12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarists
In celebration of It Might Get Loud, a riff on some of our favorite women to pick up an ax
“You can caress [a guitar] like a woman,” says Jimmy Page in the opening of It Might Get Loud, a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim that invites electric-guitar virtuosos Page, U2’s The Edge, and Jack White to meet on an L.A. soundstage, tell their guitar stories, and do a little impromptu jamming. In theaters now, it’s the kind of gripping music doc that could inspire girls and boys everywhere to ditch Guitar Hero for a real Stratocaster. And yet, as good as it is, we couldn’t help but think, Why no female guitarist in the bunch? Could be that since the electric guitar’s popularity blossomed in the mid-twentieth century, collective wisdom has suggested that great female guitarists simply don’t exist. Take Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Only two women, Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett, were honored. In a Washington Post article written in response to Rolling Stone’s list, the writer suggests that as interest in electric guitar was revving up in the ’60s, women weren’t encouraged to step out of their ladylike gender roles, leaving them with an impossible game of catch-up to Jimi Hendrix and Page. Maybe. But Kelley Deal, lead guitarist of the Breeders, doesn’t buy it. “I think we do exist,” she says, “but in a different capacity. Guys really like to hear themselves talk. Women guitarists seem more song-oriented. What they choose to play contributes to making the song better, not just riffing all over it. It’s a deeper relationship.” And it’s a relationship that could helm its own documentary (cough, cough, Mr. Guggenheim). In the meantime, ELLE presents 12 of the greatest female electric guitar players to ever pick up the instrument.
A no-nonsense player who in only a few strums can get an entire barroom howling her 1982 hit, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.” That kind of power, often amplified by painted-on leather pants, sets the bar high for Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who’s playing Jett in an upcoming Runaways biopic.
After jamming with Jett as lead guitarist in the Runaways, Lita Ford took her pop-metal shedder sound solo and hired fellow rocker chick Sharon Osbourne as her manager. In 1988, she released Lita, a sexy riff-filled album that not only pleased rockers with its head-banging tunes but also got mainstreamers in the pit, especially with “Close My Eyes Forever,” her duet with the prince of darkness Ozzy Osbourne.
Only a few seconds into the riff of Heart’s “Barracuda” and you know that only Nancy Wilson could knock you over with solos that beg to be air-guitared. Which makes us even more excited to hear that Nancy and sister Ann are preparing a new album slated for next summer.
Jennifer Batten’s shredding is just as outrageous as her platinum-spiked locks, both of which must have caught the attention of Michael Jackson, who called on her to play Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” guitar solo on his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours. Must-watch video here.
Donita Sparks, the woman behind ’80s girl group L7’s guitar-heavy riffs, gave birth to boozy garage grunge (download “Pretend We’re Dead,” or play your own version on Rock Band 2), as well as her own group, Donita Sparks + the Stellar Moments, whose 2008 Transmiticate proves she hasn’t lost her hard-rock edge.
Kelley Deal didn’t pick up the guitar until she was 30, but that’s the reason her disheveled playing for the Breeders (and later the Kelley Deal 6000) moves us. It’s untrained, uncalculated, and completely unreal.
Sleater-Kinney could have fallen into obscurity like some of their ’90s indie-rock classmates (what ever happened to Joan Osborne?) but not with Carrie Brownstein’s riotous wailing, especially Page-like in the group’s 2002 record, One Beat. And lately, she’s taken to blogging for NPR. Photo: Courtesy of Retna
The Cramps were playing envelope-pushing ’80s psychobilly before it became mainstream in the ’90s and influenced bands like the Black Lips, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. With Poison Ivy on the ax (and late husband Lux Interior on vocals), her garage-punk attitude, though totally hard-core, seemed to come from a place of love. Creepy, fetish-filled love.
When her band Nashville Pussy plays live, lead guitarist Ruyter Suys whips her fiery red mane back and forth and lies on the stage floor (sometimes in only her underwear), all while creating the high-pitch electric screams that frame their “good old-fashioned, humping-in-the-back-seat-of-a-car rock ’n’ roll,” as Suys describes it to Rolling Stone. Photo: Courtesy of Retna
The Great Kat
Of all the shredders on our list, Juilliard-trained violinist the Great Kat (aka Katherine Thomas) is the most mind-bogglingly fast. Watch her fingers do the talking in the Beethoven Mush video here. (Or just imagine the composer’s electrical symphony on amphetamines.)
Marnie Stern’s twitchy rhythms and face-melting licks take what we love about Eddie Van Halen’s fast-paced playing and paints it with a rock-girl feel. On her second record, This Is It… (2008), Stern is a virtuosic badass.
At 24, Australian newcomer Orianthi’s melodic wailing has already been endorsed by Carlos Santana (“If I was going to pass the baton to someone, she would be my first choice,” he told the Aussie Today show) and Michael Jackson handpicked her for what would have been his comeback tour.