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Female guitarists in contemporary music

(Released July 2009)

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  by Les Reynolds  


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Modern Pioneers


Modern Pioneers

Musical trailblazers can be called pioneers for any number of reasons, and Ani DiFranco (born Angela Maria DiFranco, 1970) is a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist, who is widely-and most importantly--celebrated as a feminist icon. (It is for this reason she is listed here ahead of other women, who were more noted for guitar skill). The Buffalo, New York musician is also known for starting her own record company in 1989, Righteous Records (renamed Righteous Babe Records in 1994). While her strongly political lyrics, also often controversial and socially observant, are her most identifiable and discussed traits, DiFranco's guitar style is also critically acclaimed. On over 15 studio and nearly an equal number of live albums, her guitar style has been characterized as staccato and percussive, combined with rapid fingerpicking while utilizing numerous alternative (open) tunings. (27)

Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco performs in Buffalo, New York, September 12, 2007

While pioneers may assist future generations by "blazing trails", fame and becoming a household name also provides a path for those who aspire to success in that same field. Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, both considered icons in music, could be said to have paved the way for DiFranco and others like her.

Bonnie Raitt
Musician Bonnie Raitt at "We the Planet" concert, San Francisco, California, April 20, 2003
Raitt (b. 1949), could arguably be called the only "household name" in music among women known for their guitar skills. In fact, she has even been lauded as an "institution in American music," (28) with nearly 20 albums to her credit in a "legendary" body of work.

Born into a musical family, Raitt is the daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt and pianist-singer Marge Goddard. With her background and upbringing in Los Angeles, California, in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker beliefs and social activism, Raitt has observed these ideals throughout her life and made them part of her performance and recording career. She committed herself to full-time music after three years in college, soon finding herself immersed in blues as she learned from the blues legends of her day-some of whom were quite elderly by that time. In between sessions, Raitt has continued to devote her voice and celebrity to an array of causes (peace, social issues, safe energy, the environment and women's rights). She continues to use her influence to affect the way music is perceived and appreciated around the world-including a mid-1990s initiative with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to encourage underprivileged youth to play music. Raitt has won multiple Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt on YouTube
John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt, YouTube, "I'm In The Mood"

Another artist who has influenced countless musicians as a female guitarist is the Canadian singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell (b. Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943). Beginning as a key part of the folk rock movement sweeping the musical landscape, once she settled in California in the late 1960s (29), Mitchell's guitar-and even piano-arrangements were seen as intelligent and complex. She was influenced by jazz while melding her style with pop, folk and rock on several of her earlier albums (30).

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell performs in Vancouver, Canada, May 14, 1998

In a 2002 interview with "Rolling Stone" magazine, Mitchell-following a lengthy career-stated she would make her final album due to her disgust with the music industry. She expressed her desire for more control over the content and distribution of her music. (31) And in fact, her recordings were infrequent and sporadic after that time. Her last recording was in 2007, titled "Shine" (32) released on Starbucks' Hear Music Label.

Guitar skill, however, is arguably Mitchell's most lasting influence, notably due to her complex arrangements and penchant for open (non-standard) tuning. She was harmonically highly innovative in her early work (1966-1972) and used a variety of techniques. (33). Mitchell's music was originally considered to be folk, but after her initial success she began to grow in a jazz direction. Her collaboration with saxophonist and band leader Tom Scott produced the album "Court and Spark," one of the most popular and influential jazz-influenced albums of all time. Mitchell worked closely with jazz great Charles Mingus on his last project. She did several albums with jazz bass player Jaco Pastorius, and several more with her second husband, musician and sound engineer Larry Klein.

Mitchell's guitar and songwriting influenced numerous songwriters who followed, including Prince, Elvis Costello, George Michael, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Morissey, Seal, Beck, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall and a great many others.

Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

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