Rock and roll may seem like a boys’ club on the surface. They get enough of the fame, with kudos going to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton in every ‘best of’ list. But once you get past the superficial rankings and articles flooding the Internet and actually listen to the music, you’ll find there’s a history of rocking women who have taken one look at the glass ceiling and crashed straight through it.
Representation matters and it’s important, as a female guitarist, to know your feminine forbearers who picked up the axe before you and who stuck up their nose at the notion that rock is for men. Knowing you come from a long line of rockers, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Joan Jett, can give you the confidence to walk into your local music store, pass by the long-haired dudes performing overplay Led Zeppelin solos, pick out an Gibson Les Paul or Fender Stratocaster, and play through a Heart solo.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Technically, this 50s rocker straddled the line between several genres, including blues and gospel music, but she’s placed up there with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly as a pioneer of rock and roll. Armed with a Gibson SG Custom guitar and her signature rich voice, she was known for her driving style, intricate finger picking, and blistering solos that incorporated the sounds of gospel, traditional folk songs, blues, and jazz. Not to mention she also invented the famous rock windmill!
Known as one part of the sisterly duo the 70s rock band, Heart, Nancy’s sweeping guitar work totally redefined the genre. Her intricate fingerstyle matched her sister Ann’s forceful vocals note for note, laying the tracks for some of the most popular arena rock songs and sorrowful ballads coming out of that decade. They’re considered the female Led Zeppelin, but we know they’re a legendary rock band one their own without the comparison!
With her famous rock anthem, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, there’s little doubt that Joan had the attitude and confidence necessary to front the Runaways and later the Blackhearts. Her easy, down-to-earth playing style, full of heavy barre-chords that demand your attention, is a sound that generations of rockers have tried to emulate. Brash, assertive, stylish, and backed by catchy hooks, Joan is the quintessential rocker chick.
Former bandmate of Joan Jett in the Runaways, Lita Ford is just as significant to the cause as Joan. Whereas Joan is heralded for her powers as a rhythm guitarist, Lita is praised for her finger work behind the fret as a soloist. Her catchy yet complicated rock arena hooks mixed pop and metal sensibilities helped catapult the Runaways into the limelight.
Sister Rosetta, Nancy, Joan, and Lita laid down the foundations for female rockers, leading the way for generations of talented musicians — which is why you don’t have to look back to the annals of rock history in order to find inspiration. The rock world is full of talented female guitarists who are just as good as their male counterparts. From St. Vincent and Kaki King to Carrie Brownstein (yes, that Carrie Brownstein, from Portlandia) and Tara McLoed, contemporary ladies are waving the flag proving that — though history is written otherwise — there will always be women who will deny the boys their club.