Guitar Goddesses

Memphis Minnie

We’ve all heard of the guitar gods, but we almost never hear about their female counterparts. One reason of course, is that recent history has been filled with male guitarists of note, and with relatively fewer female guitarists of equal skill. But the female players have always been there! And, this is not, as some would claim, because of some inherently superiority of male players. It’s not because the guitar is an instrument geared towards men.

Whatever the reason, the lack of awareness of some of the great female guitarists is something that needs to be corrected. There have simply been too many fabulous women guitarists for at least a few of their names to not be household names.

The four women I choose to highlight in this article are just the tip of the iceberg of great players and I hope that by learning these few names, you can find your way to other great guitar goddesses – there are many to enjoy!

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Why Ray Charles is credited with crossing Gospel with Blues has always been a mystery to me. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was doing it while Ray could still see. She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. She toured with her mother, playing her guitar on stages and at church functions from as young as five. She had a healthy dose of Southern blues and jazz, and then her family moved north to Chicago, where her musical education continued with the Chicago blues and jazz scene of the 20’s.

Her style was unique to the period. A combination of finger picking and jazz voicings gave her a sound all her own.

She married Wilbur Thorpe, who later changed their name to Tharpe, in 1934 and moved to New York City. It was here that she was discovered by the Decca label and began making records.

Backed by a jazz orchestra, her songs caused an immediate uproar within the evangelical community, but the public loved them. She was soon appearing with bandleaders such as Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman, to mention a few.

During WWII she was one of only two gospel singers to record “V-discs” for the troops in Europe. During this period she became the first gospel artist to break into Billboard’s “Race Records” Top Ten.

After the war her popularity continued to grow. She gave a performance to a crowd of 25,000 people in celebration of her third marriage in 1951 in Washington, D.C.

She continued to perform until her death in 1973, of a stroke, on the eve of yet another recording session.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s legacy is immense. She was the first American Gospel act to tour Europe. She was a huge influence on modern music in many respects, both for her guitar playing and her blending of gospel, blues and jazz. Johnny Cash claimed her as his favorite singer.

Many of her recordings have been reissued in CD format, including several live performances. My personal recommendation is to pick up the box set entitled The Original Soul Sister, it’s a bit hard to find, but the discs’ one hundred and two tracks give a very good picture of her entire career.

Maybelle Addington Carter

Maybelle Addington was born in 1909 in southern Virginia. She grew up playing guitar and autoharp. When she was seventeen, she married and moved to Poor Valley.

Her unique stylistic twist was to pick out the melody on the lower (D, A and low E) strings while strumming the rhythm on the upper strings. This was one of the first uses of the guitar as a lead melodic instrument in American music. Playing with her brother-in-law and his sister-in-law she quickly became famous for playing at fairs and church events.

The “Original Carter Family” was signed by RCA-Victor in 1927. They made numerous records – many quickly became bluegrass and country standards that are played by bands and artists to this day.

By 1943 the group had broken up, but Maybelle reformed the group and continued to perform with her sisters through 1948.

Johnny Cash appears in this story as well, as he married Maybelle’s daughter June. Maybelle appeared several times on stage with Johnny as well as on the Johnny Cash Show of the 1970’s. But it was her playing in the ’40s that merits mention.

The Carter Family’s records were being played on Mexican “super stations” broadcasting to almost all of the lower 48 states. Chet Atkins recalls being influenced by Maybelle’s playing, as did Wayland Jennings. Quite a number of her songs became standards to be covered by singer-songwriter and country artists through the ’70’s.

The CD Can the Circle Be Unbroken released by Legacy in 2000 provides a great look into this important guitarist.

Liona Boyd

Often called the “First Lady of the Guitar,” Liona Boyd’s career has covered an amazing range. A classical guitarist of the first order, Liona also plays pop and Latin pieces. Her grandmother comes from the same town as Segovia, giving Liona a personal connection to the heritage of her music.

In her teens she took up the guitar after hearing a Julian Bream concert. She managed to study with a number of great classical artists, including Segovia. Segovia is said to have predicted she’d have a “magnificent” career.

She’s considered a first rate composer as well as a performer with few peers. She’s performed with nearly every major orchestra in the US and Canada, as well as having had private shows for numerous heads of state and royalty.

Her numerous gold and platinum albums and musical awards testify to both her talent and the accessibility of her music, but make it exceedingly hard to recommend one disc. However, if pressed, I’d have to say that her CD Baroque Favourites is probably my favorite.

Leni Stern

Leni Stern was born in Germany and has been playing in bands out of the New York area since the mid-1980’s. Her combination of jazz and rock is slightly reminiscent of Jeff Beck, but has a sense all it’s own. Her guitar playing is precise, gutsy and filled with emotion.

She has nine instrumental albums to her name, and each is a joy to listen to. After demonstrating such perfect understanding of modern jazz guitar, Leni expanded to songwriting and singing on her records in the last few years. She’s obviously an experienced artist, and the jazz singer-guitarist mold fits her like a glove.

Listening to a Stern performance, you get the sense of a performer perfectly attuned to her instrument, her audience, and her band. She spent some time studying with Bill Frisell, and learned to master loops and effects in a similar way to Frisell. The result is exceedingly deep guitar lines that layer up on each other to build to something greater than the sum of their parts.

Her musical style is incredibly varied and hard to define. Tracks that are tinged with elements of Northern African musical traditions meld with Django Reinhardt licks all wrapped up in an Hindu folk melody all with an ever so slight and appealing light rock sensibility.

Any of her discs are worth a listen, but my personal favorite is the wonderful 1998 release Recollection.