Breaking up the Boys Club: Kick-Ass Female Guitarists

At some point in your life, you may have had a poster on your wall featuring one of your guitar heroes. Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Gilmour, the list goes on. A whole generation of dudes had long curly hair because they wanted to emulate Frampton and Van Halen. We associate iconic instruments with particular artists, such as Old Black, Neil Young’s beat-to-hell Les Paul, or Johnny Winter’s Firebird. Notice a pattern here? Not a single woman. Guitar playing is now, and historically has been, both dominated by and aimed at men. They get most of the attention. This is understandable due to the sheer number of recognizable male players who have made significant contributions to the music world, but female guitarists should not be overlooked. Too often, women in bands are categorized as “cute” or a novelty, which undermines their talent, musicality, and place in the guitar pantheon. When I was in high school, I played drums for the vocal jazz ensemble. Our group performed at various festivals throughout the school year. On one occasion we were at such a festival. One evening, when we weren’t practicing or performing, we listened to a combo from the other side of the state. A girl was playing guitar, and she was amazing. Our guitarist looked perturbed; he couldn’t play the way she did. When someone commented on her playing ability he looked off into the distance and shrugged, his juvenile pride preventing him from acknowledging that she was way beyond his level. A lot of people already knew what I learned that day—that someone’s talent and ability has nothing to do with gender. But it was an important lesson for young Sam to learn, and I’m grateful for it. From Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Bonnie Raitt, there is a bevy of badass female guitarists worthy of everyone’s respect for their approach to the instrument and overall musicianship. While there are many wonder women to choose from, I’m highlighting three of my favorite female six-string slingers from the indie/alt-rock realm.

Bethany Cosentino
Band: Best Coast

Best Coast’s dreamy surf pop-rock is fueled by the guitar duo of Cosentino and Bobb Bruno. They weave in and out of one another’s lines beautifully like surfers on a wave (you knew that was coming), sounding reminiscent of a band that grew up on the Beach Boys with inspiration from the alternative and grunge acts of the ‘90s. Like her vocals, Cosentino’s guitar playing is at once raw and beautiful, and she relies on some classic and modern gear to get her sounds.

Cosentino’s main guitar is a Fender American Standard Stratocaster in limited edition Aztec Gold. When she’s not using that, it’s a Fender Troy Van Leeuwen signature Jazzmaster, which features a Mastery bridge and vibrato installed by (Mastery bridge inventor) John Woodland himself. To add color, she runs her guitars through a TC Electronic Polytune 2, an Xotic EP Booster, Mojo Hand Bluebonnet overdrive (two-knob version), Wampler Euphoria, Hardwire Supernatural Reverb (used specifically on the Shimmer setting for California Nights), a Malekko 616 analog delay, and an Electro Harmonix Holy Grail Nano that stays on all the time. All of that goes into a Mesa Boogie Lonestar 1x12 combo.

Carrie Brownstein
Bands: Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag

While some younger fans may be more familiar with her work on the excellent Portlandia, Brownstein is one third of seminal riot grrrl/indie rock act Sleater-Kinney. The high energy, socially conscious group made a major impact when they debuted in the ‘90s. To power her way through punk rock riffs, jagged solos and melancholy melodies, Brownstein uses one of her custom made guitars—semi-hollow T-styles with humbuckers—built by Reuben Cox, who owns the Old Style Guitar Shop in L.A. She also employs Gibson SGs, a 1972 model in particular, or the very SG-like Guild S-100 Polara, as well as a Rickenbacker 425. All of these run through a Boss Blues Driver and DigiTech Whammy into a Vox AC30, a Music Man HD-130 2x12 combo, or both. Brownstein’s approach to the instrument is stripped down, and matches the feeling of Sleater-Kinney’s immediate, punk rock feel. There are no 20-minute jazz odysseys to be found here; it’s in your face and you’re going to like it.

Annie Clark

Band: St. Vincent


Annie Clarke, also known as St. Vincent, draws on disparate influences such as jazz, electro-pop, punk and metal when writing her music. She embraces the use of effects wholeheartedly to create complex sonic soundscapes, and her expansive rig would make any pedal hound jealous. Also, she made an album with freaking David Byrne. St. Vincent has used a number of guitars in the studio and on stage, including funky vintage axes such as the Harmony Bobkat and a variety of Kays and Silvertones. After playing various Albert Lee signature models, she received the honor of designing her own signature guitar with Music Man. The St. Vincent signature model is visually striking, with an ergonomic offset body, three mini humbuckers, and a modern vibrato arm for dive bombing. It features a mahogany body and an all rosewood bolt-on neck, and looks amazing in black or the vibrant Vincent Blue, a finish Clark personally mixed by hand.

Continuing through the signal chain, there is a Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe, Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, Eventide Space, Eventide PitchFactor, and Z. Vex Mastotron, all controlled with an RJM Mini Effect Gizmo and Mastermind. For amps, she’s been known to use a ‘70s Fender silverface Princeton Reverb, as well as the venerable Kemper Profiler, a Music Man bass amp, and a TRVR Amplifiers Little Boy and Trinity.

As always, the aforementioned rigs are not meant to be the final word on the artists’ gear; like us, they change it up when they feel like it, and the setups could be totally different the next time you catch them live. But that’s all part of the fun; an artist inspires you, you snag a few of the tools they’re using, and before you know it, they’ve changed their approach again. It’s a vicious, yet fun and entertaining, cycle of madness.

Guitar playing is not just a man’s game. So many of our cherished musical artists are women, but far too often, their skills are ignored. They are pigeonholed into being singers, or perceived as appendages to a musical act, shaking a tambourine or dancing while singing backup vocals. And while those things have their place, there are many women who have taken center stage with their guitar and the world is better for it. For heaven’s sake, it’s 2016—girls are rock stars too. Get used to it. Who are your lady guitar heroes - who inspires you? I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some fabulous female guitarists, and if you haven’t dug into their music yet, get to it. You’ll thank me later.

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  1. elvis

    Wata from Boris!

  2. Frank

    Indie players have even less skill than the Edge. More reliant on delay effects with even 2-3 note rhythms.

    Jennifer Batten should be on that list.

  3. Hugh Schmidt

    Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females, the best rock guitarist I’ve seen in a while.

  4. Screamin Armadillo

    She’s not necessarily an indie artist, but Eve Monsees from the Bluebonnets (Kathy Valentine’s band) and her own Eve and the Exiles is one of my latest ear ticklers.
    Blues. Pop, Punk and Rock all rolled into a funky Austin, Texas mix…plus, she grew up with Gary Clark Jr., and is co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop with her husband, Mike Buck (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the LeRoi Brothers).

  5. Scarabellum

    Yes Frank, your use of the term “indie” is as relevant as the hi/low argument in art. It’s pedantic and reductive. It’s also a term that only reflects the production process and nothing to do with skill or artistry.

  6. John Hallahan

    I just found you guys. Very cool

  7. Bob

    I agree with Frank.

    Batten should absolutely be on the list.
    All “indie” musicians need to play in a song is repeating 1 riff, or quarter-noting the same note throughout. Whether or not you like the music is one thing, but let’s be honest - pulling off those songs doesn’t really require much skill set - and this blog post is about skill, not the music.

    Jennifer Batten
    Nili Brosh
    Rena Sands
    Gretchen Menn
    Bonnie Raitt
    Joni Mitchell
    Susan Tedeschi
    Nita Strauss
    Tal Wilkenfeld (Bass)
    Julie Slick (Bass)

  8. Dave Davis

    Great Kat shreds like no other .

  9. jenny

    We know well the way.