15 inspirational guitarists (who happen to be women)

Incendiary blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi

Incendiary blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi (Image credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

9 March marks International Women’s Day, and 2018’s theme is Press For Progress. Among the ways the campaign encourages us to accelerate gender parity is to celebrate women’s achievements, to challenge bias and forge positive visibility of women.

This article is intended to celebrate the great women that have shaped guitar music’s diverse and multifaceted form, identify remarkable contemporary players and offer a platform for role models-in-the-making.

The campaign believes the most powerful way to affect change is by utilising the strength of communities to help develop a gender parity mindset. If you’re interested in how you can take action and help to press for progress in your musical community, social groups or workplace then head to Press For Progress for more information.

1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Without Sister Rosetta Tharpe, rock music as we know it may never have happened. The gospel singer and guitarist influenced much of the first wave of rock ’n’ roll, including Chuck Berry, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.  

Tharpe was one of the first players in history to purposefully distort her electric guitar and Messrs Clapton, Beck and Page have all acknowledged the transformative impact of Tharpe’s performance on the 1963 Blues and Gospel Train TV show.

2. Mary Ford

Mary Ford is most often remembered for her vocal talents, but she was a talented guitar player, songwriter and a recording innovator.  

Much credit is given to her collaborator and husband Les Paul but Mary shared the long studio hours that were required to develop the then-unique multi-track recording and close mic’ing techniques that enabled the duo to sell millions of records in the early 50s.

3. Carol Kaye

Kaye can stake a good claim to being the most recorded musician of all time. Across 10,000+ sessions, the Wrecking Crew stalwart spanned guitar and bass, working with the likes of Brian Wilson, Quincy Jones, Phil Spector and Frank Zappa and contributing to La Bamba, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, Needles And Pins, Let’s Dance, Wichita Lineman, River Deep Mountain High and the Pet Sounds sessions, to name a genuinely tiny sample.

4. Joni Mitchell

Only Bowie and Dylan can hold a candle to Mitchell when it comes to a storied drive for reinvention, but neither of those venerable names can match the internal fire and musical chops of the Canadian songwriter.  

While her fluid early acoustic work still defines our idea of the singer-songwriter, Mitchell’s playing has continually evolved, incorporating records with jazz greats, electronic and non-western influences, not to mention 40+ tunings, in the pursuit of uncompromising artistic expression.

5. Bonnie Raitt

The US slide star’s success is a tale of persistence. Despite the attention gained from early performances with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf, there would be a gap of some 18 years between and 10 albums between her debut and commercial breakthrough Nick Of Time.

Notably for gear geeks, in 1996 Raitt became the first female guitarist to be granted a Fender signature model, a take on her favoured ’65-bodied franken-Strat.

6. Jennifer Batten

In the late 80s and early 90s Batten came to epitomise the stadium-ready lead guitar player. Her work as Michael Jackson’s go-to guitarist for the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours meant she was many fans’ first encounter with a guitar solo. Her appearance at the 1993 Super Bowl halftime show was seen by approximately 90 million people in the US alone.

7. Susan Tedeschi

An enthralling contemporary blues player, Tedeschi’s fretwork recalls bits of Buddy Guy swing, Freddie King’s thunder and Stevie Ray Vaughan searing attack, paired with a vocal that has been justifiably compared to Janis Joplin.  

Her solo material has seen Tedeschi called up to support Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers Band. More recently, though, it’s another project, the Tedeschi Trucks Band  - formed with husband Derek Trucks - that has been going from strength to strength, bagging a Grammy and repeatedly raiding the US albums charts.

8. St. Vincent

Annie Clark has always defied categorisation, so we won’t bother with that. A singular guitarist, her fuzzy, mechanical take on electric playing marks her out as one of the most innovative players on the planet and yet, much like her collaborator and friend David Byrne, she manages to package it in a curatorial way that is both instantly appealing and deeply rewarding.

2017’s Masseduction was a masterfully wry, dystopian portrayal of the mechanics of modern celebrity. A guitar hero in all of the best ways: ear-opening, trail-blazing – and with a killer signature model, to boot.

9. Gabriela Quintero

Classical purists baulk away, but no one’s done more for the nylon-string guitar since the Gypsy Kings or Paco de Lucia. As one half of the eponymous Rodrigo y Gabriela, Quintero’s rhythmic hand blur seems to hang at the edge of human ability – indeed the buckets of ice required post-performance are testament to that.

Early years famously spent indulging in metal have lent her a sense of thunderous scale that, combined with flamenco’s percussive power, reaps awe-inspiring rewards.

10. Marnie Stern

These days you’ll find Marnie in the 8G Band on Late Night With Seth Meyers, but if you’ve not listened to one of the four technicolored bursts of irresistible controlled chaos she made between 2007 and 2013 then you are poorer for it.

Stern is an incredible tapper, but re-contextualises this darkest of six-string arts in a scrappy, melodic and cartoonish explosion of life. No one sounds like Stern, mainly because it’s really, really difficult…

11. Jenn Wasner

Why do almost all guitar and drums duos have to channel some dull, concentrated version of blues rock? This is a question that Jenn Wasner has never bothered to ask, because since 2007 the Wye Oak guitarist has instead just been diligently crafting expansive atmospheric indie bangers that make the above look woefully past their sell-by date.

Wasner’s hammered-on melodic folk flourishes are pressed out the sides of crunching, reverberating tones, while her writing has something in common with the breathtaking washes of Beach House.

12. Chelsea Wolfe

Since her beginnings in gothic folk with 2010’s The Grime And The Glow, Wolfe’s steady evolution has taken her sound to exhilarating heights – or, perhaps, depths. Both 2015’s Abyss and 2017’s Hiss Spun showcase a guitarist willing to push the definition of heavy when it comes to guitar tone, artfully contrasting monolithic sheets of distortion with whispered vocals.

As such, listening to Wolfe is an exciting, gut-wrenching experience. A true sonic pioneer, we can’t wait to hear where she goes next.

13. Anna Calvi

As an artist, Calvi was seemingly born in complete form, and her self-titled 2011 debut drew an immediate line in the sand. Recalling Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, it felt a million miles away from the usual collection of fragmented ideas that constitute most first albums.

Instead her grandiose twanging Telecaster runs sat comfortably amongst compositions that were somehow both contemporary and classical. There’s been no new record since 2014’s Mercury-nominated One Breath, but recent rumblings indicate that something’s on the horizon for this year.

14. Tash Sultana

Australian songwriter Tash Sultana might be a one-woman operation, but she takes three electrics, a 12-string, mandolin, keys, beat pads, brass and 25+ effects pedals with her when she tours.  

What’s more remarkable is that Sultana’s epic, loop-laden compositions manage to so seamlessly combine all these elements and create a space of their own, combining trip hop, indie rock and searing solos that rival anything offered by your usual bouffant-ed hair metal type.

15. Sarah Longfield

The internet is full of people that are better than us. We’ve come to accept this. However, our final inclusion, YouTuber and djent-type Sarah Longfield, is RIDICULOUSLY good.

Whether you hear Longfield’s output via her YouTube channel or her band The Fine Constant (who have supported the ever-discerning Marty Friedman), there’s an airy precision to her playing that will appeal to tech-heads into the likes of Plini, Pomegranate Tiger and Animals As Leaders.

Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.