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Girls With Guitars

09/09/2007 11:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I polled my blog readers on who they thought was the best guitarist in the world, and it turned out to be an interesting question. I left it to them to define "best" any way they wanted, any genre, yet most of them automatically assumed I meant lead guitarist - more to the point, lead electric guitarist. As in "speed." As in "pyrotechnics."

As in "male."

Well, it brought out the feminist in me. I mean, I like those old school guitar heroes like Zappa and Clapton myself. But as I learned in art school, the use of white space around the line is powerful, too. Subtlety in a player is a great thing, and that's where female musicians reign. I thought I'd take the opportunity to do a little musical education.

Guys don't think of women guitarists because they don't identify with them. Little boys don't typically play air slide and lip-synch to Bonnie Raitt while they dream of being a rock star. I'm a female writer and musician, though; I did. And I have to wonder: Just as great female female bloggers fall through the cracks, I wonder what great female players we haven't heard of because no one knows or cares they're there.

I love music, and I can hold my own with male music geeks. (I got all the inside jokes in "High Fidelity.") But I refuse to concede music as a competitive sport. Remember, guys - if all it took was speed, Eddie Van Halen would rule the universe - and my ex-boyfriend wouldn't be my ex. (Rim shot.)

I will say that every single musician* listed here 1) has a distinctive sound 2) is an incredible live guitar player and 3) has chops well-regarded by other musicians. (*Except for Liz Phair, who might fall short on No. 2 and 3 and yet, she should be here anyway.)

Yeah, guys, we do have a few shredders. Here's Jennifer Batten, playing with Jeff Beck.

But really, I find that whole Harder! Faster! Louder! thing kind of boring. (Okay, no more cracks about my ex.) Give me balls-out rock and roll, and never, ever tell The Donnas' Allison Robertson she's not good enough to play with the boys:

(Or Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner, either. Or the Great Kat. You might lose some teeth.)

Women mostly play rhythm and bass, which doesn't hog the fan spotlight the way lead guitarists do. (I read somewhere that women don't have even half the forearm strength of men, which is a must-have to play lead. That would explain a lot.) But as anyone who's ever played in a band will tell you, the rhythm guitarist isn't exactly a frill. Let me put it this way: No way would a band split the gig money with an extra player if they didn't have to.

Whether it's for cultural or biological reasons, women do stand out in the acoustic and blues genres. Joni Mitchell is certainly one of the most underrated guitarists out there. (You could ask Charles Mingus if he was still alive.) From the very beginning, she made the guitar into an orchestral instrument through a dizzying array of open tunings and ushered in a whole new age of acoustic guitar in rock:

Here's Patty Larkin at the Falcon Ridge Folk Fest. This one doesn't show off her virtuosity as well as it might ('cept for the ending, where she gives Richard Thompson a run for his money), but there's not such a great selection of her work on YouTube:

Bonnie Raitt is one of those people whose body of work is both broad and deep. Her singing voice is so powerful, it's easy to forget what great chops she has. Here's a shot of the young, pre-VH1 Bonnie in 1977:

I've been following Rory Block's work for at least thirty years and even managed to talk the management into booking her at Philadelphia's now-departed Chestnut Cabaret (it was a flop - they couldn't figure out how to market her) but fortunately, her career took off without my help. She's (as we say) Big In Europe. Here she is, playing "Terraplane Blues":

So the next time you're knocking back a few beers with some friends, and the subject turns to that perennial "How come there aren't any great female guitar players?", go against the barroom grain and drop a few of those names.

Just tell 'em. "That 'no great female guitarists' thing? Dude. It's. So. Over."