There’s a risk with features like this. 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 rundown of the real talent, but an admission that the only way to celebrate women is to remove the 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. And they did it all 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 reformed in 2016 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 the world-famous Guitar Institute of Technology 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.