This summer, I will begin contemplating the possibilities of re-learning the guitar.
I was never a “performance-worthy” player, but I wasn’t too bad. More importantly, when I was playing as a teenager, I felt like I was a full-fledged rock star. Even though I was an awkward, socially inept teenager, when I sat on the step outside my bedroom cranking out the easy version of Stray Cats or Social Distortion hits, I was a tall, slender femme fatale, who could rock as good as any mullet-wearing boys in an 80s hair band or early 90s grunge group.
I knew that if and when I became a mother, I would spend at least an hour each day teaching my children rockin’ chords and passing my love of this instrument to them via the magic of the family jam session.
This hasn’t happened.
It isn’t that I have been completely negligent in this area. I have instilled in my girls a love for all types of music. Of course, I always emphasize there are really only two types of music: “good” and “bad,” regardless of actual genre. My oldest joined the guitar club in fifth grade, and we do “rock out” occasionally with the help of a PS3 and an old version of Rock Band.
Note: My definition of “good” and “bad” is one I picked up from a quote taped to the our college radio station’s door when I was a disc jockey. I can’t remember the name of whatever clever curmudgeon coined it, but I think it holds true to everyone, whether they admit it or not: “‘Good music’ is music I like. ‘Bad music’ is music I don’t like.”
Despite all this, actually breaking out the old electric I’ve had since I was sixteen and wailing away on it with my girls has become a forgotten priority, until recently.
I explored the back of my closet as if it were a passage to Narnia and dug out my guitar. It still looked polished and primed for the spotlight, but when I looked in the mirror after pulling the strap over my head, I realized I did not. My 45-year-old frame didn’t look anywhere like that of a headliner, or even the local opening act.
Who was I kidding? Was I simply too old to take up the “axe” again?
I was on my way to settling into some self-pity of being past my “cool” years, when I remembered a beer commercial in the 1990s featuring one of the musicians, who inspired me to begin playing in the first place, Brian Setzer.
In this ad, Setzer shared the stage with a retro-looking grandma matching his style, note for note. I realized there were—and are—plenty of women age fortysomething and older who are still considered masters in their field. As a matter of fact, there are sixty-, seventy-, and eightysomethings out there, as well.
Here are four women in over 60—plus one “youngster” in her 50s—who have remained celebrated guitar forces in everything from classical to punk:
Cordell Jackson, Rockabilly:
The aforementioned “old lady” in the Brian Setzer video, Jackson was in her 70s when she filmed this commercial. She was discovered by a whole new generation of rockabilly fans, for the high-speed riffs and sassy attitude. She had already broken ground for women in the music industry long before that, however, as she was the first woman recording engineer in America. She also founded her own Memphis-based record label, Moon Record, which she ran until her death in 2004.
It wasn’t until 1989 that she released her first music video, leading to all types of appearances from MTV to Late Night With David Letterman. She even landed a bit part in the 1992 comedy, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blues/Gospel:
Tharpe has made several critics’ lists of best women guitarists of all time, as well as best guitarists—men or women. Born in 1915, she picked up the guitar at age six, and dabbled in everything from blues to jazz, to swing, soul, gospel, and early rock and roll. Her club and theater shows helped spearhead the pop-influenced gospel music genre.
During World War II, she and her band were the only American gospel act to record V-Discs (morale-boosting “Victory” records) for American troops stationed abroad. Her performing career was cut short by her mid-50s when a stroke prevented her from performing in 1970. She died just three years later, but continues to influence guitarists today.
Yes, it is possible to “rock” in flamenco. When she isn’t playing guitar, Charo can come across as simply the cheesy 1970s version of Sofia Vergara, or lounge-act fodder for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Guitar aficionados need to patiently look past this “cuchi-cuchi” front, as Charo has been named “Best Flamenco Guitarist” in Guitar Player Magazine readers’ polls twice. Growing up in the Murcia Region of Spain, she was a serious guitar student at age nine, and was as pupil of flamenco great Andrés Segovia. At age 69, she still continues to tour and perform throughout the world.
Bonnie Raitt, Blues and Rock:
Raitt released several albums in the 1970s, but her biggest commercial success finally came in the 1990s with her album Nick of Time. Raitt’s guitar and vocal talents have gained her at least ten Grammy Awards, and she was listed by Rolling Stone Magazine in the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, as well as in the Greatest Singers of All Time. She is also known as a vocal activist for environmentalism, social justice, and other issues. She released her latest album two years ago at age 62, and is still a concert favorite at age 64.
Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Wallace), Punk and Psychobilly:
I’ll admit I was hesitant to include Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy in this list, as her extreme punk lifestyle and wardrobe, not to mention some just south of X-rated lyrics, is something I do not want my daughters to emulate in any way.
Her “day job” as a dominatrix even helped the band fund their first recording at Sun Records. But, man, could she ever play guitar. Her eccentric performances with punk band The Cramps in the 1980s were proof that women know their way around a hollow-body Gretsch guitar as well as any boy.
The Cramps, who coined the phrase “psychobilly” in 1976, performed live worldwide until 2009, when lead singer Lux Interior passed away. Poison Ivy is also a prolific songwriter, who not only co-wrote most of the music for The Cramps, but wrote songs have been recorded by bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Queens of the Stone Age. At age 61, she still maintains a huge cult following.
I decided that, before dusting off the guitar strings, I intend to share with my own daughters a reminder that it is never too old to be awesome, as well as to remind myself I still have at least 15 to 20 years before I’m cool enough to rock like them.
Author’s Note: For the sake of space and sanity, I limited this list to five names, but I realize there are many other women guitarists of all ages who deserve a mention (sorry Joan Jett, you were just a little too young). Readers are invited to chime in with their own additions to this list.