Some of the best guitarists in the world are women. I think a lot of people know that, but just in case they don’t, I decided to write another article about some badass lady guitarists that have inspired me in one way or another. My previous entry focused on the indie rock genre, but I thought I’d open this one up to include guitarists of all stripes. From the bluesy slide of Bonnie Raitt, to the legendary early rock and roll of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to the modern shred of Orianthi, all of the ladies on this list deserve their own monuments for their contributions to modern music. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some more stellar lady six-string slingers.
Can you name anyone that has double digit Grammy wins, is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and also lands on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time lists? Bonnie Raitt can—herself. With a career that spans over four decades, Raitt has established herself among the greatest musical artists of all time, especially in the blues genre. She gained attention for her bottleneck guitar playing in the early ‘70s, a time when there were not many well-known women guitarists. Her main guitar is a Stratocaster mutt with a body from 1965 and a neck from a later date. She purchased it in 1969 and has been using it ever since. Fender decided to make Raitt the first woman to receive a signature guitar in their lineup in 1996 with the Bonnie Raitt Stratocaster. An illustrious, trailblazing career, incredible chops, and a signature guitar—she’s got it all. Game. Set. Match.
To play with Michael Jackson, you’d have to be a versatile guitarist, skilled in every genre with impeccable technique and a great ear for every song as a whole. Jennifer Batten did just that, playing with the King of Pop over the span of a decade on his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours. She has also toured and recorded with guitar god Jeff Beck—most guitarists will never come close to building a resume like that. She’s also an author, having written two music books, and she’s found the time to release three solo albums in the midst of her numerous guest appearances. Her two-hand tapping technique will put most shredders to shame, as she has been adept at this method since first embracing it in the late ‘70s. Batten employs the use of modern axes such as the Line 6 Variax and Parker Fly models, which lend themselves to versatility and technique, which makes sense considering her varied background.
Kaki King is a true artist, approaching the guitar from various angles, using her percussive technique and fusing in multiple genres, sometimes within the same song. She employs various tunings on both acoustic and lap steel, and her live performances are quite the visual spectacle. Using projection-mapping imagery on her guitar, she turns what is already an arresting musical experience into a multimedia extravaganza. Whether she’s playing acoustic fingerstyle, or delving into post-rock symphonies using all manner of stompboxes, King is always on point, and her music is always breathtaking. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were hearing a guitar trio when you listen to her acoustic solo performances. She’s even managed to impress rock god Dave Grohl. She appeared as a guest guitarist on the track “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” from Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. Said Grohl of King: “There are some guitar players that are good and there are some guitar players that are really fucking good. And then there’s Kaki King.”
Nancy Wilson has been crushing it in her band heart since 1973. With her sister Ann, she wrote one of the greatest rock riffs of all time in “Barracuda,” featuring authoritative guitar gallops and perfectly placed harmonics. Heart is one of the rare bands to be a household name worldwide, and that achievement is even more anomalous considering the fact that the band is fronted by women. With a new album dropping last year, Heart shows no signs of stopping, and we all benefit from its rocking. I should also mention that I once listened to Heart’s Magic Man to get in the zone for a city league basketball game, and subsequently had one of the finest performances of my amateur athletic career, leading my team to victory in the game’s final minutes. I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but rather to point out the righteous power of Heart’s music, which is driven by Wilson’s heavy, yet soulful, guitar. Thanks Nancy—I owe you one.
The second guitarist on this list to play alongside Michael Jackson, Orianthi lent her six-string skills to the preparation for the ill-fated This Is It concert series, which was cancelled after Jackson’s unexpected death in 2009. Hailing from Adelaide, South Australia, Orianthi Panagaris made a splash in her early teen years, eventually catching the attention of accomplished guitarists Steve Vai and Carlos Santana, the latter of which invited her to join him onstage at his Adelaide performance when she was just 18 years old. Santana, being an artist on the Paul Reed Smith endorsement roster, introduced PRS himself to Orianthi, which eventually led to an endorsement of her own. Orianthi secured the job playing for Jackson after she had already enjoyed a tenure as Carrie Underwood’s lead guitarist, which shows her dynamic range as a guitarist. She has also toured with Alice Cooper. If that’s not a well-rounded guitar player, I don’t know who is.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s accomplishments as a musician are notable for many reasons. She was a gospel performer, but her innovative style and boundless energy inspired early rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis. If that wasn’t enough, she did all of this as a black woman from the ‘30s to the ‘70s. In divisive times, she used the power of music as a way to unite people. I’ve never seen anything as soulful as her performances with her white, three pickup Gibson Les Paul-SG Custom. She put a pop spin on gospel music that upset some traditionalists, but she opened up a whole new world of musical possibilities to open-minded music fans. Sister Rosetta Tharpe deserves much more than a mention on this list, but I wanted to make sure she was on here. I would love to see a movie made about her. I’ve grown weary of the male rock star biopic, but I think a film about her life and contributions to music would be fantastic.
All the guitarists on this list have made significant musical contributions. They are not run of the mill players; each are innovative in their own way. They have pushed—and continue to push—the boundaries of modern music with guitar as their musical vehicle, and they continue to inspire generations of players to do the same. Anyone that picks up a guitar would be lucky to achieve just one thing that any of these women have during their career, yet they continue to blaze trails and bring us new music. Here’s to all the badass female guitar players out there that we know, and here’s to the ones we’ll get to know in the future.