From Angus Young’s duck walking across stage to Jimi Hendrix on his knees summoning devil fire, the iconography of the guitar hero is definitely masculine. Even when rock was at its most androgynous in the 70s and 80s, it’s the image of the leather clad, make up caked, misogynists using their low slung guitars as penis extensions that endures.
As if to further cement the guitar gender gap, the “name the 35 iconic guitarists” game that is doing the rounds on the Internet is entirely devoid of women. It’s not a snub, for all their brilliance I’m sure Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett and Bonnie Raitt would be as surprised as anyone to see their image sitting alongside Hendrix, Harrison, and Page on the top row. The imbalance is nonetheless disheartening, and strangely consistent (Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Guitarists features only two women).
Times have changed however, and the intense machismo of the past no longer informs the image of modern guitar music in quite the same way. In 2012 the landscape is full of understated nice guys (Paul Gilbert), detached odd balls (Jack White), sullen metallers (Fredrik Akesson), and shy shoegazers (see any indie guitar icon). The modern guitarist comes in a thousand and one forms, and spell binding female guitarists no longer need to conform to a set of macho troupes - they can be feminine, feral, ferocious, and utterly undeniable in whatever way they choose (check out Gemma Thompson of Savages for a great example of all of the above).
This week Guitar Planet celebrates great female guitarists, and we’re diving straight in at the deep end, by naming the five best in the world right now (with no genre or style restrictions).
Orianthi might just be the most frustrating guitarist in the world (and if our interview with producer and collaborator Dave Stewart is anything to go by, she shares that frustration). You know the dilemma. There’s a guitarist who you know is incredible and you want to recommend them to absolutely everybody, but the trouble is, their records simply don’t showcase their jaw dropping talents – and you end up looking the fool.
Listening to 2010’s Believe, Orianthi could easily be mistaken for a placid pop star custom made for the Far Eastern market. This is a false reflection. At heart Orianthi is a staggeringly dexterous player, capable of mastering next to any style and out shredding anyone. She’s easily the most technically talented guitarist on this list, but she’s the only one who hasn’t consistently produced great records. Let’s hope Dave Stewart keeps his word and in 2013 we see Orianthi unchained making brilliant guitar music that extends beyond the odd 30 second YouTube clip.
Carrie Brownstein has proved to be an enduring force in modern rock, and she’s the only artist who would have made this list in 1995 and 2012. In her youth she was the lead vocalist and guitarist for Slater-Kinney who, alongside The Breeders and Hole, led the charge for female fronted alternative music (and who undoubtedly inspired some of the other entries on this list). After an acting and writing sojourn in the early 2000s, Carrie returned, somewhat mellowed, and sharing guitar duties with Mary Timony in Wild Flag.
Her new band has a decidedly indie bent. Blending a host of punk and post-punk influences into a more contemporary sound. The result is a sound that mixes wiry but buoyant riffs with a haunting rhythm section and the blistering sliding solos that brought Carrie to international prominence in the 1990s. On top of being a crafty songwriter and underrated guitarist Carrie is also one of rock’s genuine “nice guys”, and her understated charm is best displayed in her episode of Frames.
Arguably, the most captivating guitarist in the world, it is impossible to avoid being drawn into Kaki King’s blistering live performances. Using looper pedals and the body of her guitar for percussion, King creates densely layered odysseys full of fleet fingered fretwork that simply sucks the air out of the room. Every eyeball is glued to her lightening fingers, as she sounds like a horde of galloping horses one moment and a gently tumbling autumn leaf the next.
Famed for her acoustic workouts, she’s an equally competent electric player, favouring wide-open soundscapes that empathise subtlety and serenity rather than demonic shredding. King’s ferocious technical expertise could earn her a spot on this list alone, but it’s her commitment to reimaging the guitar as a tool, stretching its possibilities, and producing sounds that routinely take our breath away that makes her a true
female guitar icon.
It’s a tough call, what’s more depraved and unsettling: Marissa Paternoster’s fiendish cries or her swerving guitar lines? I certainly can’t decide, but there’s no questioning this lady’s guitar hero credentials. Mixing blazing punk and post-hardcore with swift swaying surf rock riffs and lightening fast shredding, Marissa is a beastly guitarist.
As the frontwoman for the Screaming Females she’s proved to be more than a mindless shredder. She writes glorious snarling pop songs that insidiously lure the listener in, only to unceremoniously smash them in the face with a crunching chord or slippery solo. Live Marissa is an understated force of nature. Clad in long suffocating black dresses and buried under her fringe, this pint size star might shun ostentatious displays, but she’ll happily uncork a face melting solo without any provocation.
It’s hard to think of St. Vincent as a guitarist in isolation. She’s a madcap artist, who torturously twists and distorts sound, writing gorgeous incisive baroque pop (for a lack of a better term) in the process. Often pegged as a flightily indie type, St. Vincent’s records might be luscious and challenging, but live she’s a balls to the wall rock star. Improvised solos constantly emerge, giant shrieking blurts of guitar cut through subtle soundscapes, and at any given moment she’ll dive headfirst into the crowd to solo as she surfs.
Annie Erin Clark’s (St. Vincent) entire career defies definition; she started as a member of barmy psychedelic troupe The Polyphonic Spree before joining Sujfan Stevens’ backing band, and today she’ll team up with David Bryne one moment and make music for Boardwalk Empire the next. Her music mixes gorgeous alluring melodies with harrowing guitar noise and disorientating electronics. As a guitarist she’s adept at picking her moments. She’ll restrain her playing to create a predominate mood. Layering is crucial. Winding riffs lead to crushing chords and drilling walls of noise, and just when you least expect it - a scintillating solo will spring to life.
St. Vincent is the most complete artist on this list. She has the five star albums, she’s legendary live, and she’s the most likely to side step expectation and do something complete bananas. She’s a rock star, she can play, and she offers a new and wholly 21st century take on what a guitarist can be, and can look like.
St. Vincent - Photo Credit: Aktiv I Oslo.no http://www.aktivioslo.no/
Carrie Brownstein - Photo Credit: Rene http://flavors.me/starbright31/
Kaki King - Photo Credit: Guus Krol http://www.flickr.com/photos/guuskrol/
Orianthi - Photo Credit: Sofia DeBustamante http://www.flickr.com/people/sofiadebustamante/
Marissa Paternoster - Photo credit: Asterio Tecson - http://www.flickr.com/people/asterix611/
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