Girls and Guitars

By Jo Phillips

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Is there anything cooler than girls and their guitars? Forget the image in your mind of a golden-haired harvest deity gently strumming her acoustic guitar in a clearing, and instead go to YouTube and search for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They call her the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And so will you, after you’ve heard her blistering flurries of electricity burst through the speakers in That’s All, or the sweet guitar-infused gospel of There Are Strange Things Happening Every Day. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is cool.

But she’s hardly the only cool girl with a guitar. Patti Smith tore it up on Horses more than forty years ago with the instantly legendary album. PJ Harvey beats you down with a melody that drags itself across the asphalt on bruised knees and elbows on Down by the River, telling the story of a mother who drowns her daughter. Or on This is Love, how dependency on love can break us, over the guitar’s pained howling.


Smith and Harvey are justly celebrated, but this is far too often an exception. Tharpe wasn’t inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until last year. The first great recording star of gospel music, wearing a rhinestoned white gown, playing the guitar as though she had sold her soul for it – can you imagine anything more rock ‘n’ roll?

What about Viv Albertine, who describes herself as an ‘unpleasant woman’ (what punk rocker wouldn’t be) and played guitar for The Slits? She had a magnificent career in a band that came to define the post-punk landscape in the UK – and in a moment that can only be described as punk, she defaced a blurb on the history of punk rock in the British Library in 2016. She crossed out Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Buzzcocks, and scrawled in the margins, to replace them: The Slits, X-Ray Spex, and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Sick and tired of the erasure of female punk rock, she wrote, ‘what about the women!!’ Rock ‘n’ roll, pure and undistilled.

They were unapologetically being themselves, projecting their attitude through their music, creating something amazing. They made music that was uncompromisingly their own. And you can really tell. So where does that leave us now? If we’re looking for girls with guitars, are we stuck looking back at the past, remembering old legends? Of course not. There is a whole new generation tearing the establishment to pieces for trying to police them.


Izzy B. Phillips, frontwoman of Black Honey, approaches her songs like she approaches her journal; scribbling down her thoughts, jumbling up her writing with drawings. They are raw, honest, and still tender – an exploration of the glamour and decrepitude of Americana; a gunslinger wearing thick red lipstick, cocking her pistol at the camera.


The music is laced with a thick and grungy sleaziness – a sound drenched in cheap liquor bought at shabby motels along Route 66. In Dig we get an alluring look through a uniquely female American perspective, unflinchingly staring down the barrel; a female voice reclaiming the aesthetic of decay and triumph which has accompanied Americana for so long.

In Dig we get an alluring look through a uniquely female American perspective, unflinchingly staring down the barrel; a female voice reclaiming the aesthetic of decay and triumph which has accompanied Americana for so long. 


Black Honey’s music videos are inspired by cult movie directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wim Wenders, and Wes Anderson, and it’s hard to imagine anything more fitting. Churches soaked in neon lights host showdowns between rival lovers, revolvers are placed on bedside tables next to photographs, open-topped cars burn a trail on the asphalt as they speed off into the distance. And through it all, the confidence of her vision is startlingly clear.


‘Moonlight gleaming, viperfish screaming / Dawn is nearly here / Phallic building, cyanide killing all that was clear / Find an antidote for this accumulating smoke’. Lyrics taken from Viper Fish by Goat Girl, a post-punk all-girl group of four, that illustrate one point very well: they are not messing around. They have no time to dance around the issue – theirs is a voice of young female anger and disillusionment.


The guitars grind and scrape all the way from the floor, fitting for a band named after Bill Hick’s alter-ego Goat Boy. Goat Girl have breathed new life into the passed comedian’s caustic persona with the palatable heaviness of their feelings dragged kicking and screaming by the music – stark in their reality, beautiful in their sincerity, admirable in their determination.


Can anger be power? Julia Cumming, the founder of Anger Can Be Power – a project motivating women to integrate politics into their lives – certainly thinks so. She is the frontwoman of Sunflower Bean, born to musician couple Alec Cumming and Cynthia Harden of Bite the Wax Godhead, and is always finding ways of putting the creative energy of herself and the people around her to good use.

The band’s music has dramatically evolved in the last year. The smooth reminiscences of I Was a Fool, accompanied by a guitar mournfully sighing as though trying to fondly recall a bad time, have given way to a funkier and more experimental sound on Come For Me, from the band’s upcoming EP ‘King of the Dudes’, out Jan 19. The guitar riffs tremble confidently, stepping off the gas just long enough for the next one to really slam home.


Annie Clark’s guitar is unique. Not just because of the discordant and eclectic sounds she fires out of it, but because she literally designed her own signature Music Man guitar, specifically made for the female body. She dropped out of Berklee College of Music because she didn’t believe that creativity and artistry can be taught, and it’s difficult to argue with the results. After a stint in The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Steven’s touring band, she formed St. Vincent in 2006. Their eponymous fourth album was named album of the year by The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly, NME, and Slant. It also won a Grammy for the best alternative album – the first female performer to win it in nearly 20 years. Albertine’s protest still rings true: ‘What about the women!!’

And her guitar makes no bones about her talent. It’s obvious from the first chord. In Los Ageless it’s a thumping, destructive fragmentation of Los Angeles and the facts of contemporary living for women, ruthlessly tearing modern beauty to pieces. The guitar flows creatively and fearlessly in its expressions, the lyrics both tormented and delicate: ‘The last days of the sunset superstars / Girls in cages playing their guitars / But how can I leave? / I just follow the hood of my car’. St. Vincent’s music blisters with confidence and poise, not just saying what you can barely believe hasn’t been said before, but saying it in a way you absolutely cannot believe it never has been before.

Whether they are legends like Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Viv Albertine, or part of the new generation like Black Honey, St. Vincent, Goat Girl, and Sunflower Bean; they are unapologetic, uncompromising, and unashamed. Their attitude is their music, and their music is their attitude. Is there anything cooler than a girl and her guitar? Their work speaks for itself, so go find out.


Words by: Petter Olsson


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