TOP 100 Favorite Famous Guitarists (50% Female)!
Happy New Year!
Tough! I learned tons, including that 50% of my Top 100 Favorite “Famous” Guitarists are Female, that ranking blurs and morphs daily after #3, and that there are way more “Famous” players and styles I love than I know of or can fit. For each “Famous” player there are hundreds of not “Famous” players too! Many defied odds. “Famous” = they had top 100 Billboard hits with guitar (or a live, legacy, or YouTube equivalent).
Listen to the Top 100 Favorite Guitarists YouTube Playlist here
(I stop embedding videos mid-list to save load time)
Considering 96% of female musician respondents in this 2022 UK survey report being bullied, with 98% of Black Women, 98% of musicians with a disability, and 97% of folks identifying as a sexual minority, it was a happy surprise to find folks with these identities prevailing in my favorite guitar players over a century (Dr. Cassandra Jones, Kallia Manoussaki. "Bullying and Harassment in the Music Industry (BaHMI)." Royal Society of Edinburgh. May 2022). Bullying patterns are consistent in U.S. research too. So, these players overcame obstacles to deliver tunes - luckily for us.
*Note: I separate the art from the artist. Not all are kind folks. While I like their music, I do not endorse all of their behavior. I also combine entries to include more folks. I focus on 3ish subjective criteria:
2. Emotion/Expression (+ how much I listen)
3. Technical Skills
Listen to the Top 100 Favorite Guitarists YouTube Playlist here
Thanks and Enjoy!
Wishing you Love, Peace and Great Music in 2023! <3
*Post edited for clarity
Cover sketches by Megan Johns
Graphite on Paper
1. SISTER ROSETTA THARPE (1919-60s Rock)(“The Godmother of Rock and Roll” and key reason why the western world plays Rock - the genre she innovated - with electric guitars. She was a child guitar prodigy and innovator in New Orleans and Chicago Gospel churches, and later in clubs, and you can hear her style in just about everything after her. She predates Chuck Berry and millions later. She played the segregated south as a Queer Black Woman 100 years ago and then internationally in the 1950's-60's, heavily influencing British Rock and Blues (at least half a century before Madonna, as ‘She Bop’ author Lucy O’Brien notes). Can you imagine selling out a venue where you cannot legally use the restroom because of your skin color? It would be difficult to get more badass and Rock and Roll “Famous”-guitarist-wise than Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Favorites: live YouTube videos of “Up Above My Head,” “This Train,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Rock Me,” and compilation videos. I first learned of Tharpe as a child from my Rock History teacher Uncle Nate, and again later from the book, ‘She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop, and Soul’ by Lucy O’Brien, which I found in a free box on the street instead of in school where we all should have. I was privileged to hear her music. I did not see a picture or a video of her until years later though -or even know that those existed. There is a great documentary, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll” by Mick Csaky on YouTube.)(Les Paul)
Full Documentary, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll” by Mick Csaky:
'She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul' book by Lucy O'Brien:
2. JIMI HENDRIX (Jimi Hendrix Experience)(1960’s-70’s Psychedelic Rock, Blues)(Strat)(This guy lived 27 years and gave much music to the world. I was lucky to grow up with Jimi’s heavy, Psychedelic Blues Rock magic. He uniquely played his guitar left handed/upside down, and was ambidextrous. If I had to pick just one player on this list to listen to always, it would be Jimi. I am in agreement with many across the world that Jimi deserves the musical recognition he still receives. Favorites: “Crosstown Traffic,” “Hey, Joe,” “Voodoo Child,””Come On,””Foxy Lady,””Fire,””Red House,” “Purple Haze,” and many more!)
("Crosstown Traffic": my favorite!)
("Voodoo Child": Live in Maui 1970)
3. BRIAN MAY (Queen)(1970’s-80’s Rock)(He built his own guitar, The Red Special, with his dad when he was 14 in the ‘60s. He played it on iconic solos all his life; he really crafted an emotive sound. I gratefully grew up with it, and was 5 when I first saw the famous ‘Wayne’s World’ movie scene. That Bohemian Rhapsody solo is unparalleled. I loved that movie too. Favorites: Again, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” solo! “We Are The Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” and “Don’t Stop Me Now” are also favorites.)
(Brian May playing the "Bohemian Rhapsody" solo live)
("Bohemian Rhapsody" Full song: That solo at 2:37! One of the best pieces of music ever. Also the leads at 5:00.)
4. BILLY CORGAN (Smashing Pumpkins)(1980’s-Present Alternative Rock)(Strats, SG)(Corgan is underrated as a guitarist, soloist, and composer. Beautiful music. Creative, emotive, psychedelic, heavy, dynamic, influential, and skilled. SP has been my favorite band since I was 7.
A peak experience was seeing them live at 19, and also by random fortune, getting called from the back row of the Mezzanine to the front row by Billy Corgan. When he stopped the show saying, “YOU,” in my general direction, I first figured the head of my favorite band was about to publicly blast me for taking video clips with a camera (flip phone days). Instead, five of us migrated to the front row. Thank you, and please keep calling folks forward! There, Corgan’s creativity and skill were further apparent.
Once, I masqueraded as SP with my band, MoonWish, at hometown benefit, The Great Cover Up. I learned new things about both SP songs and gender roles there. Recommended endeavor! I still love every song on the “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”double disc, and other albums, 28 years later. Favorites: “Zero,” “Thru The Eyes of Ruby,” “Where Boys Fear To Tread,” “Cupid De Locke,” “Bodies,” “By Starlight,” “Porcelina,” “Love,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” “Here Is No Why,” “Siva,” many more. If you are seeking virtuosity, watch Corgan’s “Starla” solo.)
("Zero": Loved the heaviness and the guitar solo at 1:57 as a kid. Still love it nearly 30 years later.)
("Thru The Eyes Of Ruby": Another of many guitar heavy SP favs. Love it. Although, I feel the entirety of the “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” double disc should be listened to together!)
("Starla": Virtuosic soloing)
5. JUNE MILLINGTON (Fanny)(1969-70s Rock/Glam/Psychedelic)(’56 Gibson Les Paul, Les Paul Junior TV Special, J-50 acoustic)(According to her social media and Wikipedia, she formed bands in high school just after moving to the U.S. from the Philippines. Fanny had Top 100 Billboard hits in the 60’s. Bowie was among many famous fans. I prefer June’s groovy slide riffs, concise solos, and pedal choices to many of her contemporaries, and, in the social climate, she and her all-female band mates overcame many obstacles to be on stage. She was playing guitar at a time where unwed women could not obtain credit cards. Jim Crow laws had stopped being enforced only 4 years before. Millington reportedly talks about these challenges in her autobiography, Land of a Thousand Bridges: Island Girl in a Rock & Roll World (Vintage Guitar Magazine. Johnson).
Her playing melts into Fanny’s songs in a strong yet humble team player fashion. She also co-founded the Institute for the Musical Arts to help others. I found Fanny by accident as an adult on YouTube, but recognized the hits. I even accidentally walked into a rad guitar store named after this band before linking their music to them. I hear there is a Fanny documentary coming! Favorites: “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Place in the Country (Second Version),” “First Time,” “What Kind of Lover,” “Young and Dumb,” “Blind Alley,” “Borrowed Time,””Rock Bottom Blues,” “Cat Fever,” and “Bull Dog (Beatles Cover).”)
("Place In The Country": Fantastic live performance in 1971!)
("For The First Time": Awesome lead guitar lines 3:50 til the end.)
("Ain't That Peculiar" live song starts at 1:40. Great heavy riffs and a simple and delightful slide solo at 3:40.)
6. JOHNNY MARR (The Smiths, The The, The Healers)(1980’s Rock, Post Punk)(I was in middle school aged about 12-13 the first time I recall hearing Marr’s playing; my Uncle Nate threw on “This Charming Man” on vinyl. My hair rose and I instantly thought it was jump-out-of-your-seat-beautiful. I have synesthesia, and Marr’s unique playing makes me see, smell and feel vibrant colors of fall leaves twirling on a brisk day. I immediately asked what it was. Favorites: “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” “This Charming Man,” “How Soon Is Now,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and many more.)
("This Charming Man": Life altering guitar playing.)
("Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others": My favorite Smiths song.)
7. ROBERT SMITH (+ PEARL THOMPSON)(The Cure, The Glove)(1978-Present Goth Rock, Post-Punk, Alt Rock, New Wave)(Yes, combined! Robert is best known as a bassist, but he is also an awesome, underrated guitarist and writer of unique, jangly, atmospheric guitar parts, playing a Fender Jazzmaster, a Rickenbacker, Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, National Newport Val-Pro 88, a Japanese Epiphone, a 12 string guitar, his signature Schecter Ultra, and others in The Cure too (Mix Down Magazine and his music videos). I love his songs and guitar parts!
The Cure is one of my lifelong favorite bands. Pearl’s spooky styling on various Fenders, Hopf and Schecter guitars is a favorite too. Even though he is a virtuosic player when turned loose, Pearl pairs down his leads and riffs for the good of a Cure song (and maybe at Robert’s behest) with magical results. These two make rad sounds together. Love them. In high school, I had a Boys Don’t Cry poster found in my friend/early drummer Garrick Nelson’s basement at a band rehearsal, and I still have it. I have been Robert Smith playing a guitar for Halloween.
Favorites: dreamy, atmospheric, jangly, scrumptious riffs, leads and open rhythm on “Love Song,” “A Night Like This,” “Friday I’m in Love,” “A Forest,” “Just Like Heaven,” “One Hundred Years,” “Pictures of You,” “Lullaby,” “The Figurehead,” “Last Dance,” “A Short Term Effect,” “10.15 on a Saturday Night,” “Hot! Hot! Hot!,” and many more. I love the albums: “Faith,” “Pornography,” “Disintegration,” “The Head on the Door,” and tbh, all of them.)
("Friday I'm In Love")
("A Night Like This": maybe my favorite Cure song, but I have many. Love the guitar on this - and the sax)
("A Forest": watch Robert play guitar. There are quite a few good live 80's videos of him playing on YouTube.)
8. LITA FORD (Lita, Runaways)(70’s-90’s Glam Metal, Hard Rock, Metal)(B.C. Rich Warlock)(I love Lita Ford! Epic, heavy compositions and solos. She is iconic. Favorites: “The Ripper” (love the song, especially the epic solo at the end. One of my favorite solos ever.), ”Out For Blood,””Close My Eyes Forever”(Duet with Ozzy. Love the song and simple guitar lead at 2:45 that gets stuck in my head.) and “Falling In And Out Of Love.” I heard The Runaways and Lita’s music as a kid, and was actually unaware that Joan Jett’s lead guitarist (and entire band) was female until later in my teens. YouTube was not around until later, and images of young girls rocking electric guitars - like Joan Jett and Lita - were incredibly scarce, going against what I was culturally and explicitly told. Even searching for an image felt conceptually taboo - a proverbial ‘no no.’ So, I saw no pictures of Lita as a kid and did not know that she was playing the guitar parts when I heard her songs. I get the impression that Lita may have been the sole female electric guitarist she was aware of as a kid herself. And she killed it. I listen to Lita a lot!)
("Out For Blood" Music Video 1983. Great parts and soloing! Fun to get to see footage of her playing now.)
("Ripper": The solo starting around 3:30 is one of my favorite solos of all time! The whole song is great; the solo is brilliant.)
("Close My Eyes Forever": Duet with Ozzy. Love the lead line at 2:45! Could listen on repeat.)
9. NILI BROSH (Solo work, Danny Elfman, Cirque du Soleil, The Iron Maidens)(Contemporary Progressive Virtuosic Instrumental)(According to her Wikipedia and website, she is an Israeli-American player who has recorded with Danny Elfman, Cirque du Soleil, Jennifer Batton, and The Iron Maidens, to name a few, and she plays an Ibanez RG Prestige 7-stringer, with EMG pickups and a Peavy JSX amp (as evidenced in videos and recordings!). Love her music and listen to it all the time now. She delightfully melts dynamic, creative, multi-genre styles and sounds. So smooth. Found her as an adult online. Virtuosic fun! I love an Ibanez too. Favorites: the entire album, “Spectrum,” with Romani stylings, especially “Cartagena,” and “Andalusian Fantasy,” and electric songs,“The Spring Tune,” “Primal Feels,” “Silence of Saturday,” “Solace,” “Exit Strategy,” “Through The Looking Glass,” and “Adaptable Creatures.”)
("Primal Feels" Music Video: Love the hilarious video and Nili’s guitar parts. Her playing is virtuosic, multi-genre, and moving!)
("Andalusian Fantasy": Rad nylon string acoustic Romani stuff! There is an album where this came from!)
("The Spring Tune": My favorite song of hers live. Love how she transitions genres, gets metal, and the virtuosic solo and lead lines.)
10. PRINCE (70’s-2010’s Funk, Rock, R&B, Synth Pop, Soul)(Lovely blending of genres. Excellent player and very influential. Obvious choice to be high on any list. Favorite solos on: “When Doves Cry,” “Something In The Water,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” First remember recognizing Prince’s music at around 8 or 9.)
(Fun compilation of beautiful Prince solos)
JACKIE VENSON (Contemporary Blues, Psychedelic, Rock, Soul, Pop)(Strat)(Her albums “Joy” and “Love Transcends” are listed as best albums of 2019 and 2021 by Pop Magazine. I love her leads and solos for “Don’t Lie To Me,” “Love Transcends,” “I Will Find A Way,” and many more SO MUCH! Favorite songs: “Only Have You,” “Make Me Feel,” and “Surrender.” She also does production and beats as Jackie The Robot. In addition to her rad genre bending, I love her messaging too. Her music is joy!)
("Only Have You": My favorite song of her’s. Beautiful song, guitar parts and production!)
("Surrender": Another favorite. Awesome guitar leads.)
("Make Me Feel": Song starts at 0:47. Excellent songwriting and guitar playing. So good!)
JAN KUEHNEMUND (Vixen, Genis, Lemon Pepper)(1971-90’s Hard Rock/Metal)(LOVE her! Love her iconic, innovative 70’s-80’s riffs and over the top yet emotive metal solos on 1988’s “Cruisin,” “How Much Love,” and so many more!
Kuehnnemund was a prolific, virtuosic, badass metal player who did not get the recognition she should have relative to her contemporaries. I heard Vixen songs on the radio since childhood, and it did not register that these were all women playing until adulthood. Again, except for Joan Jett, there weren't images of women playing electric guitars growing up. Kuehnemund was a brilliant, creative, skilled player and she and Vixen made great music in the 80’s.)
DONITA SPARKS (L7 - an all female band Sparks co-founded)(1980’s-Present Punk, Grunge, Alt Metal)(Underrated, sludgy fun! “Bad Things” and “Pretend We’re Dead” were huge 90’s hits among many others. Sparks reportedly didn’t take shit from anyone onstage (there are some wild stories), and gives attitude and sass with her heavy, grungy, distorted, fuzzy, wah-y, genre bending, which makes her fun to watch in live videos. Amazing playing, creativity and energy. I enjoyed these heavy, grungy songs in passing as a teen but actually had no clue that women were behind them. My husband, Shannon, exposed me again as an adult. So good!)(Tele)
MARK MORTON + WILLIE ADLER (Lamb of God)(90’s-Present Thrash Metal)(I love Lamb of God. One of my all time favorite bands again. Love the combination of genres and styles in Metal. I started listening to them sometime around 2004, likely influenced by my childhood friend/band mate, Mike Arnold. Catchy riffs! Loved them right away and dig their accessible, multi-genre-influenced Metal. “Walk With Me In Hell” and "As the Palaces Burn" are favorites I view as pop songs via their accessibility.)(Jackson Dominion)
("Walk With Me In Hell": Fun song!)
DJANGO REINHART (1920’s-50’s Jazz, Romani)(He was missing 2 fingers on his left hand and wrote and performed some of the loveliest and most innovative guitar music I knew growing up - very fast. Who doesn’t love “Minor Swing”?)
TONINO BALIARDO + ALL GIPSY KINGS (Gipsy Kings)(70’s-Present Flemenco)(Love these layered guitar compositions so much! Also grew up with them. Love “Djobi Djoba,” “Bomboleo,” and everything they do. I used to rent library CDs of Gipsy Kings as a kid. Love them and listen to them regularly.)
("Bomboleo": My favorite Gipsy Kings song!)
JONNY GREENWOOD with THOM YORKE (Radiohead)(90’s-Present Alt Rock, Electronic)(Surprised Greenwood got this far down, because I love his emotive, experimental playing so much. I had a poster of him on my wall in the 90s, and if you asked me then, he was in my top 5 players. Favorite Greenwood: his work on the song, “Just,” especially the last 20 seconds of that song! I love all of his stuff with Radiohead. He is brilliant at unique yet glove-like-fit surprises. Thom Yorke must be included here too for his Radiohead guitar writing and unique tricksy experimental guitar elements. Greenwood and Yorke are lovely together.)(Teles, Fenders)
("Just": The last 20 seconds is one of my favorite solos / pieces of music EVER. Brilliant.)
STEVE VAI (Rock)(Ibanez guy! That “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (my favorite movie since I was a toddler!) solo and leads on Kiss’s “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” rules! That opening is just gorgeous and one of the first things that made me want to play guitar. It is one of my favorite things. I love Ibanez too. Smooth virtuosic player. Credit has to go to Ace Frehley and Kiss for this too, though I also decided to include them separately below!)
("God Gave Rock & Roll To You" by Kiss: Gotta be one of the radest guitar based songs ever. Sheesh!)
DAVID GILMORE (Pink Floyd)(70’s Rock)(Especially LOVE his iconic Solo on “Comfortably Numb”! I listened to this song and Pink Floyd albums over and over in middle school.)
("Comfortably Numb": If this guitar solo doesn't melt you, I can't imagine what can.)
3 members of THE BEATLES (1950s-Present Rock)(Yes, combining THE BEATLES!)
(PAUL MCCARTNEY for his amazing left-handed riffs, writing and solos on: “Let Me Roll It,” (Paul McCartney + Wings 1973), “Taxman,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “PaperBack Writer,” and "Helter Skelter" a 1968 metal song, among others!
GEORGE HARRISON especially for “And I Love Her” and his parts on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.
JOHN LENNON wrote and played solos on many beautiful guitar-based songs (“Come Together,” “Across The Universe,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” etc.). Lennon also wrote some very sexist and violent songs. Like many, I appreciate that Lennon sings about working to be better and striving for a kinder world though. The Beatles are universal favorites! I grew up *immersed* in this music 24/7 from birth like many do.
I love RINGO too, but he is the drum focused and this is a guitar list. Though he did write "Octopus's Garden."
I LOVE The Beatles' music. Together and solo! LOVE THEM. I know it is egregious for them to be this far down, but remember, the order of my favorites changes daily and is irrelevant. Most people on earth know and love The Beatles. We could be h