We Wanted to Talk More About Badass Guitarists, So…

I am not going to write an article diminishing three of the most accomplished female guitarists as leadership of the women’s coalition for equal rights in music. This is not an essay on the women of rock ‘n’ roll’s past present and future; this is not a hackneyed tribute to the strides made for women who were the object of affection and became the center of attention. This is not a reduction to the differences in playing style, lyrical composition and tone dissection. This is not an evening with the best and the brightest or a double ex war on men.

This is a summit on the most badass of guitarists. This is a profile about the woman who doesn’t just dare to release an album of thrash, but who owns its 31-word title. It’s an expose on the woman who calls herself Saint but she’s no more saint than victim. This piece also includes Sleater-Fucking-Kinney. This is a biography on not all women, not all guitarists, but a sampling of the best of the recent past and near future.

Photo by Kiernan Maletsky

Photo by Kiernan Maletsky

Marnie Stern’s second album is what happens when the most manic drummer and the most technically proficient modern tapper in the world say go and don’t stop for 40 minutes. The result? This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That. This is an album of such unadulterated paranoia that it would sound silly had her debut album not have been called In Advance of the Broken Arm. Well, Stern wants to break your face this time around. Marnie Stern is not out to prove that she belongs by way of spastic time signatures and conked-out verisimilitude, but God dammit see her live; you don’t need a beard to cover the shock and awe emanating from her stage face. Check out: “Prime” and “The Crippled Jazzer” from This Is It and for God’s sake, and I can’t make this stuff up: “Female Guitar Players are the New Black” from her third record, titled for the apocalypse, Marnie Stern.

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And for another artist heavily influenced by the end of the world, we’ll describe Annie Clark as the Patron Saint of Fuck You. Happily removing her sex from the music, Clark records under the moniker St. Vincent, not because of wrongful, but expected pigeonholing, but because her music stands alone in its own right. Her first album, Marry Me (yes, borrowed from “Arrested Development”) starts with an insurgent glistening of harmonic chords opening up into the lyrics:

I’m not your mother’s favorite dog

I’m not the carpet you walk on

I’m not one small atomic bomb

I’m not anything at all

(“Now, Now” from Marry Me, 2007.)

It’s a declaration of independence and a self-depreciating humor/non-humor that props this album up from start to finish. St. Vincent’s grown tremendously since this first release. Her most recent record, 2011’s Strange Mercy, hones her guitar sound; it’s her most technically proficient album, both lyrically and musically. The goal is for lyrical provenance and a sexual/non-sexual urgency, but she’s not obtuse and she’s not pontificating. Driving the songs forward, and thus the theme are small riffs–two bars at most–that help define the sound. See: “Surgeon,” “Cruel,” and “Neutered Fruit.”

Photo by Tina Tyrell

It’s impossible to make it through an article on women in rock ‘n’ roll without mentioning the important/not-defining role of Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill. I say important because this movement brought together the intersection of the important third-wave feminist movement with the baddassery of female musicians; I say non-defining because the music is astonishing in its own right and much like classifying the person before instrument, it reduces the movement to a rather effective stunt.

Much like Marnie Stern and Annie Clark are not just women who rock, but rockers in their own right, Sleater-Kinney and its gang of unfuckwithable women are a good band first and women by definition second. The band’s most accessible album, The Woods, not to be mistaken for where a bear shits, was also their last album as a group and a culmination of what it means to have rocked. In this band, unlike with Stern and with Clark, three women kicked ass at the mic, on the drums and with a guitar. Carrie Brownstein, who now has a leading role on IFC’s “Portlandia” with Fred Armisen, played a jazzy lead for 10 years and especially on The Woods.Rollercoaster” blazes from 0:01 to 4:56 and stumbles into “Steep Air,” where a wave of feedback and enhanced vocals tell you that these chicks are still not fuckin’ around. Or, take 1997’s Dig Me Out: a blazingly demonstrative album of prowess from rockers–not from ladies. Just go listen to the title track and tell me your face was still on.

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These three acts are the tip of the iceberg into badassery in rock ‘n’ roll. Zero out of three artists mentioned above are indicative of the whole of the music industry, nor are they singled out for anything other than a sliver of what it means to be spanked by the hand of the guitar gods. If there’s one thing we as an audience need to do is to simultaneously take the sex out and leave it in as a remembrance of the not-so-distant past and as an indicator of the not-so-near future of music. If we can’t come to an agreement of the minds that we should honor the best of the best occasionally, then there need be no more discourse. And that’s a Kim Deal.




  1. Very intereting article on badass female guitarists.
    The UK music scene has quite a few up and coming female guitarist, but there is one than stands out from the crowd. Not your usual leather clad rock chick trying to take on the boys at their own game. This one is unique. When you see this little girl walk on stage in her bare feet wearing some pretty prom dress, you think “bet she can’t play guitar”. But, when, with a sweet smile and cheeky “hello”, she launches into her first number, jaws drop open around the room. Whilst her roots are in the Blues, her music crosses most genres, from heavy rock to soft acoustics. Please check her out, I am fairly certain you will not be disappointed. Here are some videos of her in action

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