WomenGuitarists Offer a Unique Voice in Fingerstyle Guitar
A Look at WomenGuitarists - Contemporary and Historical.
Some people think of the guitar as a man's instrument. But that's really not true. WomenGuitarists have been some of the guitars most influential players, both historically and currently.
This page is meant as an introduction to some of the great fingerstyle Women Guitarists. Taking time to learn more about these women and to hear their playing will benefit your own playing, regardless of gender.
Mrs. Sidney Pratten
One of the most influential of the early WomenGuitarists was Mrs. Sidney Pratten. She was born Catherina Pelzer in 1821 in Germany. Her father was Ferdinand Pelzer, a leading German guitarist.
Young Catherina played her first concert in London when she was only 7 years old. As she became older, she continued to play concerts and inspired many people to take up the guitar. She also became an in demand guitar teacher. Catherina married Sidney Pratten who was a renowned British flautist. She began to perform using her married name of Mrs. Sidney Pratten.
Mrs. Pratten realized that many people wanted to play the guitar, but didn't have the time or inclination to really study it. Understanding this, she put together several guitar courses that were very easy for beginners. In fact, one of the courses had color coded notes.
Because of these courses, Mrs. Pratten helped many people to learn to play the guitar and this helped make it more popular. This makes her one of the guitar's most influential WomenGuitarists.
Another influential player in this group of WomenGuitarists was Vahdah Olcott-Bickford (born Ethel Lucretia Olcott). She was born in Ohio in 1885 and began studying the guitar at the age of 8. At the age of 9 yrs, after moving to Los Angeles, she met George Lindsey. Lindsey sold guitars and accessories. Through him she met Manuel Ferrer.
The Mexico born Ferrer, who lived in the Los Angeles area, was a internationally renowned musician. Olcott-Bickford lived with the Ferrer family for a year, having daily lessons with Manuel.
As a young adult Olcott-Bickford moved to New York, playing concerts and giving lessons. She eventually met and lived with the Vanderbilt family, giving lessons to Mrs. Vanderbilt and her daughter Cornelia. It was during this period, the 1910's, that she became involved with astrology and changed her name to Vahdah.
The newly named Vahdah met and married Myron Bickford, composer and musician, in 1915. They moved to Los Angeles in 1923 and were instrumental in forming what became known as the American Guitar Society.
Over the course of Olcott-Bickfords lifetime she wrote 160 operas and over 500 other pieces. She was a huge influence on her many students and the guitar playing public in general.
The Twentieth Century
The twentieth century has seen some tremendous WomenGuitarists. These players include Memphis Minnie, Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Del Rey, Mary Flower and Muriel Anderson. The two common denominators are their gender and their individualism.
The woman that the world came to know as Memphis Minnie was born in Algiers, La. in 1897. She moved to Walls, Ms., which is about 20 miles from Memphis, while still a young child.
Minnie recieved her first guitar when she was around 10-11 years old. It wasn't very long after getting that guitar that Minnie began playing on the streets in Memphis.
Like many other musicians of the era, Memphis Minnie played anywhere that there was a chance to make a little money. This could be a street corner, medicine show or house party. She would sometime play solo, but also played in duos. Her duo playing was usually with another guitar player.
One of these partners was Willie Brown, of Future Blues fame. Her other duo partners included each of her 3 husbands - Casy Bill Weldon, Joe McCoy, and Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars.
Memphis Minnie had a long recording career, beginning with 1929's Bumble Bee Blues. Her last recording was made in 1949. Minnie's performing career lasted even longer, lasting until the late 1950's when she began to have health problems.
Minnie's playing style evolved over the course of her career. Her earliest work has her playing the bass, treble and rhythm parts of the songs. Later in her career, as she began to play with larger groups, her playing became more single string oriented. Some of this was a reflection of the instruments that she played.
Some of her earliest work was on a National resonator guitar. As electric guitars began to develop, she began to use them. There are several photos showing her playing a National archtop guitar with pickup.
After years of declining health, Memphis Minnie passed away in 1973. This icon in the world of WomenGuitarists is still being studied today.
Visit Del Rey's great site for more about Memphis Minnie
Elizabeth Cotten was one of the most influential WomenGuitarists of the 1960's folk boom. Her discovery was almost accidental.
Elizabeth Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills in 1895. She grew up in the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Her parents and brothers and sisters were musical and so was young "Libba". She was able to buy her own guitar when she was 11 years old and began writing songs on it almost as soon as she got it.
Young Libba was left handed. To play the right handed guitar that she'd bought, she simply turned it upside down. This let her fret with her right hand, but it reversed the order of the strings. The larger bass strings were at the bottom and the treble strings were at the top.
When she was 15 years old she married a man named Frank Cotten. Elizabeth and Frank soon had a daughter, who they named Lillie. After the birth of Lillie, Elizabeth quit playing the guitar. She didn't pick it up again until 25 years later.
By the mid 1950's Cotten was living in the Washington, D.C. area. She began working for the Charles Seeger family helping to care for their four children. The children's grandfather was Pete Seeger and the whole family was very musical. While working for the Seegers, Elizabeth began playing guitar again.
One of the children, Mike, had a reel-to-reel player. He recorded Cotten in her own home and turned these recordings into a record. This record, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, introduced her music to the public. She began playing shows with Mike Seeger and became very well known. Her emergence as a recording artist coincided with the increasing popularity of folk music.
Libba began playing shows with prominent folk and blues musicians. Her song Freight Train became extremely popular and was recorded by a wide range of people.
She continued touring and recording until she was in her 80's. Mrs. Cotten passed away at the age of 92 in Syracuse, NY.
Elizabeth Cotten is noteworthy in this listing of WomenGuitarists. Her recordings and those of people who covered her songs influenced generations of guitaists.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a vocal and guitar powerhouse. Her dynamic singing and playing reflected a talented person who spent her life perfecting her craft.
Sister Tharpe's mother was a preacher. She also played mandolin and sang. Sister Tharpe, then going by her given name of Rosetta Nubin, began to accompany her mother when only 4 years old. They played at tent revivals throughout the American South.
In 1920 the family moved to Chicago. Little Rosetta continued to play gospel music at church, but began playing blues and jazz at home. She married Thomas Thorpe in 1934 and moved to New York In 1938 she did her first recording as a "Girl Singer" with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra.
The Millinder recording had both sacred and secular songs on it. Her sacred music fans were outraged by the secular material, but the secular material earned her new fans. She began appearing at the more prominent venues in NYC.
Sister Tharpe (a mis-spelling of Thorpe that she adopted) was able to continue recording during World War II. It was on a 1944 recording, Strange Things Happening Everyday, that her guitar playing was first featured.
Rosetta's popularity continued to grow after WWII. She had partnered up with vocalist Marie Knight and they'd had several hit recordings in the sacred music field.
In the early 1950's they had recorded several blues songs. These new recordings angered their old fans, and their popularity started to fade. Ms. Knight continued with the secular music, but Sister Rosetta returned to gospel music. For some fans, Tharpe's return to sacred music came too late. She never regained the level of popularity that she'd once had.
She toured England in the mid-'60's as part of a blues package show. In 1970 she had a stroke and lost the use of her legs. Another stroke in '73 caused her death.
Much of Tharpe's recorded work was done on electric guitar. There's at least one photograph of her playing a National resophonic guitar too. Like many other guitarists of her time, though, as soon as electric guitars were available she began to play them.
Her playing style relied on a plastic thumbpick along with her first 2 fingers. It sounds like she primarily used an open tuning on her guitars. These tunings all sound like they're tuned to a major chord, like open D.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a truly unique artist in this collection of WomenGuitarists. She played and sang with incrdible energy and vigor and helped lay the groundwork for what became rock 'n roll.
Next in our group of WomenGuitarists is Liona Boyd. She is known as the First Lady of the Guitar. A Canadian of Spanish ancestry, Boyd has been instrumental in spreading the classical guitar.
Liona was born in London in 1949 and, with her family, emigrated to Canada when she was 8 years old. At 13 she began to learn to play the guitar.
When she was 16 years old she had a life changing event. She saw Julian Bream in concert. At that point she knew that she would dedicate herself to the classical guitar.
As a teenager she showed so much promise that she was able to study with both Bream and Andre Segovia, among others. She studied guitar at the University of Toronto and received her Bachaleor of Arts degree in Performance. Since then Boyd has received several honorary degrees including a doctorates from the University of Toronto and the University of Victoria.
Liona Boyd has performed concerts all over the world and received virtually every honor that's given a classical guitarist. She is a strong example of what a focused, hard working person can achieve. Because of this she is a great role model for not only women guitarists, but for all guitarists.
Another example of Liona Boyd's strength and love of the guitar is shown in her current activities. In 2003 she was diagnosed with Task Specific Focal Dystonia.
This is an incurable neurological disease. It has caused her to lose some of the function in her right hand.
Because of this loss of ability in her picking hand, Liona has quit giving both classical guitar concerts and recording.
But this doesn't mean that she's given up recording and performing on the guitar. She is now concentrating on songwriting and singing. In 2009 she made two new recordings which focused on these skills. Sings Songs of Love was made with guitarist Srdjan Givoje and is a collection of guitar/vocal songs.
You can learn more about this talented member of the WomenGuitarists club here.
Muriel Anderson's playing is world class. By combining elements of classical, folk, jazz, and bluegrass, she has created a unique voice, not just among WomenGuitarists, but all guitarists.
Muriel was born into a musical family in Downers Grove, Ill. in 1960. Her mother was a piano teacher and there was always music in the house. Muriel began playing guitar when she was 8 years old. She had an early interest in folk and bluegrass music and played in the her high school jazz band.
After graduating from high school, she attended DePaul University and studied classical guitar. She was also able to participate in Master Classes that were taught by Christopher Parkening.
Anderson has gone on to have a very successful career as a solo guitarist. She has released 15 different recordings and serves on Mel Bay's Advisory Board. In 1989 she won the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship, becoming that competitions only female winner.
Muriel organized and hosts Muriel Anderson's All-Star Guitar Night. This event features the top players in the fingerstyle guitar world. While it's roster of guests is primarily male, some great WomenGuitarists have performed too.
Anderson has also embraced the harp guitar. She is creating some great music on this early 20th century invention.
Del Rey is one of the top WomenGuitarists touring today. Her combination of killer guitar playing, fashion sense and humor make for a total original.
She began playing the guitar when she was 4 years old. As a teenager, Del came under the influence of Sam Chatmon and WomenGuitarists role model, Memphis Minnie. The discovery of these artists caused her to begin to develop a more blues and ragtime based style.
Since 1993 Rey has released 5 CDs as well as a couple of instructional DVDs. Her DVD-Boogie Woogie Guitar is a great introduction on how to play her piano based guitar style.
She frequently works in a duo with guitarist/mandolinist Steve James, as well as a couple of other musical aggregations. You can find out more about this dynamic musician by visiting her website.
Another of our terrific WomenGuitarists is Mary Flower. She began playing guitar as a child in Lafayette, Indiana. While a teenager, Mary heard blues mandolinist/vocalist Yank Rachell and this sparked her interest in the blues.
In 1972 she moved to Denver, which would be her home for the next 32 years. While living in Denver she played with folksinger Katy Moffett as well as solo.
Flower also received a Fellowship from the Colorado Council on Arts and Humanities.
Mary Flower has been a guitar teacher for most of her career. This has come in the form of a formal classroom setting, at music camps, and private lessons.
Flower also placed in the top 3 at The National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in both 2000 and 2003. She was the only one of the WomenGuitarists in the competition who have placed in the top 3.
Mary moved to Portland in 2004 and has made that her home base. From there she tours internationally presenting concerts and workshops. You can look here to find out more about Mary Flower.
These are just a few of the WomenGuitarists who have created the dynamic music that we enjoy today. As gender lines continue to be erased, WomenGuitarists will play an even bigger role in the world of fingerstyle guitar.