20 of the Best Female Guitarists Ever
In this list, you’ll find 20 of the best female guitarists that have ever lived and learn more about their musical and social impact. They have challenged the status quo, invented new ways of playing, and influenced generations of musicians.
- 1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- 2. “Mother” Maybelle Carter
- 3. Lita Ford
- 4. Elizabeth Cotten
- 5. Joni Mitchell
- 6. Jennifer Batten
- 7. Emily Remler
- 8. Nancy Wilson
- 9. Memphis Minnie
- 10. Nita Strauss
- 11. Sharon Isbin
- 12. Liona Boyd
- 13. Kaki King
- 14. Peggy Jones
- 15. St. Vincent
- 16. Bonnie Raitt
- 17. Poison Ivy
- 18. Orianthi
- 19. Wendy Melvoin
- 20. Joan Jett
1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the daughter of two humble cotton pickers living in the early 20th-century United States. With the support of the Church of God in Christ, she started playing guitar at the young age of six and was soon considered to be a “musical miracle.”
Rosetta was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar in the United States, but she was also a talented entertainer and passionate singer. Her riffs were as elegant as her dresses and as rough and authentic as her upbringing. Perhaps for that reason, she’s usually cited as one of the main influences of artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard – the ones who invented rock and roll.
2. “Mother” Maybelle Carter
You know you’re an influential guitarist when there’s a type of fingerstyle guitar named after you. An inventive country singer, “Mother” Maybelle Carter was the great inventor of the ‘Carter Scratch’ and was among the first musicians in the country genre to use the guitar as a lead instrument. A Virginia native, she was the matriarch of the Carter Family, cited among the main inspirations behind the folk revivalism of the ’60s.
While Carter isn’t solely responsible for popularizing the acoustic guitar as the ultimate songwriting instrument in the United States, she definitely played her part. She passed away in 1978 at the age of 69, leaving behind an indelible musical legacy.
3. Lita Ford
Born in London, England, but American in citizenship and nature, the great Lita Ford is among the best female guitarists in the history of rock music. She was the lead guitarist of the all-female rock act The Runaways and worked alongside greats such as Ozzy Osbourne and Nikki Sixx of the Mötley Crüe.
As a child, Ford was deeply influenced by the super-fuzzy riffs of Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. She started learning the instrument at the age of 11. Her brilliant (and ongoing) solo career is proof of her technical ability and irresistible charisma. She’s at her best when she’s playing catchy, fuzzy, and messy riffs, just like Blackmore used to do.
4. Elizabeth Cotten
Born in the late 19th century, Elizabeth Cotten isn’t as famous as other Blues pioneers such as Lead Belly or Robert Johnson. However, she may be the most special guitarist to come out of the early Blues scene in the United States. Her playing was flawless and her songwriting remarkable, especially when you listen to “Freight Train” – her best-known song, covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia.
Cotten also went down in the history of guitar music due to her unique style of playing. The pioneer of the “Cotten picking,” she was a left-handed player who used a right-hand guitar upside down. For this reason, she played the bass with her fingers and the melody with her thumb, meaning she had more freedom to work on her characteristic alternating bass lines.
5. Joni Mitchell
Yes, Joni Mitchell is one of the best female guitarists of all time, and that’s not even her main strength. This Canadian-American singer-songwriter is best known for coming up with deliciously honest songs that are both lyrically and musically rich. Her ability as a songwriter is such that many tend to ignore her influential guitar playing.
It’s no coincidence that Mitchell played with many jazz greats without ever feeling overwhelmed. While she may not look like it, she’s a music-theory whiz with a desperate need for innovating. Crucially, her ability to compose in multiple non-standard open guitar tunings turned her into a guitar legend.
In 2003, Mitchell was the highest-ranked woman in Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time. Now in her golden years, she continues to perform live occasionally.
6. Jennifer Batten
Active since 1980, Jennifer Batten is an iconic session guitarist from New York City who’s best known for performing in three Michael Jackson world tours. While playing with dizzying perfection in the records of others is her expertise, she also released three solo albums that are surely worth listening to.
Batten started learning guitar at the age of eight, and it shows in her playing. Batten’s solos are almost computer-perfect, yet they seem to come naturally and effortlessly to her. Inspired by musicians such as The Beatles and Jeff Beck, she had the opportunity to work with the latter on records such as “You Had It Coming” and “Japan Live 1999.”
7. Emily Remler
Born to play the jazz guitar, Emily Remler studied at Berklee College of Music and was once dubbed one of the five best jazz guitar players in the United States. She tragically passed away at the young age of 32.
Remler’s precocious death, though, doesn’t take anything away from everything she achieved. She mastered the jazz guitar as few did in her time, helping to reinvent a style many considered to be “old” and “dying” by the late ’80s. Her performance of “Tenor Madness,” in the video above, was recorded almost exactly one year before her death.
8. Nancy Wilson
Five seconds into Heart’s seminal song “Barracuda,” we’re greeted with one of the most powerful riffs of late ’70s rock and roll. The reason why you can’t stop shaking your head to the song is called Nancy Wilson. A brilliant guitarist from San Francisco, California, she’s known for her unique mix of hard rock, flamenco, and classical influences.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, Nancy has always performed alongside her sister Ann and helped Heart to sell a whopping 35 million records worldwide.
9. Memphis Minnie
The eldest of 13 siblings, Memphis Minnie was the living proof that ’13’ isn’t an unlucky number. Active between 1908 and 1957, she is sometimes cited as one of the greatest blues artists of all time and deserves similar praise for her energetic, devilish, and flawless guitar playing.
Memphis Minnie recorded more than 200 songs throughout her life and influenced a generation of rock-and-roll musicians to come. The American singer-songwriter Big Bill Broonzy once famously said she was as good as “any man I’ve ever heard.” But to be honest, Minnie was better than most bluesmen back in her heyday.
10. Nita Strauss
The undisputed queen of the Ibanez guitar, Nita Strauss is a contemporary guitar whiz who’s often featured on the cover of magazines such as Guitar Player and Guitar World. There’s nothing bad to say about her technical ability, but Strauss is perhaps best known for her deliciously heavy guitar tone.
Highly influential among metal fans, Strauss spent the vast majority of her career touring with Alice Cooper. She also released many solo records, in which she showcases her seemingly endless array of guitar tricks. The way she mixes different music scales is particularly impressive. She’s also known for performing routinely in WWE live events.
11. Sharon Isbin
The daughter of a University of Minnesota professor and nuclear scientist, Sharon Isbin seems to have inherited her father’s obsessive attention to detail. Unsurprisingly, she became one of the world’s most influential classical guitarists. After proving that she could play pretty much anything with impossible precision, she became the director of the Juilliard School guitar department.
Isbin’s resumé is as impressive as it gets, especially when it comes to classical music. More than a guitar virtuoso, she’s also a guitar expert who has played with over 200 classical music orchestras since she started performing live in 1970.
12. Liona Boyd
In the history of female guitar players, few have been unanimously praised as Liona Boyd, who is especially well suited to play the Spanish classical guitar – the woman many refer to as The First Lady of Guitar.
Uncoincidentally, Boyd’s connections to Spain are pretty obvious. Her parents had both lived in Spain, her main influences included the likes of Andrés Segovia and Narciso Yepes, and her greatest musical tutor was Alexandre Lagoya, with whom she studied privately for two years.
13. Kaki King
Another contemporary great, Katherine King (aka Kaki King) is known for her recurrent use of extended guitar playing techniques, which include creating percussive rhythms by hitting the body of the guitar. She became famous for her creative YouTube videos and contagious live performances.
Kaki King’s inclusion in Rolling Stone’s list of “The New Guitar Gods” helped to kickstart her career in 2006. A few years later, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her work in the movie “Into the Wild,” also featuring Michael Brooks and Eddie Vedder as the soundtrack composers.
14. Peggy Jones
Die-hard fans of the late great Bo Diddley may not recognize the name Peggy Jones, but they surely know who Lady Bo was. She met Diddley in the mid-’50s at the Apollo Theater and joined his band to play the rhythm guitar. Featured in many of Diddley’s most iconic recordings, she is often said to be the first female rock guitarist in the United States.
Jones continued to support Diddley until 1961, the year she left the band to focus on her work with The Jewels. Despite her nickname, Jones was never in a romantic relationship with Diddley, as their special symbiosis was uniquely musical.
15. St. Vincent
Alongside Joni Mitchell, St. Vincent (born Anne Clark) is one of the most talented all-around musicians to make the list. Extremely fashionable, she’s an influential singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma who’s released nothing but critically-acclaimed records since she started performing in 2003.
But while St. Vicent is best known for her inspiring art rock songs, she’s also widely recognized for her ability as a guitarist. After all, she did play in Sufjan Stevens’s touring band before venturing as a solo musician. Moreover, St. Vincent’s guitar playing is convincing without being predictable. She has a unique style that can’t be found anywhere else.
16. Bonnie Raitt
When the Burbank, California guitar whiz Bonnie Raitt started playing the Blues, the likes of Sister Rosetta Sharpe and Elizabeth Cotten were already retired. Yet, she made sure their spirit lived on by coming into the American rock scene like a thunderbolt. Today, she’s widely recognized as one of the best guitarists and blues singers of all time.
With a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the bag, Raitt has managed to do pretty much everything every rock musician can dream of. Nonetheless, she continues to perform as a live musician and recording artist today, boasting the same energy and raw power that have always characterized her.
17. Poison Ivy
Perhaps the greatest female punk-rock guitarist of all time, Kristy Wallace is best known by her stage name Poison Ivy. She became popular all over the United States for her work with the band The Cramps. Even though she retired from the music business in 2009, her influence still lives on.
Throughout her career, Ivy co-wrote pretty much her entire catalog with The Cramps’ lead singer Lux Interior, who was also her longtime husband. The ending of The Cramps, in 2009, coincided with Lux’s passing.
Nita Strauss wasn’t the only iconic female guitarist who toured with Alice Cooper. The Australian guitarist Orianthi also had a chance to play with the legendary rock act, and she seems to have learned a lot from Cooper’s legendary showmanship.
What sets Orianthi apart isn’t just her flawless guitar playing. Perhaps like no other female guitarist on the list, she also seems to have a knack for showing off – in the good sense. Watching her perform live is as impressive as it is entertaining.
19. Wendy Melvoin
If there ever was an artist who trusted female musicians, that was Prince. The late R&B legend collaborated with many female talents, but Wendy Melvoin was always his number-one right-hand girl. A renowned guitar player and songwriter who can also sing proficiently, she accompanied Prince from the very start.
The expression “behind a great man, there’s always a great woman” surely applies to Prince and Melvoin. But it wasn’t Prince who made her: on the contrary, they worked together to make one another. If you love Prince’s catalog, as you should, you have to give Melvoin all the credit she deserves.
20. Joan Jett
I know what you’re thinking: charismatic as she is, Joan Jett isn’t on the same technical level as some of the other ladies who made it to the list. But power-chord-infused riffs and contagious melodies were all Jett ever needed to make history. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, she’s mainly famous for the hit punk-rock songs “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and “Cherry Bomb.”
Whether she’s performing solo or as the band leader of The Runaways, Jett always puts on a great performance. No, she won’t deliver the world’s most technical solo or play exotic scales, but she will always stand tall as one of the coolest rockers who’s ever lived.
Of course, there are so many other amazing female guitarists around the world that it’s impossible to make a definitive list, but everyone on this list are certainly among the best!
If you need further proof that ladies are as talented as men when it comes to making great music, check out the 20 most popular female singers, the best female rappers of all time, the best female metal singers, and the 30 best female DJs in the world.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Featured Image (Left) by: James J. Kriegsmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Maybelle Carter Featured Image (Right) by: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons