Wednesday night’s (March 18) episode of “American Idol” featured perhaps the best musical performances of this season. Ke$ha and 3OH!3 blew everybody away with the spectacle that was “Blah Blah Blah” and David Cook delivered a soul-filled, extra-loud performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But the pleasant surprise of the night came care of Orianthi, the former Michael Jackson guitarist who dropped her latest album Believe and scored a hit with “According to You.”
Orianthi represents something of an endangered species in today’s rock landscape: A truly badass female guitarist. Wednesday night’s performance (along with her greater body of work, especially in “Michael Jackson’s This Is It”) slides her into the list of the 10 best female guitarists of all time. Who else is on there? Glad you asked.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding the release of “The Runaways,” but there would probably be no Joan Jett without Suzi Quatro, who ground out fantastic anthems in the early ’70s but really came into her own around 1980 when she released Rock Hard. Always more popular in Europe than in the United States, Quatro could absolutely shred (and still does).
Both guitarists in Sleater-Kinney are pretty accomplished players, but the slight edge goes to Brownstein because she always seemed to really attack her instrument. Brownstein could make any riff sound like a buzzsaw, but as S-K’s final album The Woods proved, she was also capable of more complicated work.
Hardly incendiary but definitely revolutionary, Raitt not only took on the male-dominated country establishment but also went toe-to-toe in the picking, plucking and strumming game. There are only a handful of women who have managed to make an impression playing a bluesier style of guitar, but Raitt ranks among the greats.
New York native Stern has made a name for herself on the independent circuit via two excellent albums (2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm and 2008’s 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), but she makes the list because she’s not afraid to show off her speedy digits. Her finger-tapping style conjures pleasant memories of Eddie Van Halen, and is there any better association for a six-string player?
Joan Jett may be the Runaways guitarist that gets all the accolades, but don’t sleep in Lita Ford. Her work in the seminal girl band is amazingly sharp, varied and violent, and her re-invention as a glam metal star lead to some killer playing on some great songs (most notably “Kiss Me Deadly”). Ford was always able to hang with dudes in hair metal bands, and considering that era was perhaps the most chauvinistic musical movement in history, that’s really saying something.
In the early ’90s, Donnelly managed to channel classic rock, alt-rock and riot grrrl sensibilities into her feisty, adroit work for bands like Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders. Just listen to both the savagery of the Breeders’ “Iris” and the psychedelic grace of Belly’s “Gepetto” for proof of her versatility.
OK, so she primarily plays bass. But as by far the greatest female bassist of all time (with apologies to Gail Greenwood and Sean Yseult), the veteran Sonic Youth members earns a spot on the list. Plus, how can you deny the power of “Bull in the Heather”?
Polly Jean Harvey’s style goes more for visceral simplicity than complicated runs, but make no mistake: She can shred when she needs to. The songs on her 1993 album Rid of Me show off her rugged style (exposed completely by the no-frills production of Steve Albini). “50 Ft. Queenie” remains a triumph of both songwriting and axe playing.
The natural heir to the throne of Jett, Dalle’s incendiary work with the Distillers is some of the best, rawest rawk recorded in the last 10 years. Her work with Spinnerette has been even more progressive, further showing off Dalle’s adroit fingers.
Who did we forget? Let us know in the comments!