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Music

International Women's Day: The 10 best female guitarists of all time

@SamWKemp

I’d like to start by saying that the list you’re about to read was damn tricky to put together. Not only are there countless female guitarists who have shaped the course of rock ‘n’ roll, but there are also numerous ways to measure a ‘great’ guitarist. It’s easy to focus on virtuosity, but that degrades guitar playing to a mere technical pursuit. For me, the best guitarist is not the one with the fastest fingers but the one who helps the listener forget that what they’re listening to is basically a resonant amalgamation of steel and wood.

For that reason, this list includes guitarists from various backgrounds. Whether it be blues, classic rock, country, folk or jazz, every kind of guitarist is represented. What they all have in common is that they honed their craft in a male-dominated industry that frequently ignores the work of female musicians.

The artists you will find below have been selected not simply for their skill but also for their legacy. The music industry has always given space to women, but it has always been claustrophobic; a cupboard under the stairs. While male musicians have historically been celebrated for their ability to push the envelope, female musicians are often told that their success will come from adhering to a standard set for them by their male peers.

Many of the musicians below were selected because they refused to comply with those standards, using their music to expand women’s roles on stage and in the studio. Others were picked simply because they play better than anyone else. So, without further ado, here are Far Out’s ten best female guitarists of all time.

The 10 best female guitarists of all time:

10. Naoko Yamano – Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife was famously one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands. He once said that women were the future of rock music, and Naoko Yamano, Shonen’s lead singer and guitarist, proves just how right he was.

Yamano formed Shonen knife with her sister Atsuko and her friend Michie Nakatani in Osaka, 1981. With Naoko’s DIY punk guitar lines at the helm, the trio demonstrated that alternative music didn’t have to be all doom and gloom. and that it could embrace elements of pop while still being subversive.

9. Nancy Wilson

Heart’s Nancy Wilson is undoubtedly one of the most pioneering guitarists of the 1970s. A virtuoso from the age of ten, Wilson’s playing was one of the most ingenious and creative aspects of Heart’s immensely popular style. She was also the group’s lead singer on occasion, offering up her vocals for some of the group’s most beloved hits, including ‘These Dreams’.

At a time when female guitarists were few and far between, Wilson demonstrated that women were more than capable of competing with posturing stadium rockers like Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, and David Gilmour.

8. Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy made playing in a rock band look like living inside one of Oscar Wilde’s absinthe-induced fever dreams. While her bandmate and husband Lux Interior lurched around on stage, she stood stock-still, staring out at the audience through her mess of red hair, the very image of Bohemia.

Constantly thrashing away at her low-slung hollow-body guitar, Ivy was the perfect foil to Lux’s glam-laden stage persona. Where Lux is almost sadomasochistic in his servitude to the crowd, Poison Ivy is completely non-plussed by the audience’s gaze. For her, nothing else mattered beyond the guitar in her hands.

7. Brittany Howard

The world was introduced to Howard through Alabama Shakes, whose breakthrough single ‘Hold On’ soundtracked the summer of 2012. Clutching her beloved Gibson SG, Howard clearly owes a debt to rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose voice and dexterous fretwork was given new life in Alabama Shakes gravelly, sun-drenched recordings.

But it is perhaps ‘Gimme All Your Love’ that truly demonstrates Howards’ astonishing virtuosity. Blending soulful chord progressions with near-Stravinskian rhythmic complexity, her playing on that single from Sound & Colour is the work of a player who has spent a lifetime honing their craft. Oh yeah, and she plays it all while singing some of the most astonishing vocal lines imaginable.

6. Joan Jett

Joan Jett gets a hard time from classic rock enthusiasts. Just think about how red-faced and bewildered Ted Nugent got when he read Rolling Stone had named the former Blackhearts frontperson one of their best guitarist of all time.

The usual argument is that Jett shouldn’t be included on a list such as this because she didn’t write her biggest hit. And whilst It’s true that ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ was originally written by The Arrows, Jett is responsible for many other (and arguably better) riffs. Take ‘Activity Grrrl’ or The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’, both of which are infinitely more carnal and technically stunning than the track she is best known for.

5. Viv Albertine

As the iconic lead guitarist of The Slits, Viv Albertine reminded the music industry that women couldn’t just play the guitar but that they could be pioneers of their craft. Her unique playing on tracks like ‘Typical Girls,’ for example, still sounds unlike anything before or since.

For Albertine, the guitar came to symbolise the potential of individual expression. “When I picked up the guitar,” she once said, “You know it was probably almost the equivalent of how powerful some psychos [feel] when they pick up a gun. What I’ve made that guitar do for me is amazing. I’ve painted a whole life for me that I would’ve had. I never mastered it in terms of technical ability, but I did manage to create my own sound.”

4. Joni Mitchell

While it’s Mitchell’s voice that gets the most praise, her guitar playing is an even more essential aspect of her all-consuming sound. Without those intricate fingerstyle guitar parts on songs like ‘Little Green’ or the loose strums on ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, the spell Mitchell’s songcraft seeks to cast over its audience would likely bounce back unabsorbed.

The warmth and breadth of Mitchell’s guitar arrangments are largely down to her use of alternate tunings, especially open E and D, the latter of which allowed her to craft guitar lines that are far more resonant and mellow than they would be in standard tuning. They also allow her to move around the fretboard in ways that are usually inaccessible, giving her chord progressions that signature fluidity.

3. Lianne La Havas

Lianne La Havas exploded onto the scene in the early 2010s with a finely crafted blend of neo-soul, jazz, and alt-folk. Boasting mellifluous vocals and gently-plucked jazz guitar, La Havas’ recordings are always a feast for the ears.

Her debut Is Your Love Big Enough? harked back to the tender sounds of Sharon Stone and Nina Simone, while embracing the influence of more contemporary acts like Lauryn Hill and Laura Marling. As the years have passed, she’s stayed true to those original influences but continues to move towards a more jazz-focused and groove-laden sound. Take her 2020 single ‘Bittersweet’, which sees the singer evoke the breakbeat spirit of Erykah Badu and Robert Glasper to astonishing effect.

2. Peggy Jones

Although her name is rarely mentioned, Bo Diddley’s rhythm guitarist, Peggy Jones, laid the foundation for the female rock guitarist. Born in Harlem in 1940, Jones started out as a dancer but, after teaching herself guitar at the age of 15, swiftly fell in love with the instrument and joined a local doo-wop group.

After meeting the famed guitarist backstage at the Apollo Theater, Jones began recording with Bo Diddley in 1957 and appeared on many of his best-known songs, including ‘Aztec’, which Peggy not only wrote but also played every guitar part on. While Jones was known as ‘Lady Bo’ onstage, she always maintained a sense of independence, recording her own material without any assistance and eventually forming her own group, The Jewels, after leaving Bo Diddley’s band in 1961.

1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

How could Sister Rosetta not top this list? Tharpe basically invented rock ‘n’ roll guitar and so deserves nothing less than the number one spot. After moving to New York in the 1930s, she soaked up the creative energy of the Harlem Renaissance and went on to establish herself as one of the most celebrated blues musicians of her day.

Using her hammer-claw guitar packing to evoke the stride piano style of Scott Joplin, Tharpe bought a whole new level of virtuosity to the blues. Coupled with a no-fucks-given attitude and messianic stage presence, she became something of a template for rock ‘n’ roll musicians for years to come – whether those who adopted her style knew it or not.