Who Are the Guitar Goddesses?

December 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Strings | 5 Comments

Listening to the radio on the way home from work today, I heard the DJ refer to Jimmy Page as a “guitar god.” I like Jimmy Page, but I don’t know that deifying him is necessarily called for. But that statement got me thinking about the great guitarists.

A half dozen names popped into my head immediately, followed quickly by a dozen more. But I noticed something: I couldn’t come up with a single female guitar great. In the pantheon of guitar gods, who are the guitar goddesses?

I considered that the shortcoming might be my own, so I decided to look online at other people’s lists of the best guitarists, hoping to find the women that I somehow forgot. I typed “best guitarists” into Google and then clicked the first four links (see below) that seemed pertinent. What I found was sad, but also expected, unfortunately.

Jimi Hendrix topped each list as the best guitarist of all time. Though their rankings varied, the next top nineteen guitarists were pretty consistent among all the lists: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, and Eddie Van Halen were on all, with appearances by Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and others.

Guitar World recently posted its “30 on 30,” in which thirty great guitarists were asked to name their guitar heroes. (They must have been asked not to choose someone already mentioned because no two guitarists chose the same hero.) Of those thirty guitar heroes, not a single one was a woman.

But that’s not half as concerning as DigitalDreamDoor.com’s list of the top 250 rock guitarists. (The list is actually longer, but they stop ranking them after 250.) Of 250 rock guitarists, how many do you think are women?

If you guessed twelve, you’re off by a dozen. Not a single woman appeared in that list of 250 guitarists.

The guitar world isn’t completely exclusive. LA Times Magazine‘s “guitar experts” chose their top fifty guitarists and then asked their readers to rank them. This list cast a wider musical net, including classical and Spanish guitarists. The top favorites are pretty predictable. Not until almost the end of the list do we see a glimmer of femininity: Sitting at number 48 is Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist and founder of the Juilliard School’s Guitar Department. She’s certainly an accomplished musician, but not a household name.

You can’t discuss guitarists without looking to Rolling Stone magazine. It offers its own sleek-looking list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, with Hendrix, Clapton, Page, and Richards at the top. Farther down, past photo after photo of long-haired, axe-wielding men, you’ll find Joni Mitchell sitting at number 75, sandwiched between Dick Dale and Robby Krieger. A hop, skip, and jump away, nestled between Carl Perkins and Tom Verlaine, sits that blues beauty Bonnie Raitt.

So what’s going on here? Is it true that, as Rolling Stone‘s list implies, only 2% of professional guitarists are women? Is the business of pop music inherently sexist? Are girls just not interested in learning how to play guitar? Or is that possibility not being communicated to girls during their formative years? Are they just lacking role models?

I don’t know the answers. What I know, though, is that this disparity just feels wrong. But instead of focusing on why things are the way they are, it’s better to focus on how we can change things.

As a novice guitar player and father of two boys, I don’t have a lot of sway with young women looking to branch out musically. Luckily, it isn’t just up to me. If you’re a guitarist, or if you have a daughter, and especially if you’re a guitarist who has a daughter, make sure she knows that the six-string avenue is open to her, that she isn’t limited to flute, violin, and piano. And when you find an outstanding female guitarist like Bonnie Raitt, share her music with your sons and daughters alike.

And if you’re an outstanding woman who is also an outstanding guitarist, consider following the example of Sharon Isbin — making great music, being a great role model, and passing your knowledge to tomorrow’s great female musicians.

There must be some women out there playing great guitar. Who are they, and what are their greatest performances?

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck


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  1. I tried to think of a female classical guitarist and couldn’t come up with one either.

  2. Try this list:


    and its two previous lists, linked under “Related Content” on the left of that page. There are plenty of excellent female guitarists – just because “Rolling Stone” won’t list them doesn’t mean they aren’t around!

  3. Well then you haven’t looked hard enough. There are several female classical guitarists that pop immediately into my head. Dale Kavanagh is a guitar goddess, Liona Boyd, Iliana Matos, Ana Vidovic, Nicola Hall, several Asian women who I cannot remember their names, Eleni Papandreou (sp?), Filomena, and of course Sharon Isbin plus so many more. I have been fortunate to see Dale Kavanagh and Ana Vidovic in live performance and they are both masters of the classical guitar. All of these women are incredible on the guitar. All are classically trained and know a guitar from top to bottom like no other and I am not kidding. If you ever see any of these women in your area make sure you go see them perform. You will not regret it. Generally if a person has not tried to study classical guitar then you cannot understand and grasp the talent these women possess and have honed with years, and years of technical work on the guitar. Anyone can pick up a guitar, finger a chord and strum but what these classical guitarists can do is truly phenomenal.

    • But that’s the point, isn’t it? Just about anyone can come up with a decent-sized list of great male guitarists, but I have to “look hard enough” to find the guitar goddesses. Their skills and talents simply aren’t getting recognized by the public at large the way they should.

  4. Um, I’m no expert but Kaki King? She is mildly recognized, she composed some of the music for the movie August Rush and she’s pretty awesome with the guitar.

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