Acknowledgment of the contributions of female musicians’ was long relegated to the shadows, but they are finally getting their due.
Female instrumentalists have been consistently contributing to the imaginative corpus of modern music and can be found innovating and rupturing preconceptions at every turn.
In a somewhat delightful irony, the very forces that marginalized female musicians contributed to their flowering, their defiance, and their fearless, generative creations.
Constantly dissolving the paradoxes of being a woman in a divisive, gendered world, female musicians are unapologetically subversive and they won’t be so easily cast aside.
This refreshing, anti-authoritarian candor illuminates their work and can be felt in every rebellious riff and carefully-calibrated chord.
Here are twenty of the best female guitarists in the rock canon to get you through the week.
Enjoy our list of the best female guitarists of all time!
1. Elizabeth Cotten
All it takes is an attentive, starry-eyed listen of “Wilson Rag” to acknowledge that one is in the presence of a wise, modest, inimitable master.
Cotten originated a lonesome sound that was luxuriant in its thematic simplicity and potency, and indeed, her tactile riffs and earthy chords are a reflection of life itself.
Born in 1893, she taught herself to play the banjo upside down, and her guitar chords sustain the twangy, plucky texture of her first instrument.
While she lived in anonymity until she was in her sixties, her technical accomplishments were so impressive that her style of finger-picking birthed its own moniker: Cotten picking.
In many ways, her sound is transcendental, referencing the fiery heritage of the South and the defiant reverence of the bluegrass-folk tradition and her lyrics were heavy on themes of redemption, loss, patience, and endurance.
2. Bonnie Raitt
The reigning empress of the slide guitar, Bonnie Raitt extended the territory of the seventies sound and in many ways came to personify the spirit of that wily, wayward, wilful decade.
Her blues-driven, obligingly formidable chords did not fall on deaf ears, and B.B. King once called her the “best damn slide player working today.”
Her musical education was forged in the nexus between flower-child and beatnik culture, and she avidly took on the conventions of both, recasting them along thrilling, audacious new lines.
Despite her debut album being unjustifiably eclipsed, she finally incurred the praise that was her due with her 1977 gem, Sweet Forgiveness.
Into the eighties and nineties, her sound developed fully into an easy-listening, jazz-inflected, honey-tinged thing of magic, and she was duly rewarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy at 72.
3. Peggy Jones
Lauded and beatified as Bo Diddley’s rhythm guitarist, Peggy’s sound was born in the shadows of early rock and roll, and it was in the shadows where she remained for much of her career, her contributions often obscured under her moniker “Lady Bo.”
She was an absolute force of nature, however, and she played guitar on some of Diddley’s most enduring albums like Have Guitar Will Travel.
She eventually brought her independent, hawk-eyed rhythmic proficiency to her own group, The Jewels, in the early sixties.
With her Roland guitar synthesizer and gratifying doo-wop style, she came to be recognized as the “Queen Mother of Guitar.”
4. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta, speaking of greats like Elvis, once uttered the iconic phrase, “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues, I’ve been doing that forever.”
She wasn’t wrong, either – Sister Rosetta singlehandedly pioneered a bluesy, revelatory roots-rock sound.
She blended the spirit of the great nineteenth-century spirituals with the swinging melodies of proto-rock n’ roll.
Once you encounter her thirties and forties corpus, you can’t help but hear her expansive, satisfactorily distorted brand of electric blues echoed in everyone from Cash to Clapton to Chuck Berry.
Always adept at creating a mythology of self, Tharpe was a staggering force on the stage, and she laid her audiences low with raw vocals, hearty melodies, and hammer-claw guitar chords.
5. Joni Mitchell
Canadian folk icon Joni Mitchell certainly needs no introduction as a vocalist, and indeed, her numinous creations have propelled the spirit of the sixties into the popular imagination and established folk and jazz as curiously well-paired bedfellows.
Joni is something of a sage, and she pairs her wise, incisive mind with a compassionate, rebellious heart and a swift, luminous hand.
She plays instinctively, with the kind of mellow self-possession and mystical inspiration that many spend their entire careers trying to foster.
You can access her heartening, graceful canon at any point along the road, but we would suggest Ladies Of The Canyon and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter for a full immersion in her uplifting chord progressions.
6. Mother Maybelle Carter
The high lonesome, bluegrass-seeped sound of the Carter Family owes much of their strange, haunting resonance to the vocals and guitar of Maybelle.
Plucking the strings with emotive intentionality, the guitar in Carter’s hand is a dynamic animal.
It weeps, it laments, it pleas, and ultimately, it overcomes.
Drawing on the rural gospel tradition and the homespun plaintiveness of her Appalachian roots, Maybelle weaved together an earnest, arresting sound that was frank, unflinching, and spiritually generous.
Trivia for you: the Carter scratch, a fingerstyle method whereby the melody is played on the bass strings, was named after yours truly.
7. Memphis Minnie
After Memphis Minnie ran away from home in 1910 at thirteen, she kicked off the beginning of a wild, colorful, intriguing life that was nothing short of cinematic.
Can you think of anything more breathlessly romantic than imagining a young Minnie playing for coins on the sidewalk of the mid-twenties South?
Minnie’s brand of finger-pickin’ blues was laden with the wisdom and lonesomeness of lived experience and she fostered an unblinking rapport with her fans, speaking to their inner sorrows and winsome hopes with a candid affability.
Minnie was a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with banjo, electric guitar, bass, and drums, but she is best remembered for centering the guitar in the blues canon and for making it a medium of sonic poetry.
8. Poison Ivy
The heady, intransigent genre of psychobilly, in all its campy, horrorcore, cult-worthy majesty, is light work in The Cramps’ guitarist Poison Ivy’s audacious, unfettered hands.
The inflammatory and compellingly bizarre genre, which marries garage rock with traces of distorted surf and overwrought rockabilly, is singular in its ability to startle, provoke – and amuse.
The Cramps incorporated the gratuitous defiance of the seventies punk with the alluring, terrible glamour of kitschy goth to pioneer a macabre, morbid sound that was all fun, ferocity, and frivolity.
Untamed, with rabid riffs and sultry melodies, Poison Ivy perfected a ravenous, feverish brand of vintage alternative.
If you want a side of thrash and trash, give “Fever,” “Faster Pussycat,” or “What’s Inside A Girl?” a sustained listen.
9. Joan Jett
The consummate rebel with a cause, Joan Jett looms large in the popular imagination as a surly, impolite, leather-donning femme fatale with a bone to pick.
But her power-pop, devil-may-care power guitar is the true ace up her sleeve, and even to our cynical modern ears, her bawdy, vicious chords feel enticingly intemperate and refreshingly rapacious.
Jett was always more at home amidst a bar room brawl than a debutante ball and her intransigent lyrics and growling guitar endeared her to a generation.
She was cheerfully glam and overwrought and her performative posturing influenced a scathing, zingy generation of punk and riot-grrrl performers throughout the eighties and nineties.
10. Vicki Peterson
The zany, uplifting, and disarmingly confessional sounds of The Bangles center around Vicki Peterson’s jangly, strident riffs.
Incorporating a veneer of eighties theatricality, The Bangles stayed firmly planted in a sixties garage-rock tradition with jaunty riffs and heady walls of engaging sound.
The hard rock notes of “Hazy Shade of Winter” marry the conventions of the classic garage with arena-made power pop.
Peterson was an endearing and affable figure and she cultivated a legion of fans who looked to her as a mystical, all-knowing older sister.
11. Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman, of “Fast Car” fame, was an enigmatic musician, an artist in command of a deep well of profundity and philosophical weight.
She married her powerful literary leanings with haunting, visceral melodies that hit the listener like a bolt out of the atmospheric, textured blue.
Chapman’s methodology is arrestingly, achingly organic, and the outcome is that the reverberations of her guitar strings become like a direct pipeline to her spirit.
Chapman infuses her lyrics with protest, discontent, and unpretty truisms but she packages them in melodies that feel like a trembling, intoxicating caress.
Chapman can squeeze a heretofore unimagined dimensionality out of the simplest of chord progressions and so too can she fully inhabit her harmonies, embuing this with something of the exultory.
12. Belinda Butcher
Scottish band My Bloody Valentine, purveyors of a fizzy, feedback-drenched, saccharine sound that came to be known as shoegaze, owes its surrealist salience to one Belinda Butcher.
Butcher was a dreamy delinquent whose aura and technical craftsmanship possessed a refracted, unsettling radiance.
Butcher’s guitar is lush, terribly romantic, and gothically charged, and it belies her variegated referential passions, among them punk, gilded age culture, and the ethereal realms.
A spectral figure as a performer and as a musician, her guitar takes on the ghostly proportions of her own life, enchanting while it challenges with heavy distortion and oft-uncomfortable tunings.
“When You Sleep” and “Only Shallow” allow you to imbibe in the beauty, the terror, and the industrial noise in all its disconcerting majesty.
13. Emily Remler
Jazz guitarist Emily Remler lived a momentous, esteemed, and ultimately turbulent life, which led to her passing at the age of 32.
We’ll always wonder what the full maturing of her sound would have looked like, but her storied life and luminous, effortless melodies give us some clues into what could have been.
She was awarded Guitarist of the Year in 1985 by readers of DownBeat magazine, and she once mused about her role in modern jazz and her hoped-for legacy:
“Good compositions, memorable guitar playing, and my contributions as a woman in music…but the music is everything, and it has nothing to do with politics or the women’s liberation movement.”
14. Wanda Jackson
Fiery, shimmering, provocative – Wanda Jackson renders the guitar a vehicle for achieving emancipatory, intransigent, alluring new heights.
There is no way to adequately describe the stop-everything-and-listen mastery of the bewitching “Funnel of Love” – a track that dismantles what you think you know about female-led mid-century creations.
With a girlish, raspy voice and a swaggering, charismatic playing style, Jackson swings, seduces, confronts, and rabble-rouses to magnetic effect.
Her chords are distinctly nostalgic to us now, but we must not lose sight of how novel her defiant, brazen sovereignty and unflinching self-worth were to post-war ears.
It would be no exaggeration to say that “Rip It Up” and “Long Tall Sally” announced the birth of rock and roll.
Odetta is frequently revered as the “Voice of The Civil Rights Movement” and her brand of protest folk was formative in establishing the burgeoning hippie and academic counterculture of the sixties and seventies.
Embracing the storied and contentious tradition of prison work songs and Appalachian songwriting, Odetta’s lyrics are frank and redemptive while her guitar is melodic, inviting, and inclusive.
She singlehandedly renovated the folk revival tradition, reclaiming a space for Black musicians within a genre that was skewing further and further White.
Cited as an inspiration for Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Odetta’s resonant, meticulously-crafted narratives offered a representational model for future folk guitarists.
16. Kristin Hersh
The downtempo, erudite antihero of nineties indie rock, Kristin Hersh is a college radio sleeper icon and prefers it that way.
Echoes of the grunge ethos of Cobain permeate her work, and her despondent, unwaveringly moody arrangements can be riotous one moment and diffident the next.
The acoustic guitar under Hersh’s command is organic, raw, and embued with a DIY, anti-corporate spirit while her turn on the bass invokes a surreal interior landscape.
Her work with Throwing Muses positioned her as the indignant poet of alternative rock while her solo work introduced the world to a deeply introspective, disobliging – daresay misanthropic – cult figure for an angsty new era.
17. Barbara Lynn
The reigning queen of soul, and a valiantly versatile singer-songwriter-guitarist, Barbara Lynn’s sublime, orienting compositions are like a comforting, elevating north star.
She can groove with you, and she can lament with you, guiding you through heartache and luxuriating in your moments of pride.
She began her instrumental career on the ukelele, and the sprightly, uplifting chords of that oft-neglected instrument can be felt in her effortless thumb-picking guitar chords.
Get exposed to the melodic, shimmering possibilities of guitar with “Mellow Feeling, Part 1” – thank us later.
18. Jennifer Batten
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Michael Jackson acolyte, then you already know Jennifer Batten’s untamed shredding and mind-bending two-handed tapping technique.
Her methodology is frenzied, ferocious, and feral, with self-assured brashness and enviable swagger.
Indeed, her technical chops and tireless experimentalism garnered a spot touring with sixties rock icon Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds fame at the turn of the century.
Her glam-rock aesthetic evolved throughout her career, and during the nineties, she released an intoxicating, cultured series of worldbeat, jazz fusion, and instrumental rock tracks.
Give the curious 1997 album Jennifer Batten’s Tribal Rage: Momentum an attentive listen.
19. Nancy Wilson
If you know classic rock, you know Nancy Wilson, the instrumental powerhouse of Heart, whose riffs were inscribed with a dizzying vitality and forceful vigor.
The Wilson sisters renovated the expectations of seventies rock, and Heart was responsible for some of the most seductively dynamic and overtly stadium-friendly anthems of the generation.
She played nicely with acoustic and electric guitar, and her arrangements were rhythmically unrestrained, with an unwavering focus that emerged in the chaos of alluring vocals and rapacious riffs.
If you listen closely, you can hear a hint of the percussion, unbound and dynamic, in her chords.
20. Nita Strauss
Nita Strauss may not be a household name – despite being ranked first on Guitar World’s “female guitarists you should know” – but considering the rough and tumble circles she runs in, she likely prefers it that way.
She is a metal hellion and she invokes the carnal growls and scathing riffs of early heavyweights like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and indeed, she got her start in an all-female Iron Maiden tribute band.
Her preternatural flair for vicious chords and volcanic payoffs garnered her a spot in Alice Cooper’s touring band and is likewise on display in her debut solo album, the aptly named Controlled Chaos.
Strauss will be a name to watch out for all of the hard rock and thrash lovers among us.
Best Female Guitarists of All Time – Final Thoughts
A culture that celebrates, appreciates, and fosters the creative output of female musicians is a culture that will ultimately be nourished and animated by their inclusion.
The female guitarists we have met today are iconoclastic, exploratory, and defiant, but so too are they poetic, insightful, and revelatory.
Go get transcendent – the best in class beckons.
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