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Talented, innovative or just plain entertaining, these six-stringers of the female variety know how to get the party rolling. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 female guitarists of all time.
For this list, we’ve picked female guitarists based on a mixture of innovation, talent, notoriety, and public esteem. They don’t necessarily have to be virtuosos or the best guitar players ever, but they’re certainly known for possessing some skill on the instrument.
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#10: Annie Clark
Performing as St. Vincent since 2006, Annie Clark has made a name for herself as a source of unshakeable and fuzz-filled hooks. Raised in Dallas, Texas on bands like Pavement and Pink Floyd, the guitarist also draws on Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Sonic Youth in her playing and songwriting. A Berklee College of Music dropout, Clark was a self-styled jazzy finger picker before joining choral rock band The Polyphonic Spree. Noted for her unique approach, Clark has said that she writes many of her songs while trying to fall asleep.
#9: ‘Mother’ Maybelle Carter
While not as well known today as her son-in-law Johnny Cash, Maybelle Carter’s contribution to the art of guitar should not be overlooked. Using a large body Gibson L-5 guitar, Carter pioneered a thumb and finger picking style known as Carter Family Picking or the Carter Scratch. Using her thumb to pluck out bass and melody lines, Carter would simultaneously strum the treble strings with her finger. This style of playing later became the basis for Bill Monroe’s bluegrass style and helped establish the guitar as a lead instrument.
#8: Kaki King
Although she began playing guitar at age four, Kaki King switched to drums at an early age and did not return to the guitar until she was 19. King more than made up for lost time and has developed a unique blend of flamenco percussion, fret tapping, fanning, and bass-style slaps on both conventional and unconventional guitars. Known for her use of altered tunings, King is also noted for playing her guitar-koto hybrid instrument. In this style, King will insert a second bridge saddle under her strings, which creates two sets of notes and mind-blowing results.
#7: Joni Mitchell
As a slack tuning innovator and writer of the classic “Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell may be folky, but don’t call her folk. Although her career grew out of the 60s folk scene and she quite literally learned from the Pete Seeger book of guitar playing, Mitchell happily went electric in the late 70s and typically recorded with jazz-based musicians—as no one else was willing to give her the sound she wanted. With a scant handful of songs in standard tuning, Joni uses or developed 51 different guitar tunings, which today she accesses through a Roland VG-8 guitar processor.
#6: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
If you were going to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it “Rosetta Tharpe.” A rocker before rock existed, Tharpe blended folk, blues, and gospel into a sound that was a major influence on Little Richard, Elvis, and Chuck Berry. Her recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was a proto-rocker and reached the second spot of what is now the Billboard R&B charts in 1944. In 1947, Tharpe switched to electric guitars, mostly from Gibson; she is even rumored to have been buried with her 1961 Les Paul/SG Custom.
Appearing to come out of nowhere, this wonder from down under is one of the leading names in hired hands. Orianthi was playing guitar with Carrie Underwood when she was drafted by Michael Jackson for what would have been his final tour. In addition to her own revered solo career, Orianthi has played with Alice Cooper, Michael Bolton, James Durbin, and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Formally a classical guitarist, she switched to lead, blues-based rock guitar at age 11 after seeing Carlos Santana in concert and has rarely looked back.
#4: Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt’s plans to be a folk singer fizzled out soon after the redhead discovered slide, or bottle neck guitar. Given her slide stylings, Raitt typically plays in Open A or open G tuning and has a preference for glass slides, originally using actual bottles to play. While Raitt does use acoustic guitars on occasion, she prefers electric guitars for their increased sustain and expressiveness. Long associated with her Fender Strat “Brownie,” she has since been honored by the company with a signature model, and is the first female artist to have one.
#3: Joan Jett
A rock star in her teens, Joan Jett made her name by doing just what the establishment said she couldn’t do: rock. Beginning her career with The Runaways, Jett co-wrote the band’s signature track “Cherry Bomb” and eventually took over vocal duties when singer Cherie Currie left the group. Following the band’s breakup, Jett recorded a solo album but was rejected by 23 different labels... so she started her own. Still active today with the Blackhearts, Jett is a cult icon in rock and punk and still plays her signature Gibson Melody Maker guitars at crotch level.
#2: Nancy Wilson
Although no slouch at playing electric, it was Nancy Wilson’s mission when she joined her sister Ann’s band Heart to add more acoustic guitars to the group. With results like the timeless intro to “Crazy On You,” few could argue with her. Wilson’s role as guitarist in the group continued to grow—however, her playing really came to the forefront when guitarist Roger Fisher left the group, a vacancy she had no trouble filling.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
- Marissa Paternoster
- Jennifer Batten
- Mary Ford
- Carrie Brownstein
- Marnie Stern
- Sheryl Crow
#1: Lita Ford
Like Joan Jett, Lita Ford first rose to fame in The Runaways. However, Joan followed a more punk direction, while Lita went down a harder, rockier path. Once engaged to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and having recorded with frontman Ozzy Osborne, Ford wears heavy metal like a badge. Uninterested in effects, she uses a basic rig of a B.C. Rich Warlock plugged into a Marshall stack, firing off thick, crunchy rhythm parts, and tears into leads with abandon.
Do you agree with our list? Who’s your favorite female guitarist? For more hard rocking Top10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.