Recently, I posted a question on social media welcoming feedback from electric blues guitarists asking what is their “go-to” electric guitar for playing the blues. I received a lot of great feedback. It was actually a variety pack. Everything from Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters to Gibson Les Pauls and 335 hollow-body guitars, Gretsch hollow-body electrics, and some additional brands and styles made the list. There was even the occasional comment, “that’s not a blues guitar.” Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
As I was formulating this article, I decided to focus on female blues electric guitar players and discuss a few that have had a direct impact and influence on me, as a guitarist playing this genre of music. Like many female guitarists, I grew up listening to an all-star lineup of male guitar players. In the blues genre, the three “Kings” made the cut- B.B., Albert, and Freddie. And lots of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
However, my introduction to the female arena of blues guitarists started with, of course, Bonnie Raitt with her Fender Strat and supreme slide-playing skills. As I was progressing and digging deeper into the genre, Memphis Minnie, on her National Archtop, slid into the picture and my listening space. I was a rocker at heart, but I always had an interest in the blues. My early days on the guitar had me studying and playing jazz standards. I bounced all over the place stylistically. In my musical journey, I also played and acquired many electric guitars along the way. You can read about my Gear Acquisition Syndrome in our January 2018 edition.
I had the good fortune in my early 20s of receiving an invitation to work with an all-female blues project. Here I was, the female rocker, walking in with a Kramer Pacer American electric guitar and some rock-dominant guitar effect pedals. It’s pretty funny now, reflecting back on that experience. They welcomed me with open arms. And after jamming, they sent me homeward bound with a lot of cool music to listen to and woodshed with. They had me listening to powerhouse Debbie Davies who plays a Fender Stratocaster; Guitar Woman Sue Foley, a Texas blues Fender Telecaster guitarist; and Susan Tedeschi, a blues rock Fender Telecaster guitarist. Of course, all these women were prolific songwriters and vocalists, in addition to their gifted guitar chops.
Immersing myself in their music made me realize I had to rethink my approach completely. I had played many blues tunes over the years, but now it was time to really strip it down and dissect the style and approach. First, phrasing. Second, my vibrato. Third, my sound. What effects I was using, amplifier, and so on. Fourth, revisiting and expanding upon rhythm technique. And last, working on that never-ending obsession– the ultimate guitar tone. I decided my 40th Anniversary Fender Strat would be a good fit to woodshed with.
The all-female blues project was good for me in so many ways. I had already played in country, pop, folk, and rock projects. Playing the blues tapped deeper into my soul. I was fortunate, after that, to continue to get opportunities to play and work with some really gifted blues musicians. They challenged me and encouraged me to grow in my craft. Additionally, partaking in blues jams and blues society functions continued to enlighten me in the genre and all the talent in the blues. I attended festivals, catching regional and nationally known artists perform in Texas, Chicago, and West Coast blues. The blues scene is one big family. And the music enthusiasts that go to the festivals, club dates, and partake in the blues cruises are very loyal and devoted in their love and appreciation of the genre.
I’ve caught many great shows over the years. The late Deborah Coleman comes to mind. What a force this woman was on stage, wailing on her Gibson Les Paul. Powerful entertainer! Deborah and I corresponded a bit over the years. She was always humble and incredibly supportive. Deborah was truly an inspiration as a performer and female blues guitarist. The blues community lost an amazing artist.
Carolyn Wonderland, who plays Texas blues, roots, and Americana typically on a Fender Telecaster, is another amazing artist. I caught one of her shows a few years ago when she was passing through town. Simply mesmerizing! She is a true force performing with her power trio. A true road warrior touring nonstop.
Laura Chavez used to tour with the late Candye Kane. One of Laura’s axes is a red Fender Stratocaster. The night I caught up with her, she was playing straight into a Fender Bassman amp. I was completely blown away. After the show, we chatted about her setup. And Candye Kane was her usual- she gave a 100% performance. Candye was always cool to me. She remains forever in my heart and mind, the toughest girl alive.
As the years have progressed, so many female guitarists have entered the blues arena. Ana Popovic playing her beloved Fender ’57 and ’64 Fender Reissue Stratocasters. Samantha Fish, breaking out with the Blues Caravan, playing her Delaney Signature Tele-style electric. British blues rock guitarist and singer Joanne Shaw Taylor playing a Fender Telecaster. And blues rock guitarist, Kelley Richey, typically seen playing a Fender Strat.
What once seemed rare and obscure now is reality. There are so many female blues guitarists making their rounds. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know this. It’s an exciting time in music for women in blues.
These are my closing thoughts. Yes, it seems Fender and Gibson are head of the pack for “go-to” electrics in playing the blues. But, I feel, at the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. What enables you to capture that sound is what you’re looking for. What is comfortable to you, the player. All guitar players have their favorite axe. Blues is telling a story, capturing that emotion, be it joyful or sad. It’s an extension of you, the player. It’s a touch, finesse, in how you articulate the notes in a song. It can be simple, repetitive, an infectious riff or hook, or a scorching, climactic guitar solo. A rhythm you just have to move to.
The blues is in every style of music and lives on. I’m also excited to see and hear today’s up-and-coming talent in the blues genre. Play on.