Female guitar heroes have long played among us

A rock ‘n’ roll icon.
A rock ‘n’ roll icon.
Image: AP Photo
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The realm of guitar gods is not just a man’s world—even if the media has made it seem that way. In Rolling Stone’s most recent list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists,” of all time, there are only two women, and in Guitar World’s compilation of the top 30, there are none. And yet, a new study by guitar maker Fender found that 50% of new players are female.

Fender’s report also notes that black and Hispanic players now represent a significant and growing share of new guitarists, but “Women continue to define the emerging guitar market…begging the question, is the future of guitar female?”

Earlier this year, LA Magazine also ran a story with the headline “women are saving the electric guitar,” noting that females are boosting sales and hype in an otherwise flailing industry. Gibson, the maker of the classic Les Paul electric guitar, filed for bankruptcy this year after falling revenues and at least $100 million in debt obligations. Fender had to scrap its public offering in 2012, and Guitar Chain, the biggest retailer of music instruments in the world, struggles to restructure $1 billion in debt.

The reasons for this vary, from the decline of rock music to the rise of electronic dance music and hip hop. The increasing number of women beginning to play guitar, however, might change that. Fender CEO, Andy Mooney, told Rolling Stone that the study’s findings suggest that the “Taylor Swift effect,” where more girls want to play guitar after seeing the strumming pop star, was more than just a fad. But Fender’s optimistic view of women’s role in the industry’s resurgence shouldn’t be the only reason female guitar legends rock our minds.

The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards are household names, but female guitar heroes deserve widespread recognition too. Here, we pay our dues.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the godmother of rock and roll

“Rock ‘n’ roll was bred between the church and the nightclubs in the soul of a queer black woman in the 1940s named Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” NPR writes. Rightly recognized in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Tharpe was a trailblazer as a young, gay, black woman making music in a male-dominated industry. She preceded icons like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry, many of which praised Tharpe for being a major influence. Her fusion of gospel, jazz, blues, and rock, helped define the genre.

Joni Mitchell, far beyond folk

Standing at number 75 on Rolling Stone’s most recent top 100 list, Joni Mitchell was a respected rhythm-guitar player who had a knack for tuning the instrument any way she wanted. Numerous musicians from different genres, including Prince, Chaka Khan, and Neil Diamond have cited Mitchell as an influence. With hits spanning different genres and featuring both acoustic and electric guitars, Mitchell has been called a more sophisticated musician than Bob Dylan. Her 1971 album, Blue, has been called a turning point in 20th century music, and tops NPR’s list of the greatest albums made by women.

Bonnie Raitt, playing Americana blues

This 10-time Grammy Award winner is known for her blues and roots music influences, and her hits include ballads such as “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” from 1991. Raitt ranks number 89 on Rolling Stone’s most recent list of top 100 guitarists, and she is one of only two women on the list (the other is Joni Mitchell.) Musician David Crosby, writes for Rolling Stone: “Raitt rolled out a fearsome repertoire of blues licks, fingerpicking with the best and wielding a slide like an old master. Most of all, she set a crucial precedent: When guitar was still considered a man’s game by many, Raitt busted down that barrier through sheer verve and skill.”

Joan Jett, still rocking on

Joan Jett is best known for founding the Runaways, and later performing as frontwoman for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. (Jett’s former bandmate, Lita Ford, the lead guitarist of the Runaways, is also an ‘80s rock icon whose expert guitar playing deserves recognition.) A documentary of Jett’s life and career, “Bad Reputation,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Jett was featured as one of the world’s 100 greatest artists by Rolling Stone in 2010, and praised for her all-or-nothing style of playing rhythm guitar. Jett is a long-time activist for equality in music, she sure loves rock ‘n’ roll, and is quite formidable when she plays it too.

St. Vincent, the new school of rock

History might be filled with many legendary female guitarists, but, as Fender’s report shows, that trend will hopefully continue to grow. Women are making some of the best rock music today, including Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, and of course, Annie Clark who plays as St. Vincent. In 2016, Clark designed a custom guitar with Ernie Ball Music Man, which has been a success with both male and female players. But Clark’s work has been recognized before this: She won the 2015 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, the first female solo artist to do so in over 20 years.

This is by no means a comprehensive list—the music of other star guitarists like Nancy Wilson, Chrissie Hynde, Mary Ford, and more deserve listening. But if women continue to claim the future of guitar, maybe we won’t need to tell you.