March is Women’s History Month – and we’re celebrating some groundbreaking, genre-defining, guitar pioneers who have perfected the craft – from singer-songwriters to experimental sound makers.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
With a powerhouse voice and innovative electric guitar solos, Sister Rosetta Tharpe blazed a trail for rock music in the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes called the “Godmother of rock and roll”, Tharpe was one of the original great recording stars of gospel music, and one of the first recording artists to use distortion on her guitar. She was born in Arkansas in 1915 and started performing gospel music with her mother at age six. At 23, she signed with British label Decca Records and released songs like “Rock Me” and “That’s All”. Her gospel music also was loved by rhythm and blues and rock and roll audiences, influencing Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard, among many others.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
You can find tabs for her songs “This Train”, “Up Above My Head”, and “Rock Me” in the Fret Zealot app. Download the Fret Zealot app to try them out!
Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell has had a prolific career, starting as a folk performer and branching off into pop, rock, and jazz. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada and contracted polio at nine years old. While she was hospitalized, she entertained the other patients by singing, and later taught herself guitar. Mitchell’s compositions feature creative open tunings. According to Sweetwater.com, Mitchell’s childhood bout with the disease weakened her left hand, and open tuning allowed her to more easily play chords. Her use of open tuning was also influenced by country blues performers.
She has won nine Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
Search the Fret Zealot app to find and learn her songs, including “A Case of You”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, and “Both Sides Now”.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, born in North Carolina in 1895, didn’t record her first album until she was 62 – more than half a century after she taught herself to play guitar and banjo. She would secretly borrow her brother’s instruments when she could, flipping them to play left-handed. She created a unique style of playing – simultaneously plucking the bass line while playing the melody on the higher strings. The technique later became known as “Cotten style”.
Cotten’s music – including her song “Freight Train”, which she wrote before her teenage years, was beloved by the folk revival moment in the 1960s, and she toured and performed up until her death in 1987. She won a Grammy for her live album in 1985, and her songs have been covered by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, among many other artists.
You can find tabs for her songs “Freight Train”, “Wilson Rag”, and more in the Fret Zealot app. Download the app to try them out!
Annie “St. Vincent” Clark
Annie Clark – known by her stage name “St. Vincent”, started playing guitar at age 12 and spent some time during her teen years as a roadie for her aunt and uncle’s jazz group. She played with Sufjan Stevens’ touring band in 2006 before embarking on her solo career, releasing her debut album in 2007. The former Berklee College of Music student does anything but play it safe when it comes to her guitar playing – she uses effects, angular riffs, and creative playing of open strings on certain tabs to make her sound unique. Dweezil Zappa has compared her playing style to his late dad, Frank’s.
You can find tabs for her songs “Birth in Reverse”, “Paris is Burning”, “These Days”, and more in the Fret Zealot app. Download the app to try them out!
Multi-instrumentalist Yvette Young conjures up a variety of sounds from her guitar using fingerstyle and tapping techniques – both in her math-rock band Covet and her solo project. Her keyboard-like playing style was influenced by her years of playing piano at the age of four.
You can find tabs for her songs “Acoustic Lullaby”, “Blossom”, and more in the Fret Zealot app. Download the app to try them out!
One-half of Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, Gabriela Quintero brings her flamenco guitar alive with rhythmic strumming and playing percussion on the guitar body. The two have been playing professionally since 2000. They received a Grammy in 2020 for their fifth album, and played at the White House during Pres. Barack Obama’s administration.
Check out the Fret Zealot app to find and learn songs by Rodrigo y Gabriela.
Ten-time Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt started her musical journey at age eight when she was given a guitar for Christmas. According to the musician’s website, while attending college at Harvard, she played blues and slide guitar at local coffeehouses before leaving to play music full-time. She plays with her slide on her second finger, which allows her to switch between rhythm and slide playing.
Raitt has won ten Grammy awards and was given the Grammy Lifetime Award in 2021.
You can find tabs for her songs “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, “Used to Rule the World” and more in the Fret Zealot app. Download the app to try them out!
If this list has you inspired to pick up a guitar, you can find hundreds of songs and courses through Fret Zealot and learn to play guitar with light.