There are few things in music more under-appreciated than the female guitarist. In 2003, Rolling Stone released a list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time and only two women were included. They released a revised list that was compiled by a panel in 2011 and, again, only two women were featured, with only Joni Mitchell making both lists. But there are plenty of women out there who have the chops to put most axe-wielding dudes to shame. Here are 10 amazing guitar players who just happen to be women.
Sarah Lipstate can do just about anything you can imagine (and then some) with a guitar. Though she was part of Glenn Branca’s 100-guitar ensemble, has collaborated with Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo and was a member of Cold Cave, her solo shows as Noveller are where her unique guitar prowess truly comes through. She plays in ways you didn’t know were possible, coaxing an unbelievable array of sounds from the instrument and looping them all together into stunning, richly textured soundscapes.
Pixies member Kim Deal was also the frontwoman of early-’90s alt-rockers The Breeders, but her twin sister Kelley supplied the band’s raw, ferocious guitar licks. (Kim and Kelley were identical twins, so I guess you could say Kelley was the face of the band, too). In 1992, she joined her sister’s group as an auxiliary guitarist who barely knew how to play the instrument. By 1994 she was playing lead at Lollapalooza.
Like Deal, Marnie Stern didn’t develop as a guitarist until later in life. She released her solo debut in 2007 when she was 31, and has since released two additional full-length albums, the latter of which was a fantastic 2010 self-titled LP. Influenced by everyone from King Crimson to Deerhoof, Stern is known for her eclectic range of playing styles that usually feature her incredibly nimble finger work and frequent fret tapping, a la Eddie Van Halen.
Like Lipstate, Kaki King is a master manipulator of the guitar and can extract just about any sound she pleases from the instrument. She is known for using its body and neck for percussion, fret tapping and employing plenty of other inventive techniques you won’t see from typical singer/songwriters. She also uses a looper to her advantage when playing live, and by the end of her songs it’s hard to believe that everything you’re hearing is coming from a single performer.
In addition to co-starring in Portlandia, writing for NPR Music and a myriad of other talents, Carrie Brownstein is also an amazing guitarist. Whether for her current band, Wild Flag, or the fierce, shredding riffs she brought to Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein is as thoroughly kickass as they come.
Think of Elizabeth Cotten as the female Robert Johnson. Born in 1895, she was a completely self-taught guitarist, and I mean completely. She was left-handed, but played a right-handed guitar that wasn’t even re-strung to be played lefty. She simply turned it upside-down, which meant she played the bass strings with her fingers and the melody with her thumb.
The Heart guitarist wrote the intro to “Crazy On You.” That’s really all you need to know. Listen below and watch a great video of her ripping it up live right here.
The antithesis of delicate guitar manipulators like Lipstate and King, Joan Jett was brash, in your face and all about power chords and badass attitude. Originally a member of The Runaways with fellow female guitar great Lita Ford, Jett took off on her own after her fellow band members wanted to go in a direction that wasn’t as punk.
‘70s folksinger Joni Mitchell was one of the most inventive guitarists of all time. Like Cotten, she developed a unique playing style all her own, and was famous for the non-standard tunings she devised to make up for a left hand that was weakened by a childhood bout with polio.
The guitar may be an instrument is primarily associated with male machismo, and blues guitar was basically borne out of the objectification of women. That just makes it all the more impressive that Raitt has made the style and the instrument her own since since her 1971 self-titled debut. She hasn’t stopped ripping it up since, and on Sept. 12, she will be honored at the 11th Annual Americana Honors and Awards in Nashville, Tenn.