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Best Female Guitarists: 20 Kick-Ass Women Who Boot Men Off The Stage
List & Guides

Best Female Guitarists: 20 Kick-Ass Women Who Boot Men Off The Stage

The best female guitarists of all time have a breadth and depth that makes them more than equal to their celebrated male counterparts.

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The breadth and depth of this list of the best female guitarists in the world – which, in all honesty, could have been 20 times longer – covers rock, soul, punk, country, funk and just about every subgenre in between. The hundreds of awesome guitarists who didn’t make this list are testament to just how versatile, experimental and just plain joyous women’s axe-work has been over the decades.

The reasons for a relative lack of female guitarists compared to men can easily be found, and they mostly start in childhood and adolescence. Too often, young girls feel intimidated by the blokey atmosphere of guitar shops, or excluded from the guitar lessons their brothers get. Many of the women listed below are self-taught musicians, fighting through discrimination and condescension to bring their innovative new styles to audiences far and wide. Things have certainly gotten better in terms of industry sexism, but even so, in 2022 Stephanie Bradley, a shredder on social media, was moved to comment that “just a couple days ago, I got – and I haven’t gotten this in years – something like, ‘Oh, can you cook?’ and, ‘Why aren’t you in the kitchen?’”

This list of the best female guitarists of all time features women who are simply awesome guitarists – no “… for a woman” necessary.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our best female guitarists, below.

20: Tanya Donelly (1966- present)

US alternative music of the late 80s and early 90s was flush with ultra-cool women on guitar. From the thoughtful tones of Rose Melberg, of The Softies, to the firebrand activism of Erin Smith, of Bratmobile, styles of every hue could be found. Particularly important was the Throwing Muses/Breeders/Belly axis – and Tanya Donelly was a pivotal figure in all three.

Stepsister to Kristen Hersh, Donelly acquired her first guitar around age 14 and co-founded Throwing Muses with Hersh soon after. From late 1991, she started her own project – the brilliant Belly. “It was a time of real variety,” Donelly said in 2022 about this time period, “and women were landing in a lot of different genres, which did inspire a couple of generations after. It’s so gratifying.”

Must hear: Gepetto (with Belly)

19: Lianne La Havas (1989- present)

“I wished always for proper guitar lessons, but I couldn’t afford them,” British singer-songwriter La Havas has said. “I was really lucky that my dad knew how to play stuff. He was very excited when I wanted to learn, so he took it upon himself to show me whatever he knew.” La Havas augmented her father’s lessons with YouTube videos and soon developed a style influenced by jazz, Radiohead and bossa nova, along with numerous other eclectic inspirations. The result is a dynamic yet somehow spacious and floating guitar style, beautifully underpinning her 2020 self-titled album, which documents a post-break-up headspace inspired by nature’s cycles.

Must hear: Seven Times

18: Margaret Fiedler (1970s- present)

Margaret Fiedler is a pioneer of post-rock, a genre often considered to be dominated by men. In her work with Moonshake and, later, Laika, Fiedler deconstructed what a guitar could sound like; instead of creating riffs, she generated atmosphere, abrasion, uncanniness – often all at once. One of the best female guitarists of her era, she used her guitar alongside samplers, sequencers and dub space. “Public Enemy crossed with Can crossed with Kraftwerk crossed with… I don’t know,” is how Fiedler described the adventurous Moonshake sound.

Must hear: Two Trains (with Moonshake)

17: Nancy Wilson (1954- present)

The Wilson sisters at the heart of Heart are rock titans. With an uncanny ability to move her guitar dial to encompass new trends (soft rock, metal, power balladry), Nancy Wilson sustained Heart’s success long after their early-70s contemporaries had faded, maintaining her reputation as one of the best female guitarists for over half a century and counting. One of her signature achievements is her use of the acoustic guitar, granting it equal status to the electric guitar in Heart’s music. “With acoustic, my sister and I used to do a lot of duet performances,” Nancy has said. “I had to learn how to be the band by myself. I would pound on it, and put basslines in, and do heavy rhythm stuff. I would even put in the occasional almost lead part through the rhythm part. But I always approached it almost like a percussion instrument.”

Must hear: Crazy On You (with Heart)

16: Tracy Chapman (1964- present)

“If there is a process it is not systematic,” Tracy Chapman says of her songwriting. “It is organic in nature, always starting with a moment of inspiration.” Equal parts traditional troubadour, modern protest singer and achingly beautiful universal love poet, Chapman knows her guitar is her songs’ essential messenger. The best Tracy Chapman songs are rarely written on computers in the early stages of composition, with Chapman preferring to sit with guitar, pen, paper and tape recorder. However, the simplicity of her method belies the intricacy of the careful duet she creates between voice and guitar in her music. Chapman says that the easiest of her songs to learn is Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution, from her self-titled debut album (which also included her career-making hit, Fast Car). “Pretty easy to play for a beginning guitarist, there are four chords,” she has said. “Good luck.”

Must hear: Fast Car

15: Vicki Peterson (1958- present)

“I was a kid who brought her guitar to every sleepover and summer afternoon in the park to play her newest creation to anyone who would listen…” is how Vicki Peterson has described her early enthusiasm for playing guitar. Soon, she would channel this into one of the 80s’ finest pop-rock bands, The Bangles, pumping out riff after cool riff. Alongside the pop megahits, Peterson was also skilful in creating strident guitar beds for fantastic early Bangles material such as Restless and The Real World.

Essential track: Walk Like An Egyptian

14: Maybelle Carter (1909-1978)

Part of country music’s The Carter Family, Maybelle Carter earns her place among best female guitarists for helping to develop the guitar into the lead instrument we take for granted today. She used her thumb for melody on the bass strings, while her index finger provided rhythm, in a technique dubbed the “Carter scratch”. Known widely as Mother Maybelle, not only for spawning three daughters (including June Carter Cash), but also for her role in giving birth to modern country music.

Must hear: Wildwood Flower (with The Carter Family)

13: Charo (1951- present)

“I was a hell of a guitar player and it was banned completely in every show,” Charo, the glamorous Spanish-born musician and TV personality, has said of her 60s appearances on US television. Known as the “cuchi-cuchi girl”, she was routinely treated as a bimbo or as window dressing, her accent mined for comedy, her gorgeous looks seen as proof of idiocy. But Charo was, and is, a dazzling flamenco guitarist. Following her glorious 70s disco records with The Salsoul Orchestra, Charo started to create albums centred on her musicianship – and they are up there with the best of Spanish guitar.

Must hear: Caliente

12: Nita Strauss (1986- present)

Ranked No.1 on Guitar World’s list of “female guitarists you should know”, Strauss began honing her chops in an all-woman Iron Maiden tribute band, before becoming part of Alice Cooper’s touring band and, currently, toughing up the contemporary pop of Demi Lovato. On her 2018 debut solo album, Controlled Chaos, Strauss played every guitar sound heard on the record. She has claimed to be a descendent of Johann Strauss, and, as one of the best female guitarists of her generation, who could argue that she has virtuoso blood in her?

Must hear: Our Most Desperate Hour

11: Bonnie Raitt (1949- present)

The rootsy powerhouse Bonnie Raitt (whom BB King called “the best damn slide player working today”) found the blues by working backwards. Growing up in 60s folk-music circles and beatnik culture, she dug into the influences of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to find Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. As the 70s began, Raitt released her first album – the superb soft-rock/blues crossover Bonnie Raitt – which was, unfortunately, overlooked. Several albums later, she finally broke through with 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness and the big hit Runaway. “My gameplan was just to follow my blues and jazz exemplars,” Raitt said in 2022. “Stay true to your art, do the best shows you can, keep going, don’t worry about commercial success, and when you’re 70 years old people will still want to come and see you.” Indeed they do – at age 72 years, Raitt won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

Essential track: Thank You

10: Odetta (1930-2008)

Known as “The Voice Of The Civil Rights Movement”, Odetta developed the “Odetta strum”, a double-thumb technique, and her work was a major influence on Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. One of the most influential female musicians in history, Odetta had been a pioneer of folk music since 1950. “The area of songs that got me the deepest were prison work songs,” Odetta said in 1989. “When I sang them I seemed to get rid of some of my own hate and anxiety through those songs. What also got me were the Appalachian songs, their love and story songs. Through those songs I controlled my feeling of rage and got to a place where I was comfortable with myself.” She has said that Black folk music revealed to her a hidden history of African-American life, and her interpretations of these songs – delivered through her own experience of contemporary racism – still resonate strongly today.

Must hear: Take This Hammer

9: Poison Ivy (1953- present)

“Nobody ever talks to me about music or guitar,” Poison Ivy has said. “I’m the queen of rock’n’roll, and for this not to be recognised is pure sexism.” Indeed. While trash, garage and psychobilly are fertile ground for female guitarists – after all, there have been 12 volumes of the essential Girls In The Garage compilation series – most are one-shot slices of genius. Longer careers are hard to find, but Poison Ivy, of The Cramps, is the huge exception. For 30 years, she and Lux Interior peddled their horror-surf-punk-delinquent music to a devoted audience. An admirer of Dick Dale, Ike Turner and Duane Eddy, alongside the female guitarists who played with Bo Diddley (Peggy Jones and Norma Jean Wofford), Poison Ivy created her own stabbing riffs and liberally pushed down on vintage pedals to underpin The Cramps’ reckless rock.

Must hear: Human Fly (with The Cramps)

8: Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987)

You have to be pretty awesome to have a style of picking named after you: “Cotten picking”, an alternating bass style, developed because Cotten was left-handed – yet she used a guitar strung for a right-handed player and therefore played the instrument upside down. This led her to play the basslines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Born in 1893 and labouring as a domestic worker from the age of nine, the teenage Cotten was a self-taught player who also wrote her own songs. However, it wasn’t until she was in her 60s – when working as a housekeeper for the folk artists The Seegers – that she recorded any of her music, leading to her first album, on Folkways Records, in 1958. Her compositions then found enormous popularity in the burgeoning British coffee-house scene, and Cotten was belatedly recognised as one of the best female guitarists of her era. Hers is a remarkable tale of renaissance.

Must hear: Freight Train

7: Wanda Jackson (1937- present)

Rip It Up, one of Wanda Jackson’s signature tracks, is exactly how she approaches her guitar. Fire and energy are her style; leaving her peers in the dust is the effect. Rock’n’roll, the genre in which she excelled, was filled with talented women (including fellow blistering guitarists Janis Martin and Sparkle Moore), though none quite matched Jackson’s knack for exuding emancipation and confrontational sexuality from every chord. Though best known for her rock’n’roll releases, she also worked extensively in country and, in later years, collaborated with The White Stripes’ Jack White – firm confirmation of Jackson’s place among the best female guitarists.

Must hear: Fujiyama Mama

6: Joan Jett (1958- present)

Joan Jett reportedly walked out of the guitar lessons she took as a 13-year-old. Why? The instructor kept trying to teach her folk songs. Only three years later, in August 1975, it was clear why Jett was no folkie – she was playing with The Runaways, the teen quintet whose catchy yet hard power-pop brought the young girls fame. Jett’s greatest success would come following her departure from the group, as she formed The Blackhearts and perfected her crunchy glam guitar style. Jett was also a producer, working with The Germs and Bikini Kill. Virtually everyone punk musician from the 80s onwards owes her a debt.

Must hear: I Love Rock’n’Roll

5: Memphis Minnie (1897-1973)

Lizzie Douglas ran away from home in 1910, at the age of 13, for a life on the blues scene of Beale Street in Memphis. She began by playing on the pavements; it was a long and hard apprenticeship, often performing for no more than dimes. When her talent was noticed by Columbia Records it was the start of a long and influential recording career that helped define the blues for decades to come (he signature song, When The Levee Breaks, was later recorded by Led Zeppelin for the Led Zeppelin IV album). A true trailblazer among the best female guitarists, Minnie was a fingerpicker, and did not stop playing until a stroke literally forced the guitar from her hands. As the poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1947, “All things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions – a musical version of electric welders.”

Must hear: When The Levee Breaks

4: Wendy Melvoin (1964- present)

The funk-rock empress of The Revolution, Wendy Melvoin began playing informally with Prince during his tour for the 1999 album, joining her then girlfriend, keyboardist Lisa Coleman, who had been part of Prince’s group since Dirty Mind. The Revolution were famed for being multi-racial, multi-gender and sexually fluid, but things weren’t quite anything-goes musically. As Melvoin once reflected, “I learned early on in a band situation that as a rhythm guitarist you shouldn’t make your distortion as loud as the lead guitarist because they’ll kill you!” She stayed with The Revolution through the blockbuster Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and Parade albums, after which the group disbanded. Melvoin and Coleman then formed Wendy & Lisa, a tremendously underrated pop duo whose first three albums are ripe for reappraisal.

Must hear: Let’s Go Crazy (with Prince And The Revolution)

3: Barbara Lynn (born 1942)

Barbara Lynn is one of the great soul guitarists. Phenomenally versatile, she is a singer-songwriter who as is sensitive when chronicling the open wound of heartbreak as she is blissful when she’s moving on a groove. Starting out on the ukulele, Lynn also played keyboards but, as she has said, “I thought it was so very common seeing a young lady sing at the piano, so I thought, I want to play something odd.” Inspired by BB King and Elvis Presley, Lynn developed her own thumb-picking style and has used it as the bedrock of so many of her incredible songs, cementing herself among the best female guitarists in the process.

Must hear: You’ll Lose A Good Thing

2: Joni Mitchell (1943- present)

“I didn’t have the patience to copy a style that was already known,” Joni Mitchell has said of her apprenticeship in the guitar, and it was this teenage disregard for the “proper” way to do things that meant Mitchell developed an ever-evolving playing style that also kept her at the forefront of the world’s best songwriters. She travelled from the folk clubs of Canada to the dense jazz-inflected experimentation of her Mingus album within little over a decade, and stopped off at innumerable waypoints along the road, among them the Clouds, Ladies Of The Canyon, Blue, Court And Spark and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter albums. Mitchell’s playing, even in her deceptively simple early folk recordings, will rarely do what a listener expects, and a lot of this is down to her adventurous and instinctive tuning. “Joni’s ability to tune was mystical,” her ex-husband and former duet partner Chuck Mitchell has said. “Like her ability to beat me in gin rummy.”

Must hear: Song For Sharon

1: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)

Whether it’s because she’s a woman, or Black, or primarily worked in gospel music (or likely a combination of all three), Sister Rosette Tharpe rarely gets the credit she deserves as a true innovator and influencer. Topping our list of the best female guitarists of all time, Tharpe began playing guitar at the age of six, accompanying her mother, who was a travelling evangelist for the Church Of God In Christ. Her achievements on the instrument are many and vast, and were noted by men who frequently top best guitarists of all time charts: Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton. Tharpe’s unique style of fingerpicking provided a distinct melody line and worked perfectly with her vocals. She was one of the first guitarists to employ distortion, and she fused blues and folk styles back in 1938 – nearly 20 years before rock’n’roll hit mainstream ears. All hail the queen.

Must hear: Didn’t It Rain?

Looking for more? Check out the best female singers of all time.

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