The Rise of Female Guitarists in Rock History

Published on 31 October 2023

Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided by the guest blogger and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of guitarguitar.


If I said, picture a guitarist, you’d probably picture a dude. From Slash, to Jimi Hendrix, to Kirk Hammett, there’s no end of male contenders.

But the landscape of rock music, long dominated by men, is undergoing a huge shift.

A study by Fender has revealed: 50% of new guitarists are female.

It seems a new generation hasn't been discouraged by the lack of women playing guitar in the rock scene. If the trend continues, the industry can expect at least half of the guitarists we see on stage to be women, which would mark a huge change in the future of guitar for the better.

In this article I’ll touch on the challenges female guitarists have faced in this male dominated field. These barriers can’t be overlooked. As Lzzy Hale of Halestorm has said, "I think the biggest challenge is just being a woman in a male-dominated industry. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far."

I’ll also pick the top ten most influential female guitarists. Whether it’s pioneering the sound of rock and roll, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or breaking new ground by creating epic soundscapes using weird guitar pedals, like St. Vincent, it’s these guitarists who have helped inspire more women to pick up the guitar.

The Challenges Faced by Female Guitarists

As I dive into the subject, I realise that every woman who’s made it in rock has had to overcome barriers.

As a man who’s played guitar in bands my whole life, I’ve never once faced prejudice. So, as I researched this article, it was eye opening to hear the challenges women have had to overcome.

Female guitarists have continuously spoken out about the difficulties they’ve faced, having to fight against stereotypes, gender biases, and a lack of representation in the industry, just in order to do what they love.

"I grew up in a world that told girls they couldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll."
- Joan Jett

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'I didn't know girls could play guitar like that.' And I'm like, 'What do you mean?'"
- St. Vincent

"I think the biggest challenge for women in music is just being taken seriously and being respected, especially as a guitarist."
- Orianthi

"It wasn't until after high school that I started realising that the reason why it took me a while to find my path and find where I wanted to be was because I hadn't seen myself represented in that way. It just didn't occur to me that I could start a band or start a musical project, and be successful."
- Luna Li

The Most Influential Female Guitarists

Despite the challenges they’ve faced, many women have made a huge impact on the development of rock music.

These guitarists have brought unique perspectives, styles, and sounds to the genre - pushing its boundaries.

Here’s my pick for the top 10 most influential female rock guitarists. (And while I’d have loved to add the folk guitar legend Joni Mitchell, she’s not a rock guitarist).

1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe gained popularity in the 1930s and 40s and is hailed as the godmother of rock and roll. Her innovative guitar playing and incredible vocals laid the groundwork for the genre, influencing countless musicians, including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Tharpe’s blend of gospel and blues, along with her electrifying performances, made her a guitar saint.

2. St. Vincent (Annie Clark)

St. Vincent has redefined the guitar in the modern era. Her unique playing style, use of experimental effects, combined with her eclectic musical compositions, has led to a huge following and awards galore. Clark has won three Grammy Awards, and in 2023, Rolling Stone named her as the 26th greatest guitarist of all time.

3. Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson, alongside her sister Ann, were chart-toppers with the band Heart in the 1970s and 80s. Wilson’s guitar playing, both acoustic and electric, helped define Heart’s unique musical style.

At the time, it was rare for such a famous rock band to be led by two women, which made an impact on a younger generation. Lzzy Hale of Halestorm is on record as saying, "Heart were the first female-fronted band I heard and was influenced by. I heard Heart and was like, “Oh, singing like that as a girl is actually a thing!”

4. Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt is renowned for her incredible blues guitar playing and soulful vocals. A 13-time Grammy Award winner, Raitt has carved out a successful career spanning over four decades, consistently pushing the boundaries of blues and rock music. In 1996, Raitt was the first woman to receive a signature Fender line.

5. Jennifer Batten

Jennifer Batten gained fame as the lead guitarist for Michael Jackson’s live band, showcasing her incredible technical skills to a huge global audience. Batten’s innovative use of two-handed tapping and whammy bar effects has made her a guitar hero and an inspiration for aspiring guitarists worldwide.

6. Joan Jett

Joan Jett’s impact on rock music is undeniable. As the frontwoman of The Runaways and later with her band The Blackhearts, Jett broke barriers and defied expectations. Her gritty vocals and aggressive guitar playing became her signature, inspiring a generation of female musicians to pick up the guitar.

7. Orianthi

Orianthi has made waves in the music industry with her incredible guitar skills and collaborations with some of the biggest names in music, including Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper. Just like Batten before her, Orianthi was Michael Jackson’s live guitarist for a period.

8. Kim and Kelley Deal

The twin sisters, Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders are two icons of indie rock. Kim was a member of iconic band The Pixies, and then later formed the Breeders with her sister. The pair helped define the sound of indie rock in the late 80s and early 90s with their minimalist style and catchy melodies.

9. Kaki King

Kaki King is a master of the guitar and lap steel, and plays styles that span post-rock and shoegaze. Her innovation and melodic approach to the guitar has set her apart in the music world. In this video she’s using a passerelle, which is a bridge that turns any regular six-string acoustic guitar into an instrument that’s reminiscent of the Japanese koto or the Chinese guzheng.

10. Brittany Howard

As the lead guitarist and vocalist for Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard has won fans for her powerful voice and emotive guitar playing. Her blend of blues, rock, and soul make her a standout guitarist.

Conclusion: A New Era of Rock

Thankfully, the future of rock is brighter, because of the trailblazing women who have paved the way for the next generation.

Part of the never-ending appeal of rock music is that it’s ever changing. And the more diverse the genre is, the more likely we are to hear unique perspectives, evolving it in new directions.

Author: Drew Haselhurst

Bio: Drew Haselhurst is a guitarist of over 25 years and the founder of online guitar magazine Guitar Mammoth. He’s played in lots of (failed) bands, is obsessive about guitar gear, and is a superfan of the band Elder. When he’s not playing guitar, or writing about it, he’s a dad and a creative director in advertising.

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