To this day when you google, “top guitarists of all time.” you will usually get a list of male artists. This isn’t because female artists were rare, in fact, many of today’s men were influenced by the women on the list you are about to read today.
We will introduce you to the inventive Loretta Thorpe, the pioneering Memphis Minnie, the grandmotherly Beverly Watkins, the overshadowed Peggy Jones, and hypnotic Jessie Mae Hemphill.
Each of these historic black women brought something unique to guitar and influenced how we play today.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Although Sister Rosetta Tharpe reached celebrity status with her hit single, “Rock Me” by the time she was 23 in 1938, she does not always get recognition for getting the influence she has had in music history. Only within the last decade has there been a resurgence of interests and recognition. In 2007 she was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2011 the BBC aired a one-hour documentary and more recently, in 2018, a biography has been written about her titled, “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
Read how she pioneered electric guitar and became to be known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll by reading our full post, The Original Soul Sister!
Before Sister Rosetta Tharpe was recording her first single in the late 30s, Memphis Minnie was already touring and entertaining on the guitar with her unique bluesy sound. Eventually, she was known as the “Queen of Country Blues. She evolved with the times. Already known for being one of the best guitar pickers in the 20s, by the time the electric guitar came out in the 50s, she was sliding with the best of them.
Although by today’s standards it may seem chauvinist, she was paid the compliment, she plays the guitar like a man. The truth is many men were trying to play like Memphis Minnie.
Beverly is considered a late boomer even though she played all her life. Early in her career, she had been in multiple bands that didn’t have hits. Due to the lackluster reception of the bands she was in, as a side guitarist, it would be hard to get noticed. It wasn’t until the last decade of her life, into her mid-70s that she was recognized as the unsung hero of blues music.
Even after opening for acts like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles, it wasn’t until folklorist Tim Duffy saw her perform before she got her recognition and released her first album when she was 60.
According to Duffy, “She was like your sweet Southern grandma, unassuming and demure,” he said. “But onstage, where she takes down the house, she’s a born entertainer, who made people scream and shout.”
Peggy Jones “Lady Bo”
Similar to Beverly Watkins, Peggy Jones was a side guitarist in a Band. However, Peggy jones was a side guitarist in Bo Diddly’s band. One of the most recognized brands known for transitioning blues to rock music.
Peggy was able to break away from many of the stereotypes at the time. She credits the success of breaking down barriers to not being aware of them. She said, ““Little did I know that a female playing any instrument was like a new thing. I was breaking a lot of barriers.”
She continued to acknowledge, ““I don’t think I went in with an attitude that ‘Oh, oh, I’m a girl, they’re not going to like my playing.’ So probably that might have been my savior because I just went in as a musician and expected to be accepted as a musician.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill
We round out the list of the top 5 black female musicians with Jessie Mae Hemphill. While the previous artists were innovating the transition of blues to rock ‘n’ roll. Jessie Mae Hemphill was creating her own unique sound that many considered ambient and hypnotizing. While her guitar rhythms were considered simple and repetitive, she would layer them on top of each other accompanied with a foot tambourine and Choctaw leg bells. The latter was a nod to her Native American heritage. Her unique sound continued to influence music and blues festivals into the late 80s and early 90s.
The Next Greatest Female Guitarist
Sister Rosetta picked up her first guitar at the age of four. Most of the women on this list started before they were 10. Your daughter or grand-daughter could be the next guitar pioneer that will introduce music to millions. Our classes start at the age of 6. Rock Dojo is an award-winning guitar lesson system trusted by parents and kids. It is designed to help kids (aged 6-12) learn the guitar so fast they will be able to play and write their own songs by the time they get a Black Belt in rock!
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