5 Pioneering Female Guitarists

In the world of music, it’s often the guys who are hailed as guitar gods. There are indeed many whose names will be forever etched on various top lists and music history records. Not to be outdone, however, there are several guitar goddesses equally deserving of respect and honor.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of rock ‘n roll,” is considered one of the most inspirational musicians of all time. Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett are two of the most famous and influential. Vicki Peterson’s guitar skills helped shape the sound of The Bangles and Lita Ford is the first female to win a Certified Legend Award by Guitar Player magazine. And that’s just for starters, Below are five more names that should shine bright in the canon of great musicianship.

Mother Maybelle Carter

More than just the mother of June Carter Cash and mother-in-law of country legend Johnny Cash, Maybelle Carter is also considered to be among the best female guitarists ever, learning to play by ear at age 13. Thanks to a creation of style known as the church lick, thumb rush, and Carter Family picking, she attracted a list of admirers including Chet Atkins and Doc Watson.

Carter used her thumb to pick a tune on the bass strings while strumming rhythms on the higher strings which resulted in a sound that made it seem as though there were other guitars playing.

Elizabeth Cotten

Folk blues legend Elizabeth Cotten was left-handed but played a guitar meant for right-handed players, developing a unique technique called “Cotten picking.”

Born in 1893, she taught herself how to play guitar as a child. Hired to cook and clean for composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, stepmother to acclaimed folk singer Pete Seeger, Cotten surprised the family when Peggy Seeger walked into the kitchen one day and saw her playing the guitar. Although they didn’t often announce them as covers, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead were among the artists who performed the “Freight Train” singer’s songs. Cotten was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.

Memphis Minnie

Elizabeth Douglas, a/k/a Memphis Minnie, was a legendary blues guitarist whose career spanned over three decades. Her songs covered topics like crime, health, trains, and voodoo. Born in 1887, she played guitar on the streets of Memphis before joining the Ringling Brothers circus and eventually helping form the electric Chicago blues. Inspiring bands such as Led Zeppelin, the “Queen of Blues” would go on to have over 200 recordings under her belt.

Wanda Jackson

“The Queen of Rockabilly” signed with Capitol Records in 1956 where she recorded a number of singles including hits like “Let’s Have a Party” and “Right or Wrong.”

At age 73, she mounted a comeback with her 2011 album The Party Ain’t Over, which was produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Carol Kaye

Kaye is perhaps one of the most iconic bass players to ever pick up the instrument. The sought-after studio musician recorded bass and/or six-string guitars for the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Quincy Jones, The Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and Ritchie Valens.

Kaye caught her big break in 1963 when an electric bass player didn’t show up for a recording session. The prolific musician has played on an estimated 10,000 recordings throughout her career.

-Sharon Oliver

Photo: Wanda Jackson, 1975 (public domain)

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11 comments on “5 Pioneering Female Guitarists


    I’m not sure that Wanda Jackson could be considered as a pioneering female guitarist- certainly a pioneering rockabilly vocalist who played standard rhythm guitar. Session guitarists such as Buck Owens, Joe Maphis, Tex Wilburn and Roy Clark provided the guitar licks for most of her early rockabilly/rock & roll recordings.

  2. Not a surprising omission, but an unfortunate one, was Texas-born Tejano music pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Her body of work, spanning from her signature hit, “Mal Hombre” in 1934 up through her last recordings in the 1980s, featured her masterful 12-string guitar playing. To me, she was one of the most effective self-accompanying singer-guitarists in any genre.

  3. Mary Ford?

  4. Maurice Gordon

    Hi, you are missing the mother of Rock and Roll Sister Rosetta Thorpe and she stands above all of them as a innovator and the mother of Rock and Roll or the Queen o Rock and Roll


    Rosetta is acknowledged in the preamble, which is as good as saying ” She’s the Queen- now here are some others”.


    Calm down…Big Mama Thornton couldn’t be considered as a pioneering female guitarist and Sister Rosetta is acknowledged in the introduction – “Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “godmother of rock ‘n roll,” is considered one of the most inspirational musicians of all time.”

  7. Bobby Inocente

    Many forget Charo! Maybe because her sexy comical style overshadowed her musical genius, Classical guitarist never seem to make the cut. Check out some of her performances!

  8. George N. Ringo

    Ellen McIlwaine. One of the all-time slide guitar greats.


      LIke Joanna Connor, probably born too late to be considered as a true pioneer ahead of the blues gals from the 1920/30/40s.

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