Nineteen great guitarists who just happen to be women

I was sitting around with some guitar students the other day and asked them to name a female guitarist. They couldn’t think of anyone. Granted, 10-year-olds aren’t that savvy when it comes to musicians, but even my adult students are hard-pressed to come up with anyone beyond Sheryl Crow.

I thought, heck, who are the top female guitarists? I consulted with a few people plus my opinionated self and came up with this list. I included women who really know their way around a fretboard and those who were innovators of a certain style. (I left out singer-songwriters who might be good at what they do but can’t blaze their way through a complex song.)

Emily Remler was a jazz guitarist who was at home playing fusion, bebop or whatever was thrown her way. She released her first album in 1981 and in the next few years worked with veterans like Herb Ellis and Rosemary Clooney. Sadly, she was only 32 when she passed away in 1990.

Laura Chavez is a blues guitarist who can make her instrument wail, moan and make you cry mama. Hot damn, she’s good.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe looked like a prim gospel performer with her print dresses and conservative hairstyle, but she could wail on an electric guitar. Popular in the ’30s and ’40s, her style influenced many musicians, from Aretha Franklin to the Stones.

Sharon Isbin is a great classical player. I’ll admit that I don’t know Bach from Beethoven, but she’s a department chair at Juilliard, and I figure they know what they’re doing. She’s a Grammy Award winner, and in 2005, was featured on The L Word.

I saw Patty Larkin at this year’s Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival where she recorded about five different guitar parts for one song live on-stage. She’s a singer-songwriter with an inventive style that no one can match. And she’s a sister — be still my heart.

Acoustic guitarist Vicki Genfan won against nine finalists in a recent contest sponsored by Guitar Player magazine. Her lightening-quick, two-handed tapping style left the judges breathless. Me too!

You might have seen Jennifer Batten touring with Michael Jackson. Who could miss that mane of blonde hair and those incredible chops? Check out this video of her blasting through “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Allison Robertson may not be a familiar name to some of you, but I’ll bet you know her band, The Donnas. That male bastion of guy guitarists called Guitar Player says “… she’s a viciously balls-out guitar player who has burned just about every metal riff ever recorded into her DNA.”

Mary Ford was married to and played with Les Paul, the inventor of the modern electric guitar. (In his 90s, he still does a regular gig in New York City.) Lots of people know Paul’s jazz/pop work, but they don’t know that Ford could match him note for note.

There’s something about the blues that draws great players like Del Rey. Starting on the guitar at the tender age of 4, she’s gone on to become one of the best acoustic blues players I’ve ever seen. In her fun live show, she highlights the work of blues women past as well as cranking out her own tunes.

I had to include another singer-songwriter because not only can Erika Luckett craft some wonderful original tunes, but she’s a monster when it comes to jamming. I love the Latin feel in many of her songs.

Mimi Fox is a great jazz player. She’s performed with greats like Branford Marsalis, Diana Krall and so many more. I’ve heard her at several women’s music festivals, and she never fails to blow me away.

No list of top guitar players is complete without Bonnie Raitt. After hearing her signature slide guitar riffs, guitarists have been known to mumble, “Someday maybe I can play like that.”

Lita Ford got her start in The Runaways, the ’70s women’s band that also featured Joan Jett. Look beyond the eye-popping metal princess clothing, and you’ll see a guitarist who knows her rock. Check this out.

June Millington learned the guitar back in the ’60s and went on to help found the groundbreaking band Fanny, one of the first all-women bands to be signed to a major label. Her blues-based style was an inspiration for many after her. Today, she runs the Institute for the Musical Arts with partner Ann Hackler, teaching the next generation how to wield an axe.

Nina Gerber first became known as folk icon Kate Wolf’s guitar player. She’s worked as a side player for Nanci Griffith, Ferron and lots more, as well as putting out her own recordings.

I swear Kaki King has four hands. Her creative instrumentals are amazing. Here she is, cranking out “Playing With Pink Noise.” How does she do that?

Maybe you’ve heard the folk standard “Freight Train”? Elizabeth Cotten wrote it when she was just a kid and finger-picked it on a guitar held upside down. She was virtually unknown until she was discovered in the Seeger household (the same family as Pete) working as a housekeeper. She performed at the National Women’s Music Festival back in the ’80s.

Sue Foley is another blues queen who can whip out a blistering blues solo with the best of them. She’s taking some time off from the road to write a book, Guitar Woman. I can’t wait to read it.

I have to include Emily Saliers, or they’d take away my lesbian card. I’d include her anyway because I love her tasteful lead and creative chord choices that define the Indigo Girls sound.

Some other greats include Muriel Anderson, Kara Barnard, Ellen McIlwaine, Vange Durst, Maybelle Carter, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Cordell Jackson, Lisa Jackson, Wanda Jackson (What is it about those Jacksons?), Michelle Malone, Ani DiFranco and so many more. Please don’t hurt me if I didn’t include your personal guitar god. (Especially stay away from my hands ‘cause I need them to teach 10-year-olds to play “Skip to My Lou.”)

Who are your favorites? Who did I leave out?

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