I just created an iTunes playlist titled “Frontwomen in Rock” inspired by Samantha Fish’s recent live performance in Ft. Lauderdale, where she was opening for Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But it’s a very small playlist because I have narrow criteria:
- The frontwoman is the lead singer.
- The frontwoman is the lead guitarist.
- The frontwoman is the principle songwriter.
So I’m not thinking of your usual frontwomen — singer only, or singer and rhythm or bass guitar, or singer and piano player. I’ve excluded quite a few important women with this criteria: Janis Joplin and Patti Smith were primarily singers; Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett were rhythm guitarists; Suzi Quattro plays bass guitar; Tracy Chapman and many others acoustic. I’m looking for women equivalents to Jimi Hendrix, Pat Travers, Ted Nugent, Rick Derringer, etc. My list is, sadly, very short. So far, I have…
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, called by NPR “the godmother of rock and roll.” She’s near the top of many lists for the first rock guitarist and as the, or an, inventor of rock and roll. I included selections from her compilation album The Gospel of the Blues, excluding some of her big band songs. She did write a number of her own songs, but many writing credits for many musicians from her era and genre are “trad.”, not too different from Dylan’s early albums.
Lita Ford, Lita, 1988. Lita Ford first gained national recognition as the lead guitarist for the Runaways. Her 1988 glam metal album Lita was her third solo album and her biggest seller — her only platinum album and, in fact, her only album to receive any kind of certification. The album had some great props, starting with producer Mike Chapman, who produced hit albums for the Knack, Blondie, Suzi Quattro, and The Sweet, in addition to guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Nikki Sixx, and Lemmy. It’s great 80s’ metal.
P.J. Harvey’s second album, 1993’s Rid of Me, is a searing, guitar-based rock and punk album from the period before her switch to more radio friendly electronica. Harvey plays all stringed instruments on this album except for bass guitar — which covers not only lead guitar but cello and violin, and she also plays the organ. This album is one of my all time favorites just because of her cover of Dylan’s “Highway 51 Revisited,” which is all power, thrash, and noise. It’s not just punk. It’s punk folk. I first learned of P.J. Harvey while working on the book Rock and Romanticism: Post Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms. Catherine Girodet contributed chapter 9, which covers the P.J. Harvey albums To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?
My next pick is St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album, released in 2014. I selected this album because St. Vincent is the sole guitarist. One idea that didn’t surface until the Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism virtual book launch was that St. Vincent, along with Jack White, is one of the two most important guitarists recording today. I didn’t think of it until the moment the words were coming out of my mouth, but once I said them, I realized they were strongly felt. St. Vincent is a remarkably innovative guitarist whose guitar work demonstrates a deep commitment to extending the compositional range of that instrument.
My latest addition is Sue Foley‘s The Ice Queen (2018). It’s not her latest, but it has a large number of her own original compositions, which her newest album, Pinky’s Blues (2021), does not — but I included her three compositions from that album on this playlist. She’s a great Canadian blues guitarist and vocalist currently based, I think, in Texas. This album features guest appearances by Jimmy Vaughan and Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. Top, and she plays a very cool pink Telecaster.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Samantha Fish’s most recent album, Faster (2021). She’s the reason I made this list. I recently saw her open for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and as long as I’ve been a fan of KWS (about 20 years now), Samantha Fish may have him beat. She certainly gave him a run for his money. She’s a great blues and blues rock guitarist, but her most recent album sees her branching out into other genres, expanding the range of her writing and guitar work. If you like St. Vincent, you should check out Samantha Fish’s new album. I won’t say her music is like St. Vincent’s — just that she leans in that direction with a stronger commitment to the blues.
That’s my list. Six women long. Any suggestions? If you liked this discussion check out the Bookstore for some great books about rock and women in rock.