Why are there no great female rock guitarists?

30 Oct

I know I’m risking a flame war by asking this, probably along the lines of:

  1. You idiot: what about (fill in name of female guitarist here), you ignoramous?
  2. You idiot: they’re out there but the male-dominated music industry doesn’t recognize their talent or promote them effectively.
  3. You idiot: shut up and stay away from impressionable young minds.

For point #1, let me clarify my terms. I’m looking for  a woman who’s made a name for herself as a plugged in (not Joni Mitchell)  rock-and-roller (which counts out my dear Bonnie Raitt who specializes in blues slide guitar). I want someone who plays lead and does the memorable hooks herself, which (correct me if I’m wrong) excludes Chrissie Hynde and Nancy Wilson. I’m looking for a woman who’s a pillar in the pantheon of rock. I’m looking for a woman … who plays like a man – which horrifies me to admit.

Maybe I'm just afraid she'd beat me up ...

Joan Jett is being considered for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2011. I’ve never been a fan. While  she had one true hit, “I Love Rock and Roll” (admittedly a great song) and a couple others that made a dent in the charts (“Bad Reputation” and a cover of “Crimson and Clover,” a song I don’t particularly like in its original Tommy James & the Shondells version anyway), I personally don’t feel she moved the genre forward. 

My fear is that Joan Jett isn’t in the running because of her historical importance. As point #2 suggests, the male-dominated world of rock music has a rotten track record when it comes to supporting women … so there are few to choose from … and therefore Joan’s leading qualification in their eyes may be her lack of a Y chromosome.

The rock establishment doesn’t seem to know how to even talk about women. Case in point: When I visited Cleveland’s R&R Hall of Fame this spring, there were only two sour notes in what was otherwise a thrilling experience. One was the footage from the induction of the Mamas & Papas playing in the lobby. Michelle Phillips acknowledged Cass Elliot by saying, “I know she’s watching from up there in a size 4 Thierry Mugler dress.” Granted, Michelle knew Cass, and maybe Cass sat around dreaming a little dream of being a size 4. Be that as it may, it was a shame that the clip they chose focused on the lady’s size, not her place in musical history.

Similarly, Bonnie Raitt’s 15-second portion of the inductee montage featured her talking to a little girl about why she started playing guitar. Bonnie’s answer was something along the lines of,  “so I could meet boys.”  This was a cute answer and possibly true but again, this is all the lady is allowed to say to justify a girl beginning a musical career and it sells her short.

(Bonnie even admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that she was “absolutely” surprised to get inducted: “I knew I got in because I was a woman. It’s important for them to honor women, not have it all guys. In terms of commercial success, I doubt that I would have made the cut. I made it as a role model for women instrumentalists and combining music and activism. It had a lot to do with gender.”)

Maybe point #3 is true: I need to lighten up, give Joan Jett more credit and talk up Chrissie, Nancy and the rest if for no other reason than to guide the next generation. This issue is gaining some urgency as my teenaged daughter is now taking guitar lessons. When I asked her who she would want to be if she could pick any guitarist in the world, she answered,


“What about a female guitarist?”

She looked at me strangely. “But there aren’t any.”

Here’s your homework, honey: watch and learn.


See you on the flip side …


8 Responses to “Why are there no great female rock guitarists?”

  1. Philip October 30, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Well thought through, but I’d have to differ with you on one point. When I saw the headline, the first name that occurred to me was Bonnie Raitt. Blues guitarist or not, she’s an excellent, strong example (perhaps the only example) of a woman who has made her mark in the rock industry. Just my opinion. Keep up the good work!

  2. Tom Doyle November 1, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    By the time of her last album with Sleater-Kinney (The Woods), Carrie Brownstein was a true guitar heroine. Rolling Stone named her as one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. Other greats are out there, but they’re typically with indie bands–don’t bother looking for them in legacy band land.

    • lpon45 November 3, 2010 at 3:19 am #

      Thanks for the suggestion; I’ve been wondering where to start with Sleater-Kinney. I’ll check out the album.

      Any ideas on why there wasn’t a swell of female guitarists after the MTV-era in whatever genre?

      • Tom Doyle November 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

        On “The Woods,” check out “Let’s Call It Love” in particular (though others may differ). Brownstein is touring with her new band, Wild Flag, but I don’t see any Midwest dates yet, and I have no idea how they’ll sound together. Here’s one idea on why the guitar heroine remains largely invisible: I don’t think the current music environment is conducive to national prominence for new guitar heroes, male or female

  3. marmaladefille November 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    Maybe your daughter WILL be the first female Slash. Here’s hoping.

  4. Victim of the Fury April 7, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Not a virtuoso maybe, but in keeping with the Joan Jett theme, one has to give a lot of credit to then 16/17-year-old Lita Ford back in her Runaways days for her fearless guitar playing. She played raunchy and distorted and you can hear some great, raw solos on the band’s live recordings. The Runaways-era Lita, more so than her subsequent output, could certainly serve as inspiration for a blossoming teenage guitar hero of either gender…

    • lpon45 April 7, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

      Thanks for pointing that out. I don’t know the Runaways’ work all that well, and my image of Lita is “Kiss Me Deadly” in endless repeats on our classic rock station. I’ll have to give the earlier stuff a more careful listen. Thanks for reading!


  1. Unplugged (audience): Chrissie Hynde at the Masonic Temple Detroit | LP on 45 - November 22, 2014

    […] hesitant. Yes, many amazing women shaped the genre and the industry, but there are relatively few great female rock guitarists – and that dearth is a significant issue for an art form that values the singer/ songwriter/ […]

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