There’s a risk with lists like these. Some people think that when we isolate female guitarists, bassists or vocalists into a list of their very own, that it implicitly suggests that it isn’t a list of the real talent, but an admission that the only way to celebrate women is to remove the more significant contribution of men from the conversation. That we’ve separated them because they simply can’t hold their own against the men.
Bollocks to that. The women on this list aren’t just as good as men, they’re better.
Each and every one of them had to work, fight and play harder just to be accepted on the same terms as their male counterparts. And when they made it, they ripped up the rulebooks they were handed and re-invented the genres they entered on their own terms.
The so-called poet laureate of punk, Patti Smith’s unapologetic, razor-sharp lyrics and guttural protopunk sound provided the template not just for the burgeoning 70s New York punk scene, but for legions of alternative bands that followed. It wasn’t just her music that inspired, though; her intelligence, her thoughtfulness and her unwillingness to back down from what she thought was right has left an indelible mark on rock music’s blueprint.
You couldn’t put together a list like this (or hell, any compilation of real rock’n’roll legends) without mentioning Carol Kaye. Having started out as a jazz guitarist in the 50s, Kaye went on to become one of the most prolific, respected session bassists in rock – as well as contributing guitar parts (six- and 12-string) for the likes of The Beach Boys and Frank Zappa. A killer player, noted teacher and a key touchstone in the world of bass.
As The Pixies’ original bassist and long-time Breeders frontwoman, Kim Deal’s played a hand in creating some of rock’s most celebrated music. While Kurt Cobain famously cited The Pixies as the abiding influence behind super-duper mega-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, Breeders’ breakthrough album Last Splash was certified platinum, with The Prodigy using a sample from album track S.O.S. as the basis for hit single Firestarter.
Five feet of leather-clad ferocity, Detroit-born Suzi Quatro found fame and fortune in the UK during the age of Glam. Hitting the upper reaches of the chart with Can The Can and Devil Gate Drive, she inspired a generation of women to pick up the bass guitar.
Tarja Turunen, Anette Olzon and Floor Jansen have each fronted the biggest and most successful symphonic metal band in history. Racking up over two decades of destruction, it’s a testament to the ability and ambition of these three women that Nightwish have gone from Scandinavian curio to a bona fide festival headliner.
David Bowie described Fanny as “one of the most important female bands in American rock,” and he’s not wrong. Signing to Reprise in 1969, they created a template later followed by The Runaways and many others. “They cracked that door and made it possible for us to believe that we could do it too,” says Cherie Curry. They’ve just reformed, as Fanny Walked The Earth.
Best known for her lead guitarist roles with Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck, Jennifer Batten grew from the heavily testosterone-dominated shredder climate of ‘80s California. Swiftly proving that she was at least as good as her peers, she became the first woman to teach at GIT and turned the notion that virtuosic electric guitar was the preserve of men on its head.
The co-founder of seminal New York noise rock stars Sonic Youth, with her raspy spoken word vocals and steady basslines, Kim Gordon was responsible for carving out one of rock’s most instantly identifiable sounds. The mastermind behind 1990 Chuck D collaboration Kool Thing, her creative contribution to the band was increasingly prolific until they dissolved in 2014.
Rock’n’roll began with the blues, and singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie (predominantly active in the 1920s-50s) was one of its stars. Big Bill Broonzy said she could “pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard”, and her songs have been covered and reworked by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin.
It’s easy to forget how futuristic Garbage sounded when their debut album exploded. Butch Vig’s shiny production may have excited the audiophiles, but the real action was taking place out front: Shirley Manson was unconventional, tough and sexy, and the owner of an almost other-worldly brand of charisma.
Shaven-headed, bisexual, black: Skunk Anansie’s lead singer Skin didn’t so much break down barriers as kick them into submission. With a voice like an air-raid siren, she’s an utterly compelling live performer. And without Skin, 90s Brit-rock would have been a greyer, dustier, overwhelmingly less interesting proposition.
Fleetwood Mac might have been the ultimate example of the right group of people getting together at exactly the right time, but for many it was Stevie Nicks’s smokey, sultry voice that provided the icing on an already tasty cake. A true American icon, and a songwriter of rare genius.
From revolutionary rockers in the 70s to AOR titans in the 80s, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson have continued to plough a singularly unique furrow. Watching Ann reduce Robert Plant to tears with her Kennedy Centre performance of Stairway To Heaven in 2012 was one of the musical highlights of this decade.
In 2003, Evanescence skyrocketed into the sun to become one of the hottest bands on the planet, thanks in no small part to the power and emotion of frontwoman Amy Lee. Her operatic prowess and soaring vocals set the five-piece apart from their peers, sending them into arenas across the globe. Debut album Fallen has now sold over 17 million copies.
Punk legends The Slits were undeniably in charge, from their high octane live shows to the sleeve of debut album Cut, which pictured the band dressed only in loincloths and mud. Viv Albertine’s brilliant autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys is truer and more revealing than any number of predictable rock tell-it-alls.
Gossip bandleader Beth Ditto – the “fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas” – opened the minds of thousands when she put herself on stage and said what the fuck she liked, did what the fuck she liked and wore what the fuck she liked, inspiring young women to be exactly who they were along the way. Her disregard for rules and expectations railed against a system which had been trying to tell women who they should be from its inception.
Debbie Harry is undeniably beautiful – but more importantly, she’s kooky, fierce, smart, untouchable, and the fearless leader of a band who grew from the scuzzy venues of New York Punk to dominate the glistening world of pop. Forty years on, Blondie are still making good albums and selling tickets. A true icon.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a very large rock on the surface of Neptune, you’ll no doubt be aware of Code Orange and their mission statement to absolutely fucking destroy everything in their path. Guitarist Reba Myers isn’t just a brutal chuggmonster, but her vocals on Bleeding In The Blur are astounding, helping to set CO apart from the rest of the hardcore horde.
That voice. That style. Those songs. In an ever-changing world, Chrissie Hynde is what she always was: a writer of great tunes, a role model for any woman who wants to enter the music business without an iota of compromise, and a singer with a voice mere mortals would kill for.
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Inspired by a Sex Pistols performance in 1976, X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene (AKA Marianne Elliott-Said) decided to form a band of her own, and reset punk’s legacy in the process. Her vocal style – which spat scathingly about the world’s injustices while capitalising on her training as an opera singer – helped lay down the template for what eventually became the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s.
Don’t let her sweet, smiling appearance fool you: Bonnie Raitt could eat most slide guitarists for breakfast. The bottleneck-brandishing queen of rootsy rock is one of precious few women to consistently appear in ‘Greatest Guitarists’ lists. Listen to her music and it’s easy to see why; the California native has laid down myriad gorgeous lines via solo albums and illustrious line-ups since the ‘70s.
With Siouxsie And The Banshees, Sioux nailed down a sound that would come to shape goth and post-punk as we know them. Her fearlessness in the face of experimentation, paired with her uncompromising approach and devil-may-care regard for convention, made her one of the most influential songwriters the genres ever produced.
While they might be most famous for spawning 80s pop powerhouse Belinda Carlisle, The Go-Go’s – who were forged in the underbelly of LA’s legendary punk scene – single-handedly catapulted new wave into the charts when their debut album, Beauty And The Beat, was released in 1981. They pioneered the sound while paving the way for dozens of bands in its wake.
The ultimate all-girl ‘gang’ of hard rock, Girlschool emerged from NWOBHM-era London – gathering the Lemmy seal of approval in the process. A successful female group in an overwhelmingly macho scene, they had the chops and tunes to back-up the Motorhead support – and in guitarist Kelly Johnson they had a true star, whose life was sadly cut short by spinal cancer.
Tina Turner was one of the first women to take rock’n’roll to the mainstream in a major, all-conquering way. Yes she’s also a massive pop/soul/RN’B icon, but the likes of Nutbush City Limits (which she wrote), Proud Mary (originally a Creedence Clearwater Revival track, made stratospheric by Turner) and Acid Queen (from The Who’s Ken Russell-directed trip-fest Tommy) are the work of a rockstar, no question.
Nico may have been positioned in the Velvet Underground because Andy Warhol understood the value of a beautiful face, but it was her voice that made people stand up and notice. Alluring, devastatingly cool and almost incomprehensibly exotic, she was the voice of the band that launched ten thousand other bands.
My Bloody Valentine are the most influential shoegaze band to ever have existed, and it’s a widely-accepted truth that it was with the introduction of Bilinder Butcher that they really found the sound that would come to define an entire genre. Butcher’s intricate vocals provided the perfect foil to MBV’s bludgeoning wall of noise, and birthed shoegaze in the process.
Laura Jane Grace
When Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as a trans woman in 2012, it was a massive step in raising awareness around the challenges of living as a trans person in an alternative scene which had been lacking in role models until that point. Against Me!’s boisterous, rootsy punk rock continues to inspire countless of bands today.
A perennially enigmatic force to be reckoned with in progressive rock, Kate Bush flew in the face of all that was current in 70s Britain (i.e. punk) and created her own fiercely unique brand of music – and sold millions of records doing it. Living proof that you can be wonderfully weird, a bona fide individual in rock’n’roll, and an absolute megastar.
Arguably the most influential female singer-songwriter of modern times, Joni Mitchell has paved the way for countless artists across numerous shades of rock and folk. Artists as diverse as Katy Perry, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Taylor Swift and Marillion have cited her as an influence, and her compelling, confessional style puts her easily in line with the Cohens and Dylans of rock.
A ‘60s icon inspired by the early blues women – having emerged from a middle-class family in Texas – Janis Joplin was a force of nature with a searingly raw, gut-wrenching voice and a life cut tragically short by drugs. Few have since sung with as much furious intent as she did, all of which came from a painfully ‘real’ place.
The most unfairly derided woman in music since Yoko Ono, Love’s high-profile relationship with grunge superstar Kurt Cobain – and the following ghoulish obsession with the part she did or didn’t play in his death – has since overshadowed her contribution to rock music. But her candid, vulnerable songwriting granted a role model to awkward, misfit young women as they struggled to navigate an overwhelmingly male world.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Before the likes of Chuck Berry were claiming rock’n’roll as their territory, it was women like guitarist/singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe who drew the template for the whole damn thing in the first place. Her blend of gospel passion and bluesy foot-stomping rhythm (in a career that peaked in the 1930s and 40s) laid the foundations for Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis… Y’know, like, EVERYONE widely dubbed ‘pioneers of rock’n’roll.’
With an other-worldly voice and a healthy arsenal of ideas, Polly Jean Harvey deals in highly original avant-rock that’s twisted and evolved since she began turning heads in the 90s. Her more recent albums have been less guitar-heavy, but she’s still one of the most interesting artists in rock today.
Having been a part of the UK underground since she was 14 as the vocalist for mathy noisemakers Rolo Tomassi, Eva Spence has been a trailblazer for women in hardcore bands across the country. Now, over a decade later, she’s still a formidable force who delights in terrorising audiences. Upcoming album Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It showcases her powerful yet delicate clean vocals like never before.
Formerly the lead vocalist for Warlock, Doro Pesch has been redefining what it means to be a woman in heavy metal for the past 30 years. With 12 studio albums under her belt, Doro has never compromised her art or integrity, always standing with one fist firmly in the air and another punching gender-boundaries in the face.
A superstar in the 1980s, Pat Benatar applied a tough, streetwise veneer to what were ostensibly pop songs and turned them into arena-rocking classics. Benatar’s Crimes Of Passion lay the groundwork for countless women to blur the lines between rock and pop, and altered the way we perceived music while doing so.
Wanna know what a phenomenal singer Grace Slick was? Seek out the isolated vocal from Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit on YouTube. It’s staggering: a haunted, goosebump-inducing masterclass in restraint, crescendo and release. Slick wasn’t just the face of the Summer Of Love, she was The Voice.
One of the most exciting bands in the UK right now are the death metal powerhouse Venom Prison. Fronted by Larissa Stupar, they defy genre stereotypes with songs about force-feeding rapists their own genitals, and absolutely crush live. Born in the European hardcore scene, Larissa is as real as it gets, and genuinely terrifying onstage.
Marianne Faithfull has been a superstar at least three times. After debuting the classic As Tears Go By in 1964, she became one of the symbols of swinging London before succumbing to the dangers of the lifestyle. 1979’s Broken English was a masterpiece, however, and Faithfull is one of the few ‘famous for being famous’ stars whose work actually thrives on its own merits.
As founder and frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Hanna is often cited – both by her peers and historical folklore – as riot grrrl’s chief instigator. Spawned from the DIY zines and art galleries of Olympia and Washington, D.C., Hanna and her cohorts lead a punk-inspired movement based on equal parts fuck you attitude and an unwavering belief in music’s ability to affect positive change in the world.
It’s harder to find a more consummate rockstar standing today than Joan Jett. The voice, the attitude, the look… If you cut through the Runaways-guitarist-turned-Blackhearts leader, she’d bleed rock’n’roll – which, given that she turned Alan Merrill’s I Love Rock’n’Roll into the immortal anthem it is today, is actually quite plausible.
Often overlooked in favour of Nirvana and co, and dismissed by some as ‘the band with the singer who threw her tampon out’ (onstage at Reading, 1992), L7 were actually one of the heaviest, most commanding acts to emerge from late 80s/early 90s grunge.
At a time when rock music seemed suffocatingly male-dominated, Brody Dalle and her band The Distillers gave mainstream punk the kick up the arse it desperately needed, providing a voice for the forgotten women of mid-00s alternative while they were at it. A formidable frontwoman, her aggressive, visceral guitar style saw her become the first woman ever to star solo on the cover of Total Guitar Magazine.
Originally part of Olympia’s riot grrrl scene, Sleater-Kinney – AKA Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein – channeled the movement’s political energy into a sound which became increasingly innovative with each album. Furious, bold and direct even in their most gentle moments of introspection, their back catalogue is one of indie rock’s most fantastically diverse, influential, and beyond all, essential.
Babes In Toyland
The myth that women struggle to rock as hard as men should have been dispelled with the advent of Kat Bjelland and her guttural, eye-watering snarl, but there we go. With Babes In Toyland, Bjelland and her bandmates mixed the best elements of heavy metal, punk rock and Seattle grunge, their uninhibited influence audible in everything from Bikini Kill to Paramore.
For 14 years, Angela Gossow led Swedish wrecking crew Arch Enemy into battle, turning conventions of female vocalists on their head with her savage growls and roars. Now, Alissa White-Gluz is at the helm, picking up Angela’s mantle and flying the flag for female metal vocalists everywhere, as the well-oiled death metal machine continues to crush arenas around the world.
The writer of more than 100 hit singles, Carole King also achieved extraordinary success as a recording artist – 1971’s Tapestry has sold more than 10 million copies – and as a solo artist, drawing 60,000 fans to London’s Hyde Park to hear the album played live four decades after its initial release.
Sharon den Adel
The arena-levelling symphonic goths Within Temptation aren’t just one of the most successful bands from the Netherlands, they’ve sold millions of albums around the world. Vocalist, songwriter and founding member Sharon den Adel can be thanked for this, with her vast vocal range and enigmatic stage presence. She’s also exercising her poptastic muscle with solo project My Indigo, expected to release a new album soon.