of a sudden I started realizing this is an old-school boys club, and it’s not so much the guys in the bands, because they were open to just having good players. It was the people that surrounded the bands, the sound people and the club people, who were discriminatory.
When I got this bass, I had to take it back because I couldn’t play it. It was like trying to play a baseball bat. I went back to the music store and played every bass on the wall until I could find something I could play, which was a Yamaha BX-1 with a smaller neck. When I met Michael, he built me a couple of basses. I just need the neck to be thinner so I can push on the strings, and I don’t need it to be so heavy. So it took all these organic things that happened to me as a female musician until I started this company and designed the first girl guitar with this idea that it needs to be lighter in weight with a thinner neck profile.
I had the big guys go after me and think they could come into the business with a marketing plan that they were just going to take a guy guitar, paint it pink, and have a girl guitar.
What was the market like at that time as compared to now? What changes have you seen, good and bad, over the course of almost 18 years?
Financially, between 2000 and 2008, I continued to grow in sales. I started small, I got up to the $3 million market, and then the 2008 crash happened. Since 2008, it’s been a recovery. Of course I’m recovering really well now, but just thinking about what the MI industry has been going through, that’s the financial implications of what we’ve all been going through, and that’s nine years later. On the other side I saw this change. When we started, we did all this intense market research about how many girls play guitars and go into music stores. We took all that information from magazines and from warranty cards we’d get back, and we determined about 4 percent of the population was female in 2000. I would say that’s closer now to 26 to 28 percent. That is largely in part because I started my company, but it’s also society. All of a sudden there was this change where it was socially more accepted for girls to play guitar.
It started in the early 2000s, and now everywhere you look, it’s so common and normal to see a 7- to 12-year-old girl playing guitar in a movie, a show, a commercial, and to see all the mom bands having a good time on the weekends. I just had a commercial with Rocket Mortgage playing a Daisy Rock bass. It’s been a cultural shift, and I think that’s affected our industry. After I started my company and I had a pink guitar on the floor at NAMM, when I came back there was an array of pink guitars everywhere. I had the big guys go after me and think they could come into the business with a marketing plan that they were just going to take a guy guitar, paint it pink, and have a girl guitar. Well, that’s not what works, that’s why it didn’t work for them, and that’s why I’m still the only girl guitar company in the world. Because it wasn’t a marketing plan of “How can I make more money?” It was a marketing plan of “How can I answer a problem that girls are facing?” So financially I was growing a lot, and then 2008 happened, and of course changing distributors was a hiccup, but there will always be a new girl out there that wants to learn how to play guitar, and Daisy Rock is the only guitar that’s out there for her.
You’re almost a year into the global distribution and licensing deal with KMC Music. How did that come about, why KMC, and what has the partnership accomplished to date?
I knew I was going to bounce out of Alfred, and Alfred was very helpful in trying to find a new home for me. I had some friends that knew people at KMC and talked very highly about what they did. I had a couple of companies I was talking to at the time. I thought KMC was professional and knew how to distribute guitars. I had been with a music publisher for a long time, so I was really interested in trying a company that did nothing but sell musical instruments and knows how to sell gear. You see companies that are trying to bring themselves into the new millennium and selling stuff to millennials, and you can see that they’re trying to understand it and they want to grow with it. I thought KMC was being very progressive with how they were going after the marketplace, and they wanted to be in the business of girl guitars. They want to help me grow the business back up again.
What is the international market like for Daisy Rock?
I’ve had a great international presence. At one point I was in sixteen different countries. I think a lot of countries want girls to play guitar and they understand what Daisy Rock is. We were really present internationally a few years ago. That went away for a couple of years, and I want to push that again. We just signed with a distributor in England called JHS — John Hornby Skewes — and they’re amazing. They’re really behind the brand, and so I love them.
How large a part has the Internet played in your numbers?
It’s over 50 percent now. What’s so funny is to go back to 2000, when my webmistress was like, “You really have to put the guitars on the website,” and I said, “I don’t think anyone is ever going to buy a guitar over the computer.” Seventeen years later, here we are, and who doesn’t buy everything from the Internet? I want to support the mom-and-pops, I want to support the chains, and I want a place for women to go and pick up a guitar and learn how to play. I want all those places to still exist. But I think we’re all dealing with this behemoth of the Internet.
Having Jimmy Page say,
“I love Daisy Rock” — I was 15 years old all over again, going, “Oh my god, Led Zeppelin!”
You mentioned the number of times you heard the word “cute” at that first NAMM show. Suddenly, Jimmy Page had one of your guitars in his hands, men began playing them onstage, and everything changed.
Yes, and the sad part of that conversation is how many guitar goddesses are there? You have a handful, and then you have all these major guitar gods. Having Jimmy Page say, “I love Daisy Rock” — I was 15 years old all over again, going, “Oh my god, Led Zeppelin!” It’s an out-of-body experience. They’re not even my peers. They’re people I admire so much, and they all wanted to play it. Pretty amazing. Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo was one of the very first supporters I had, and Josh Klinghoffer from the Butthole Surfers, and of course Robert Smith. I could go on and on, all these idols, and of course I love them all. Less Than Jake just sent me a picture of them playing Daisy Rock in the studio.
Would the response have been different if your husband had debuted the guitars as part of the Schecter line? Would he have heard “innovative” and “entrepreneur,” instead of “cute”?
The reason Daisy Rock worked is because it came from an organic idea and need that I was fulfilling for myself. It wasn’t a marketing plan. Anyone who said, “I’m going to make money” — it hasn’t worked. I think the backlash would have been the same for Schecter. It would have been, “Michael Ciravolo designed this guitar for girls. Wait … he’s a guy.” People are smart. They’re not going to fall for that. That being said, he helped me design the guitars. He knows how to design incredible guitars. He has the luthier to do it. He knows the business. I learned the business from him from the ground up.
There is an article from USA Today [December 15, 2009] in your 2011 press kit, in which Andy Rossi, who at the time was senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Fender — a company that, we should note, marketed a pink Hello Kitty guitar — was quoted as saying, “With all due respect to Daisy Rock, creating an instrument that is specialized for females is pandering, insulting, and not what females want. Is there a female violin? No. Is there a female piano? No. There’s no such thing as a girl’s guitar.”
Andy Rossi called me and apologized after that article came out. He says he was misquoted. I think he’s a typical guy who put his foot far down his mouth. To me, that was an attack, and a lot of people that support me called him and said, “What are you doing?” He called and told me, “I didn’t realize it was going to come out that way, they misquoted me, of course I love Daisy Rock and what it stands for, you’ve gotten so many more girls in the business than ever before,” and blah blah blah. I was like, “It would have been really nice if you had put that in the article.” So yeah, it’s unfortunate.
Wanda Jackson is one of my endorsed artists and she’s
the queen of rockabilly,
so I would really like to see a nice rockabilly guitar
out there for the girls.
What’s coming up for winter NAMM?
I finally got a company in KMC that’s going to come out with ukuleles. We were trying to do it so much with Alfred, and it never successfully happened with the factory people they dealt with. So I’m super-excited about 2018, because I’ve got three new ukulele designs. I wrote a book called Girl’s Ukulele Method, so I’m excited. I’m coming into the ukulele market a little later than a lot of other companies, but we’re Daisy Rock and we’re going to do something cool. We’ve got a couple of guitar things, but they won’t be at NAMM. I think you’ll see something from us closer to May/June 2018, a couple of new electric guitar designs. I’m trying to come out with something fun, like a rockabilly-style guitar. I want to see that market open up more. Wanda Jackson is one of my endorsed artists and she’s the queen of rockabilly, so I would really like to see a nice rockabilly guitar out there for the girls.
There’s so much emphasis on the colors and designs. Let’s talk about what’s behind all of that — woods, pickups, bindings.
It’s always challenging to get some lighter wood. It’s hard to make guitars out of mahogany and have them be light, so we’re always looking. I love to say that Daisy Rock is unique, because it is, but in reality, a guitar is a guitar is a guitar. We’re all using basically the same parts. The difference with a Daisy Rock is the neck width, and all the accouterments on a Daisy Rock are the things people gravitate toward. We use the same things as everybody else, with the exception that we don’t do the abalone anymore, because obviously that’s bad for the environment, and we’re having a problem with rosewood, just like everybody, through CITES because of the problem with decimating the forests, and we want to make sure that we’re always giving back and rebuilding the forests. Of course we’ve got the Daisy Rock pickups, and sometimes we use Seymour Duncans and sometimes we use EMGs. I’m not a company like Schecter that would use twenty different styles of pickups. We’re more of an acoustic guitar company and we have some electric guitars. We bring something to the table that no one else is doing.
What part do customers play in your design strategies? Do you experiment at the risk of a model not selling, or play it safe and go with what worked in the past?
It’s changed over the years. We used to do a lot of R&D. With Alfred I had a staff of 200 people at my disposal, so we were constantly running things up the flagpole to see what the girls thought. With KMC, when we come out with samples and we have different things, they run it by their staffers in Connecticut and see what everybody likes and doesn’t like. I also see the comments I get on Instagram and Twitter, because all I have to do is put something up and say, “What do you think?” and I usually get a flurry of responses. I don’t think I have a gigantic social media footprint — 12,000 or 14,000 is not the biggest — but the people that read my social media, and the girls that play the guitars and support the brand, are the ones that have this voice about what they’re looking for and what they want to see. So I’m keen to understanding when people say, “I’d like to see this,” or what I’m missing, or what I don’t notice in the marketplace, and I do have people tell me and send me these great ideas.
What is your vision for Daisy Rock in the coming year?
It’s really growing the company again, because I feel like there is a little bit of a dip. It’s the best time of the year for us, because all of a sudden after Christmas I get flooded with all these little girls who found a guitar under the Christmas tree. There is no better feeling. There is nothing in the world, besides the feelings I have for my family and the things I do with my family, that comes anywhere close to sitting down one day, taking a drawing my daughter did, and making that into a piece of wood that has changed these girls’ lives. A girl that wakes up on Christmas, sees a guitar, and thinks, I can play guitar, I can be a rock star — can you imagine what we’re going to be in 20 years if this continues at this rate? Just think about how different the world’s going to be in music. It means everything. It’s why Daisy Rock can never go away. It’s not because “Lo and behold, I’m making a ton of money.” That’s not the driver, and my husband will tell you. The driver is the life-changing moments these girls go through, and knowing that there is a support system. We have social media, we have the website, you have a question, you want to know how to play a song, get in a band, get a manager, get an agent. I just did a call-out for America’s Got Talent. I’ve put artists on shows. I’ve put artists in movies. I am a conduit to put all these girls’ lives out there and help them live their dreams. That’s what I’m doing with Daisy Rock. Yes, it matters what kind of wood, the strings, the shape of the guitar, the color. All of that does matter, but in the end it’s that girl that’s going to play that song that’s going to change everybody’s life. That’s what matters.
How do you reach your target demographic, keep the products affordable, and make the company profitable?
You’ve got to pay for the costs, but we have guitars under a hundred bucks. What’s our most expensive guitar now, $349 max? I know that people are living on $20,000 to $30,000 a year incomes, I know those are the struggling ones for Christmas, and that’s why we have the Jr. Miss and Debutante and Pixie series, because they’re $100, $120, $150. And I wrote a book, the Girl’s Guitar Method, so that girl who gets that guitar doesn’t sit down on her bedroom floor and feel lost. Ron Manus [CEO] at Alfred saw that need before I even saw that need, because that was his world. So you have to cover your costs, but that cute little guitar for that little girl has to be at a price point so that her parents will say, “OK, it’s not that much money. Let’s get her this.” Look at the economy. I’m in tune with why you have to have guitars in Wal-Mart at that price point — so you have the masses be able to buy your product and not just the select few rich people.
There was a time when women were almost nonexistent at NAMM shows, with the exception of “booth babes” and the occasional administrative person onsite with an instrument company. And then, one year, it seemed there were women everywhere. When did you notice the change in gender demographics?
It used to be a total sausage-fest. I think I have a really good vision on how this happened, because I was the first Schecter booth girl in 1996, and fast-forward my life five years and I’m working at the Schecter booth with the Daisy Rock line, along with the Jagermeister girls, who are in bikinis and passing out shots of Jager. So I’ve seen it from both sides. I was also at NAMM as an endorsed artist by ESP Guitars in 1992-1993. So I’ve been to NAMM for a long time. My concept was, “How do you make it — just like the music store — how do you make it inviting for the girls?” Well, what you do is create something that’s for them. As soon as there were pink guitars on the floor and a Daisy Rock booth, all of a sudden the guys who came to NAMM felt comfortable bringing their daughters, sisters, wives, and whoever was in their life, because there was a place for them. Before Daisy Rock, there wasn’t a pink explosion of stuff for girls to go hang out at. I did that very successfully with my NAMM booth. In seventeen years of doing it, that has changed NAMM. I think NAMM has said, “OK, 50 percent of the buying population is female. Let’s get them in the door.” And I think music companies have done the same thing. We have more female executives. We have the She Rocks Awards, which is 5 years old this year. I was the first recipient with Laura Whitmore. Now there’s an awards ceremony for women in the industry. Where was that 20 years ago? That didn’t happen.
I keep saying I just want to live another 10 years because I’m going to be sitting on a porch somewhere with my grandkids saying, “Oh, back in the day, the girls weren’t even there.”
Have people become overly sensitive about “booth babes” and models posing with guitars in print ads?
Sex sells. Unfortunately, that’s our society. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be Playboy. I think it’s so much better today than it has been in the past. We don’t see quite as many magazines with the girl getting out of the swimming pool in a bikini, talking about how she just loves a certain kind of cable — which happened for years. A shift happened. Has the needle gone all the way to the other side? My standing joke has always been, if I want to go to my NAMM booth, and I want six guys in g-strings to carry me out over their heads, and then work my booth in gold lame g-strings, handing out girl guitars, then the needle’s gone the other way. But I can’t do that because it’s me doing exactly what we don’t like the guys doing. You want a respectful balance, especially in this sexual misconduct history that we’re going through right now. I think this NAMM will be the least sexually mistreated NAMM that you’ll ever have experienced, because every guy who’s ready to slap the ass of that girl at the booth is going to think, Oh sh-t. Not that the idea of slapping her on the ass is going to change. It’s just that the intention might, because of how much the spotlight has been on how wrong that is. We are in a male-dominated society, we have a male-dominated business that we are all in at NAMM, and in 2018, that needle is farther toward females than I have ever seen it, and I’ve been going since ’88, so I can’t wait. I keep saying I just want to live another 10 years because I’m going to be sitting on a porch somewhere with my grandkids saying, “Oh, back in the day, the girls weren’t even there.” So it’s very exciting to see. It’s a time of change.
You toured, played clubs, auditioned for labels, worked for a label [A&M], managed a club, waitressed at the Roxy, attended concerts and NAMM shows. “Hashtag” you too?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I like to be humorous, and there are ways to get back at men that sexually mistreat you in this industry, and there are ways that are very funny. I would always try to be creative with how to do payback, but the fact that you have to do a payback says how bad the industry has been. I’ve dealt with it all: not getting a record deal because I didn’t sleep with somebody, not having a guy produce the album because he was sleeping with our drummer and our singer and they both found out about it. It’s so prevalent. When I worked at the Roxy in the late ’80s, and being in an all-female metal band, it was just unbelievable the amount of shit. But at the same time, I think what people forget or don’t understand today is it was so normal that to say anything or raise a flag, except to protect yourself, or say, “Hey, stop smacking me on the ass,” didn’t mean I was going to write an article in the L.A. Weekly about how this guy was smacking me on the ass all the time. Because this was just something we dealt with. Go back to the ’50s. It’s just something we’ve all been dealing with, and thank god the spotlight has happened, thank god there’s a media presence about how this is not the way it should be. Finally that’s happened. I don’t even know if I would, but I have stories where I could say this happened. But there’s so many. That’s the thing — there’s just so many.
Does a company like Daisy Rock offer safe haven? At the same time, what does it say that we still need safe haven in 2018?
I think a girl’s not going to e-mail the president of Fender and ask, “How do I play the first couple of chords in this song?” That’s intimidating. I relate to that with younger girls. I want a place where any question is OK, from “How do I put on a strap?” to “How do I change a string?” to “How do I become a rock star?” Anything that I can help in that scenario, I want to be that place, and I have been for 17 years. I still don’t see a lot of women that have stepped up and said, “I want to be that safe place for girls with questions about guitars and being a musician.” Unfortunately, I see bands like St. Vincent, who say, “Why do we have to stand up for the girls in this guitar thing? We’re all just equal.” I don’t know if you saw that whole attack she did on me, but I didn’t appreciate that at all. Her whole thing was, “Finally I came out with a guitar for a girl that’s a real guitar and not a flower.” And I thought, Why would you do that? Even if you feel that way, why would you turn on another girl in this industry where it’s so hard to get recognition?
What are your words of wisdom, encouragement, and caution for young women who want to work in the music industry?
One of the things I did when I started dealing with Guitar Center was I began talking to them about safe haven kinds of places. As a female musician, I can’t tell you how many times I ended up in the middle of the Valley, by myself, on a Tuesday night at 8:00, dragging my gear to some poor rehearsal room with a room full of guys. It’s such an unsafe place to be. I’ve always said “beware” for girls that are musicians. They’re just as vulnerable in any kind of situation. Just because you’re in a room full of guys that think they’re cool because they’re musicians doesn’t mean it’s any more safe. It may be worse. I like the idea that Guitar Center started doing rehearsal rooms inside the stores, and having the studios inside the stores, because that’s a safer place to be, rather than the dimly lit corporate parks that I ended up in. My words of wisdom are, if you’re a girl and you’re going out auditioning, be very careful with what you’re doing. And on top of that, my idea, always, as a female bass player was to know what I was going to play extremely well. The worst thing is to show up unprepared. And totally be real about what it is that you like. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what they want is the best. It’s what you want to do, and what you like, and what you’re feeling, because in the end it’s the personality, it’s getting along with other people, it’s supporting other girls, it’s being part of your community. All of those are really important. And then finding your muse, finding your voice, being that original voice and that unique thing that you are that are talking through your music. Those are some wonderful things to hear.
— Alison Richter