Six of Music's Most Influential Women Guitarists
If you could play guitar like one of the greats, who would it be? Jimi Hendrix? Django Reinhardt? Eddie Van Halen? B.B. King? Jimmy Page? David Gilmour? Whomever you choose, chances are it won't be a woman. The consensus seems to be that great female guitarists simply do not exist. All you need do is check out any best-of list and you'll find them curiously devoid of women. Take Rolling Stone’s
list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, for instance. Only two women made the cut. Two—out of one hundred!
Music has always been a testosterone-heavy industry. Getting people to take a female seriously as a guitarist on par with her male peers—instead of a "chick who can play," or a player who is “good for a girl,” or "the girl singer who fingerpicks for accompaniment"—has taken decades. Possible reasons for the gender inequality range from lack of female role models to the "inferior" size of the female hand. A Washington Post
article written in response to Rolling Stone’s
list suggests that as interest in electric guitar was revving up in the ’60s, women weren’t encouraged to step out of their ladylike gender roles, which left them playing catch-up to artists like Hendrix and Page. And the women who dared to step out were anomalies. Definitely not cut from the same cloth as the girl down the street.
As for hand strength, it is no doubt a plus for playing guitar. A female's typically smaller hands and lack of forearm strength can put her at a disadvantage with many male-designed guitars. Manipulating troublesome fingerings can intimidate and deter beginning students. Though there are ways to remedy this, it's a likely reason why some abandon the guitar or don't pursue it beyond the basics.
Women perform music in certain ways, so they are expected
to perform in certain ways, so they continue
to perform in certain ways. So goes the stereotype. But there are many female guitarists who have challenged and continue to debunk this way of thinking. I give you six of them here. The names are in no particular order, and I'm not saying these are the ONLY women guitarists who ever did anything of note. They're not. Memphis Minnie, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Jennifer Batten, Orianthi, and a host of other wildly talented females past, present and future all elevate the presence of women in music. If any of the names below are new to you, do yourself a favor and check them out.ELIZABETH COTTEN
Elizabeth Cotten was a self-taught fingerpicking pioneer who developed her original style out of sheer necessity. She was left-handed but played a right-handed guitar that wasn't re-strung. She simply turned the instrument upside-down and played the alternating bass line with her index or middle finger and the melody with her thumb. Her signature style has since become known as "Cotten picking."
Born Elizabeth Nevills on January 5, 1895, Cotten grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She often borrowed her brother's banjo and guitar, reversing them to make them easier to play left-handed. She eventually purchased a Stella for $3.75 and began writing songs at age 11.
Elizabeth married Frank Cotten when she was 15. After the birth of the couple's first child, she quit the guitar. Aside from the occasional church function, she wouldn't play again for another 25 years.
By the mid-1950's Cotten was working as a caregiver for the Charles Seeger family, whose children's grandfather was iconic folk singer, Pete Seeger. The musical Seeger household inspired Elizabeth to pick up the guitar and begin playing again from scratch.
It wasn't until she was in her 60s that Cotten began recording and performing publicly. Mike Seeger recorded her on his reel-to-reel and in 1958, released a collection of Elizabeth's material on an album called Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar
, which included the song "Freight Train,"
written by Cotten when she was 12. This folk classic has been covered by artists like Chet Atkins and Joan Baez. Cotten began playing shows with Mike and shared the stage with many prominent folk and blues musicians. She continued touring and recording well into her 80s.
Cotten received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1984 and was awarded a Grammy for "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording" at age 90 for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live
. She passed away in Syracuse, New York, at the age of 92.MAYBELLE CARTER
As part of The Carter Family, "Mother" Maybelle Carter was one of country music's first great lead guitarists. She is credited with the invention of the "Carter Scratch." Although she'd first picked up the scratch technique from guitarist Lesley Riddle, it became widely known as "Carter-style" picking.
The scratch allows the guitar to function as both a lead and rhythm instrument simultaneously. It is characterized by playing the melody on the bass strings with the thumb while the fingers brush the treble strings for rhythm. Maybelle also incorporated hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. Her style became the driving rhythmic force behind The Carter Family's music.
Maybelle was born in the Virginia mountains in 1909 and began performing with relatives at age 16 under the name The Carter Family. The group recorded hundreds of songs between 1927 and 1956, including the well-known "Wildwood Flower."
Their music had a profound impact on country and folk, as well as on bluegrass, Southern Gospel, pop and rock.
Although her musical career slowed down considerably after the 1950s, Maybelle continued to record and perform through the '70s as one of the elder stateswomen of country music. The Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and was posthumously honored in 2005 with Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award. Maybelle Carter passed away in October 1978 at the age of 69. JONI MITCHELL
Joni Mitchell is so highly regarded as a singer-songwriter that it's sometimes easy to forget what an amazing guitarist she is. From the way she tunes her strings to the way she strokes them, Joni is one of the most inventive and influential guitarists of all time, male or female.
The secret to Joni's innovative guitar work is her repertoire of more than 50 different open tunings. Through trial and error, Mitchell devised the tunings to compensate for a left hand weakened by childhood polio. Eventually she used them as a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure.
Joni's right-hand technique also evolved over time from the intricate picking typified by her earliest work, to a looser and more rhythmic style that sometimes incorporated percussive slaps.
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Canada. When she first took up the guitar, she got Pete Seeger's How to Play Folk-Style Guitar
and went straight for the Cotten picking. Joni had some trouble with alternating bass sounds though, so she ended up playing mostly the sixth string but letting it bang into the fifth. At the same time that she disposed of standard folk fingerpicking, Mitchell departed from standard tuning as well. (Only two of her songs—"Tin Angel" and "Urge for Going"—are in standard tuning.) Beginning with open D and open G, she began to map out her own territory and develop a sound that would set her apart from most of the other young voices on the burgeoning ’60s folk scene.
Mitchell's sophisticated, densely poetic compositions first caught the ear of folk audiences in Toronto when Joni was still in her teens. After a move to the US in the mid-1960s, she developed a reputation around New York as a folk singer to watch. Joni's big break came in 1970 with the single, "Big Yellow Taxi." Her deeply personal, critically acclaimed album Blue
followed. Released in 1971 it featured songs like "River," "A Case of You," and "California." Blue
is considered to be one of the most important albums of that decade.
The prolific Mitchell has released 19 studio albums to date, a couple of live discs, and various compilations. She won her first Grammy Award for 1969s Clouds
. Over the past four decades, she has won seven additional Grammys in several different categories, including one for Lifetime Achievement.
In 2003 Rolling Stone
ranked Joni #72 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time (Joan Jett came in at #87.) When the magazine revised their list in 2011, again only two females placed, and again, Joni was one of them, in at #75 this time (Bonnie Raitt was #89.) NANCY WILSON
Nancy Lamoureux Wilson was born on March 16, 1954, in San Francisco, California. Her family eventually settled in the Seattle suburbs. Influenced by Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, Nancy played solo gigs until 1974, when she quit college and moved to Canada to join her sister Ann in Heart.
Heart first emerged in the center of the '70s feminist movement alongside Joan Jett and the Runaways and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. At that time, there were women who played R&B, disco, country, folk, jazz, classical, pop and opera. There were singer-songwriters, but there were no "women who rock." Those words didn't yet exist.
When Nancy Wilson came on the scene in 1976, people didn't know how to reconcile this woman with the face of an angel with the high kickin' axe slinger playing those aggressive riffs. And to up the ante, she was also a multi-instrumentalist, playing mandolin, autoharp, bass, 12-string, pedal steel, electric and acoustic guitar. The girl could kick some serious musical ass.
Heart's melodic rockers like "Sing Child," "Magic Man," and "Crazy on You"
had many calling the group "the female Led Zeppelin." But Nancy’s acoustic finger-style work in an electric environment, and her knack for near-folk ballads, made it clear she had her own identity and vision for Heart. Over the last four decades, the band has sold more than 30,000,000 records, making Heart among the most commercially enduring hard rock acts of all time.
Nancy Wilson influenced other female guitarists who weren't feeling particularly brave about putting themselves out there at a time when women were more ornamental
. She and Ann encouraged a lot of girls who dreamed of fronting a rock band, and shed light on the many different sacrifices women make when building a career in music. So many women at the time simply didn't go there.THE GREAT KAT
Guitar virtuoso The Great Kat is "girl power" at its raunchiest. The self-proclaimed "High Priestess of Shred Guitar" and "reincarnation of Beethoven" is a thrash metal guitarist who's been dubbed one of the fastest on the planet. Guitar One
named her to their list of Top 10 Fastest Shredders of All Time, the lone female among fretboard wizards like Buckethead and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Kat's finger-bleeding speed has to be heard to be believed. She's mind-boggingly fast. Check her out on "Metal Messiah."
If that's a little too over the top for you, here's a short clip of Kat playing guitar and violin on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumblebee"
from his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
The Great Kat is the stage name of Katherine Thomas, who was born on June 6, 1966, in Swindon, England. After her family moved to Long Island, Katherine began studying music, taking up piano at age seven and violin at nine. She won a scholarship to Juilliard and studied classical music, but upon graduating with honors, took up heavy metal guitar, donned a dominatrix getup, and retooled herself as The Great Kat.
Kat took her violin solos from Paganini, Sarasate, Vivaldi and others and adapted them for shred guitar. Her first live performance left the entire audience with mouths agape, shocked that a woman could play faster than practically any guy in the world.
Kat's advice to becoming a virtuoso? "Practice," she tells Rock Eyez
. "Work your butt off. Be aggressive, competitive, vicious, and unrelenting."KAKI KING
Kaki King is a master manipulator of the guitar. She can extract just about any sound she wants by using every angle of the guitar as an instrument. She sometimes taps out a backbeat while plucking the melody. Other times, she plays bass and high-fret taps on the neck of the guitar. Rolling Stone
calls Kaki "a genre unto herself."
King is a new generation of guitar player. Her kind of originality and imagination earned her a spot in 2006 as the first and only female, and the youngest artist ever, to make Rolling Stone's
list of New Guitar Gods. If you've not heard of King yet, check her out performing "Playing with Pink Noise"
live on Letterman
Kaki was born Katherine Elizabeth King on August 24, 1979, in Atlanta, Georgia. When she was four, her parents encouraged her to take up an instrument. Kaki chose the guitar but quit when she didn't enjoy the lessons. She set her sights on drums at age nine, but returned to the guitar a couple years later when Nirvana hit the airwaves. "All of the sudden it was cool to [play guitar], and I already knew way more than the boys did," she told Guitar Player
King got her first taste of performing live while attending college in New York. Campus open-mike nights soon led to busking in subways where strangers would ask for her CD. It was then Kaki realized she could make a living as a musician. Upon graduation in 2001, she decided to pursue the guitar seriously.
Since then King has released 6 studio albums and 3 EPs, and has teamed up with Eddie Vedder (for the soundtrack to the movie Into the Wild
) and Dave Grohl (on the Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace
), and co-produced a track for Miley Cyrus with Timbaland. This offbeat tour de force, with her fusion of jazz, punk and folk, gives you a whole new appreciation for the sounds a guitar can make.