In Her Own Words: Rosanne Cash, Gillian Welch, Ani DiFranco, Janis Ian, Valerie June & More Share Their Passion for Guitar

Rosanne Cash with her guitar

From the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY WHITNEY PHANEUF, 


When the editors of Acoustic Guitar decided to carve out a special section on the topic of women, guitars, and success, I was hesitant. The sheer act of compiling women guitarists, educators, and luthiers into a segregated list implies that their artistry is somehow defined by their gender. I’ve come to resent the mainstream music magazines’ annual “Women’s Issue,” a token honor tossed out once-a-year instead of showcasing women in every issue. It was only after I spoke to Rosanne Cash, following the taping of her 2016 Acoustic Guitar Session, that I realized this focus had an opportunity to change our readers’ perspectives. I had nervously asked Cash about her experience as a woman in the music industry and within a minute she revealed the revolting manner in which she had been treated by record company executives when starting her career. My jaw dropped as she told me how the men in charge of marketing discussed her sex appeal as a tool to sell records. What happened to Cash in the ’80s is, of course, not the experience of all women. But it is indicative of the challenges women have faced in the male-dominated music industry, especially in the booking, recording, and lutherie sectors.

Fortunately, the times they are a changin’—at least a bit. Last year, Guitar World announced it would stop using images of a bikini-clad women on the cover of its annual buyer’s guide issue—a longtime tradition that the publisher finally recognized as outdated and offensive. The decision was ultimately about economics, Publisher Bill Amstutz told, “The number of women players is growing and we want to support them.” (The brand continues to sell a 2017 “Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock” calendar.) On the indie side of publishing, the world’s only print magazine dedicated solely to women guitarists is thriving. In 2016, only its fourth year in print, She Shreds reports a six-fold increase in the magazine’s overall growth. In recent months, AG has added several new women contributors and will continue its commitment to covering women in the trade.

The 14 artists featured in this special focus—and there are many more who could have been included, from recent AG cover subject Lucinda Williams to young bluegrass picker Molly Tuttle (look for a lesson by her in next month’s issue)—represent a small sample, but they share one commonality: Their desire to be considered first and foremost for their craft and not their gender. I hope their stories, in their own words, inspire you to support one another and play on! —Whitney Phaneuf, managing editor

Rosanne Cash is a chart-topping singer-songwriter and best-selling author. Her 2015 album The River & the Thread—co-written with her longtime producer and partner, the guitarist John Leventhal—swept the 2016 Grammy Awards, winning Best Americana Album, as well as Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance for “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” In addition to continual touring, Cash has collaborated on music programming with Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, San Francisco Jazz, Minnesota Orchestra, and the US Library of Congress.

I’m not a great guitarist—I’m OK. I can accompany myself well enough and I can accompany John [Leventhal] really well. Playing with John requires at least good timing, because he’s very meticulous. I was never known as a guitar player, but I am—for 40 years! I never had a desire for people to notice my guitar playing. I always figured I was just a rhythm accompanist, I’m not playing lead. The first time I really felt valued as a guitar player was when Martin made the Rosanne Cash signature model. Then I felt it. I was so honored.

An inspiration to me is Sister Rosetta Tharpe—one of the most badass guitar players ever. Ever! I always hated the designation of being a woman songwriter, a woman musician. Like what does that mean? It’s a subcategory? We’re not good enough to play with the big boys? You don’t have to make a separate category for us.

It mirrors what’s going on with the rest of the culture. I went to see Helen Mirren speak and they asked her about the paucity of great roles for middle-aged women. She said, “I wouldn’t worry about the role of women in Hollywood, I’d worry about the role of women in the culture.” What’s going on in the culture-at-large is reflected in all other industries.

Has it changed for the better? In some ways, yeah. Thirty-five years ago, when I was making my first record, I went into a label meeting and they actually said in front of me that their goal for the record was to make me appear “f*ckable.” They said that in front of me! I don’t think a young woman starting out [now] would go into a marketing meeting and hear that. They’d probably say it behind her back, if that’s an improvement.

The whole Nashville machinery tended to treat women differently. You had to play nicer. You had to fit a certain kind of ideology and look, and I didn’t play that. But that was the ’80s—sexism was still rampant.

I got a really thick skin, but I’m not bitter and I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Bitterness gives you wrinkles.

What she plays: Martin OM-28M Rosanne Cash Signature Edition.

Musician and composer Muriel Anderson is an acclaimed fingerstyle and harp guitarist. She was the first woman to win the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, and her music encompasses many different genres, including jazz, classical, bluegrass, and international folk. She is host of the Muriel Anderson All-Star Guitar Night and founder of the charity, Music for Life Alliance.

I knew from the moment I picked up a guitar at age seven and taught myself how to play that it was the instrument for me. I liked the way it felt—like I was interacting with it. I always thought that was the coolest thing, to become a professional musician. My first hero was Doc Watson. He really inspired me. I’d run home from school to listen to his LP.

When I was starting out in my early genre-less career, no one was doing what I was doing, and the music industry didn’t know what to do with me. I couldn’t get an agent or a manager. They’d ask “What kind of music do you play,” and I couldn’t really answer. There wasn’t a path for me in the industry, so I created my own.

I do recall one incident that struck me as odd: I was looking for a manager in Nashville and was told by one, “We already have enough women artists on our roster.” Enough women? I thought that was curious.

Instead of deciding whether to play only jazz or classical or bluegrass, I decided to just play the music that made me happy, the music in my heart, which included music from all those different genres. I began to tour more and people discovered that they liked the variety of my music, the joy and the love in it.

What she plays: A 20-string harp guitar made by Mike Doolin.



Gillian Welch is an Americana icon. The singer-songwriter and guitarist (and one-time punk bassist) served as associate producer and performed two songs on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a platinum album that won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Her recording of “I’ll Fly Away,” with Alison Krauss, from the film soundtrack, won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. With musical partner David Rawlings—the duo is collectively known as Gillian Welch—they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first release, Revival, with an album of demos, outtakes, and alternate tracks.

I was at summer camp when I had my first musical epiphany. I was about seven or eight and the counselor was playing an acoustic guitar around the campfire. The idea of being able to play music wherever I was blew my mind. My second lightning bolt hit a decade later when friends took me to a folk festival in Yosemite National Park. I thought, “Oh, wow. People are doing this. I can do this!”

I grew up in Los Angeles listening to the standard-bearers of roots music—Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, the latter drawing me in by the sound of their voices and the songs that seemed unselfconsciously truthful and the stories honest. I love folk music, a love that satisfies me in a deep way for its everyday poetry and for its elevation of the human condition. Folk music was a means for coming together as a community, a joy-filled respite for isolated people who lived hardscrabble lives.

I had it drilled into my head from the time I understood words that everyone is equal. We really need to try to go for the universal in how we walk through the world. I feel like I never even gave gender bias any quarter or thought. My hope is that my songs are good songs for people. I want to rise above women’s issues to people’s issues. We are all up against the same problems. I wish I had extended a challenge to a woman I had a conversation with after a concert. Her position was that no man could ever understand her. I thought that was a very fatalistic, destructive position, the antithesis of everything I believe. I wish now that I’d asked her if she could tell which words from our songs I had written and which ones Dave had written.

What she plays: A 1956 Gibson JS50.

Ani DiFranco is a Grammy Award-winning folk singer, songwriter, guitarist, and label owner whose politically charged lyrics and distinctive, percussive style have made her an inspiration to countless musicians, artists, and fans. At 19, DiFranco blazed a trail when she rejected the Los Angeles-based recording machine and created her own indie label, Righteous Babe Records, and released her first album at 20. Twenty-five years, 18 studio albums, and many live albums later, the folk troubadour remains a role model, and a beacon of modern sensibility and social change.

Was my experience in the music industry different from a man’s? Well, yeah, fundamentally I guess. But not necessarily worse. Was it different from someone on a major label? Very, very different, indeed. My path of “be your own label” has made all the difference in my journey and I am very grateful to myself for taking some good, if uncharted, turns early on.

Women in the music industry are the same as women in the rest of society. Women are not seen as musicians as readily as men because men have had a much longer and more storied relationship with instruments! It is only recently that girls have started to really be handed the tools of music. Slowly, the landscape of music is changing and perceptions are changing with it.

Have you ever listened to Aretha Franklin’s piano playing? People never mention it, but it is awesome! Have you ever listened to Regina Spektor’s piano playing? It is awesome, too, and I think maybe people haven’t even noticed. Viva evolution! I also love Bonnie Raitt. I love Karen Dalton, and Big Mama Thornton. Whatever the era, you just gotta play because you love it. That’s my advice to women guitarists starting out in this business: Play for the love of music. Want nothing more.

What she plays: An Alvarez WY1 and a Gibson LG2.


Toronto-based master luthier Linda Manzer owns Manzer Guitars and is famous for her archtop and flattop acoustic guitars—notably the artful Pikasso, with three necks and 42 strings, designed initially for longtime client Pat Metheny, as well as her often imitated body-shape innovation known as the Manzer Wedge. She learned the trade from famed Canadian luthier Jean Larrivée.

It was at a Joni Mitchell concert that my fate was sealed. She was playing a dulcimer, and I rushed out the next day to buy one. It cost $150, which was more than I could afford. I was about 16 or 17, and the clerk talked me into buying a kit that cost half the price. We sat on the steps of the Toronto Folklore Center, arguing about whether or not I could build one. To this day, I thank him, for that’s when I discovered the joy and beauty of making something come to life with strings on it.

At the time, the guitar-making trade was 100-percent male. It may be hard to imagine now, but in 1974 people didn’t want to buy guitars from girls. I’d go into a hardware store and no one would wait on me. They assumed I was someone’s girlfriend.

I try to move my art along incrementally, guitar by guitar. I’ve just finished a little parlor guitar that I love. I’m playing it myself until it finds a home. Yet the one that tugs at my artistic heartstrings most is the Bear, with its bear-claw top [wood from spruce trees marked as if by claw scratches]. I’ve built two, one for a client and the other for the 25th anniversary of Manzer Guitars. Now I’m starting on a third, aiming for our 50th anniversary eight years down the road. I’m not that old yet, but I’m getting there.

The real test of surviving in the trade isn’t about gender. It is really physically hard work and requires a wide range of skills. You have to be prepared to get dirty and get splinters. You’re tired and dusty—and you can look really unattractive. If that matters, it’s probably not for you. But if you like being around incredible musicians, and being part of the source of that magic, then it’s definitely worth every trip to the hospital—I’ve lost the tips of two fingers! Power tools don’t discriminate.


Veritable rock-icon Melissa Etheridge is known for her searing tales of longing and heartache. The two-time Grammy winner hit her commercial stride with songs like “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window.” In her 35-plus years in the music industry, Etheridge has founded her own record label (ME Records), won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and debuted on Broadway as St. Jimmy in Green Day’s rock opera, American Idiot. Etheridge’s latest album, MEmphis Rock and Soul, honors the legendary Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

When starting out, it’s hard for everybody to make a place and make a living as a musician, whether you’re a man or a woman. I know my experience was very unique and my own—a lot of it had to do with being a woman, a lot of it had to do with being a lesbian, a lot of it had to do with me being from the Midwest.

When my first album finally came out in 1988 and my promotion guys went to the radio stations, the rock stations said, “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re already playing a woman, we can’t play another one.” There was the crazy belief that if you played two women on a radio station no one would listen to your station or something. That’s changed now, of course. If you’re interesting, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.

When my first album finally came out, there was an onslaught of women. It was just a ton—Tracy Chapman, Edie Brickell, Michelle Shocked, Toni Childs, Sinead O’Connor, and on and on—and it really broke that world open.

Probably the biggest challenge I faced early on was that the minute people saw me with an acoustic guitar, they instantly thought I was folk music. I’m not folk at all—it’s confessional singer-songwriter stuff—but I always wanted to be rock ’n’ roll, and always had that kind of energy behind it. In the beginning, it was hard for people to understand what I did. People still come to see me and they’re surprised that I can play leads and that I’m quite good at playing guitar. They’re like, “Oh! I didn’t know you could do that!” Somehow it hasn’t quite got out there in the world.

If I had one piece of advice to impart to female guitarists starting out, it would be to understand inside of yourself what you love about music. And then understand that success is a lifelong process. There isn’t something you’re going to achieve that’s going to give you this sense that you’ve “done it”—it’s a continuous process, day by day. Every now and then, every year or so, you look back and go, “Ah! Look how far I’ve come.”

What she plays: Melissa Etheridge
Signature Ovation Adamas.

Courtney Hartman is known for her intricate guitar work in the all-female bluegrass quintet Della Mae. Her elaborate leads have invoked comparisons to Hot Rize’s Bryan Sutton or Tony Rice. But Hartman is also an accomplished singer-songwriter, last year releasing a critically-acclaimed solo EP, Nothing We Say.

I fell in love with guitar when I was 11 or 12. My dad encouraged me and my siblings. He was like, “Hey, Court, can you teach me this tune?”

I used to be surprised when I would meet girls my age who played when I was starting out, and as a teenager. And now, it’s so cool to see. And in some way, if Della Mae or myself has had any part in encouraging or somehow mentoring younger girls growing up, in the bluegrass world specifically, that’d be amazing. It’s amazing to watch all these badass little picker girls that we get to see grow. And the numbers have grown. That alone in the last few years has been a really fun thing to watch.

I grew up playing with guys. I would also play with four of my sisters, but the majority of the bluegrass scene in Colorado was mostly guys. I didn’t really take note of it, but when I got to Berklee College of Music, at about 19, there were about 900 guitar players while I was there and I could count the other women that I interacted with in the guitar department on one hand. And then I went straight into playing music with four awesome women in Della Mae.

When I was a teenager or early-20s, there were a number of times that I heard, “Oh wow. I don’t know how to say this exactly, but you’re really good for a girl.” Or, “I wasn’t expecting you to be good, because you play guitar and you’re a girl.” Rarely was it said in a way that felt demeaning—they’re only trying to speak out of appreciation for what you do.

I always wanted what my music was to speak for itself—louder than me being a girl. I just wanted the music to speak first.


What she plays: A Bourgeois dreadnought and a Lawrence Smart archtop.


Janis Ian began her career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter at age 14 with her first hit single, “Society’s Child.” A decade later, Ian released another iconic song, “At Seventeen.” When she was 16, comedian Bill Cosby allegedly spread a vicious rumor about Ian’s sexuality, which he considered “suspect,” and tried to get her blacklisted from television appearances. He failed. Ian’s Grammy-winning career (two, in 1975 and 2013, plus ten nominations) has never stopped—she continues to write and tour from her home in Nashville.

I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist if I didn’t feel like I could walk into a session that needed an acoustic guitarist and play. You put your chops in, you bust your ass, you want to be taken seriously. I sweated bullets to learn ‘Satisfaction’ on the electric guitar. I was literally told that I was much better than the other [boy] players, but that I couldn’t be in the band because I was a girl.

[Girls] grow up in a vacuum. The guys are busy playing and practicing with each other, learning everything, but girls at that age are excluded. We can’t get the training, and if we manage to get the training, we can’t get the jobs, and if can’t get the jobs, we can’t have a career, and if we don’t have a career, we don’t exist.

I didn’t start understanding the difference until I was tapped by Sony as part of the triumvirate that included Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and seeing how differently they were treated. There were no hard feelings between the three of us. It was about promotion and marketing, and the idea that women don’t sell records like men sell records. Of course, Whitney Houston blasted the lid off that a few years later.

When I found out from my manager [about Cosby], I got angry. But there’s nothing you can do. You can’t get crazy. You’d lose your mind. You just move on.

In my life, artists on the scale of a David Bowie never gave a shit about gender. It was irrelevant to the work. Prince had no problem. Chick Corea is a wonderful gender-blind player. So, there are exceptions, of course.

Young men today are, by and large, better. If there’s anything Taylor Swift has done for the music industry, besides prop it up, it’s that she’s made it acceptable for girls to play guitar . . . but that’s just one woman in one generation.

What she plays: A Santa Cruz Guitar Co. Janis Ian Signature JI2

A self-taught guitarist who was mentored by Norman and Nancy Blake, Tennessean Valerie June percolates folk, soul, blues, Americana, country, and devotional elements into her music, then tops it off with a genre-defying voice and world-weary lyrics that head straight to the gut. “I ain’t fit to be no mother, I ain’t fit to be no wife,” June sings on “Workin’ Woman Blues,” from her 2013 breakthrough album Pushin’ Against a Stone. June continues pushin’ with her distinctive sound that blurs convention and expectations on her new album The Order of Time.

I would find myself in the early days of my career entering a guitar shop and feeling intimidated by being female. Not that anyone ever made me feel that way, but it did kind of feel like I was accidentally walking into the men’s bathroom. If I was a man, I would probably have had a little more confidence from the start. I might have felt more welcome in stores, studios, and venues. But being a woman has so many advantages, too. I can remember putting together a press kit, getting presentable, and walking into venues in Memphis. I’d ask to speak to the person in charge of booking. Sometimes, I think I had a better chance at the venue listening to my CD because I was a girl.

There are always challenges when you’re moving toward a dream. I try to approach them by remembering that I’m doing things that make me happy and by not having great expectations that require the approval of others. I knew when I started playing music at such a late age—in my 20s with no natural rhythm—that it was going to be a long road. I also knew that my greatest challenge would be overcoming my own insecurities and blocks. It’s been a journey of overcoming my own limitations.

To that end, as a guitarist, Luther Dickinson has been the most inspiring musician in my life. He gave me my first electric guitar. Even when I’ve hit a bad note in front of a huge crowd, he’s always said encouraging words that have helped me keep growing. Some of my favorite female guitarists I’ve looked up to are Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, Precious Bryant, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Tracy Chapman.

The number one thing for any woman in this industry is to believe in yourself. The music business does have a machine-like engine that runs it. While I love and appreciate organization and a beautifully flowing business, if there was one thing I would love to see differently, it would be more respect for the artist. I think that is something that is also fully in the hands of the artist as a collective whole, but it is a rare thing to have that collective spirit of working as one. So we are in a cycle of our own creation.

What she plays: Martin 000-15M.


Chace Miller is a luthier based in the Pacific Northwest. She has studied with Greg Brandt and builds a small number of steel-string and classical guitars a year.

I started playing guitar at age 14 or so, and was in love with the instrument from the very beginning. I really enjoyed spending time in shops playing different guitars and comparing tones. In the early days, it was mostly the big ones like Guitar Center, because that was what was available to me. I remember having an acute awareness of being a female in a man’s world, especially because the way these stores are set up—you have to wander through the land of dudes wailing on axes cranked up on their amps to get through to the back where the acoustics are kept. There were little things that happened along the way that reinforced that awareness, like getting ripped off in a repair shop or being talked down to by sales guys. Mostly it was a feeling of just being in a heavily male-sided community that the guitar world still is.

I was really lucky in my first apprenticeship experience with Greg Brandt, who is an LA-based nylon-string maker, a very talented luthier, and just a great human being. I spent five years in his shop, first as an apprentice and then later doing my own work alongside him. He was always very supportive of me and the work I wanted to accomplish. I have also experienced the other side of things, though. It was amazing to me at guitar shows I’ve attended how many people would assume I was the “daughter” or the “wife,” or they’d assume my guitar was Greg’s when I was sharing a table with him. Of course, this was not the reaction of everyone, or even the majority, but I was amused at how often it did happen.

I was recently working as an apprentice at  [another] world-class luthier’s shop. The guys at the shop were great, but the environment of the shop was really toxic because of how the master luthier interacted with everyone there. It was a tough place to be the only woman. There was an underlying sexism that came out of him in little ways, like jokes and asides that in themselves are not a big deal, but reveal a much deeper undercurrent of bias and long-held assumptions that become difficult to navigate. Ultimately, it didn’t work out. Some people just can’t see past their own experience and limitations, but life goes on.

The fact is, this is still a largely male-dominated community and people just aren’t used to seeing women in this field. The exposure of women in this field has grown, and the more we show up, the more people’s perception and expectations will change around us.


Sharon Isbin is a preeminent instrumentalist and boundary-breaker. She is a Grammy-winning classical guitarist and the founding director of the guitar department at the Juilliard School. She is also an author, subject of a documentary about her life, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, and has performed as a soloist in over 170 orchestras throughout the world, including many which had never before worked with guitar.

I started guitar at age nine in Italy. My older brother had asked for lessons hoping to be the next Elvis, but bowed out when he learned the teacher was classical, so I took his place. After my family moved back to Minneapolis, I won student competitions there, including one at 14 in which I performed as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra for 10,000 people—I was hooked!


I began touring Europe each summer, and soon become the first guitarist to win international competitions in Toronto and Munich, all while still a teenager. These experiences launched my career, including recordings, a New York debut, and signing with management in Europe and New York. I was so focused on breaking down barriers for the guitar that gender took a back seat. However, one summer at the Aspen Music Festival, I was one of only two girls out of 50 guitar students, and that inspired me to work even harder, so there would be no question of gender. In the music world I had to fight as a guitarist, and in the guitar world I had to fight as a woman.

Outstanding women pianists, violinists, and cellists are now celebrated equally with men. Though there are still more men than women in the [classical] guitar world, the ratio continues to improve. We have further to go in the world of conductors and composer. In 2016, the national German newspaper Die Welt published a feature interview with me, but with the absurd headline that translates to “Who Says Women Can’t Play the Guitar”—really, people still think that way?

What she plays: Antonius Mueller 2010 cedar double top and a SoloEtte Travel Guitar


Gabriella Quevedo is a Swedish fingerstyle guitar virtuoso and YouTube phenomenon. In 2011, Quevedo emailed her guitar hero, South Korean fingerstylist Sungha Jung, which led to a fortuitous meeting and performance with him while he was touring in Sweden. She was the first girl to win the Young Talents award at the Uppsala International Guitar Festival and plans to release an album of original songs this year.

I started playing guitar when I was 12, inspired by my father, who also plays guitar. He taught me some chords and I started playing along with my favorite songs. After a few months, I started watching fingerstyle guitarist videos and I learned by watching their videos. When I had learned a few songs, I started uploading my videos to YouTube.

I had just turned 13 when I uploaded my first video. When I started to get comments, a lot of them were encouraging, but they compared me with male guitarists. Sometimes people commented that I had views just because I am a girl.

In my country, Sweden, people have encouraged me very much. They think it’s cool that a girl plays fingerstyle. I also have gotten a lot of support and encouragement from guitarists like Tommy Emmanuel, Kotaro Oshio, Sungha Jung, Andy McKee, Brian May, and Don Felder. I’m so happy and feel like I have their support. Unfortunately, I’m not in contact with any female guitarists.

Seeing other guitarists tour and make a living out of it inspires me to keep playing and improving. Receiving comments from people telling me that I have inspired them to start playing or pick up their guitar after years of not playing also inspires me to
keep going.

What she plays: A 2016 Taylor Guitar 912ce.


Maegen Wells is a luthier based out of Forestville, California, who makes handmade acoustic guitars, archtops, and mandolin instruments.

I’ve been building guitars since 2006 in a variety of shops: repair shops, electric guitar manufacturers, acoustic and archtop guitar shops, and I now have my own shop, where I build my own line of guitars and mandolins. I imagine my experiences as an apprenticing luthier were not that different from a male’s experience, in terms of the actual benchwork and opportunities we had. The difference may be in what society perceives our “natural abilities” to be as men and women. The focus seems to quickly shift from my instruments, to how uncommon it is to meet a female who loves working with their hands, tools, and wood.

There have been a variety of obstacles and challenges over the past ten years that have been gender-related. Some of them have been large, and some of them have been small. I honestly can’t say that being accepted and supported by the community of guitar makers and players is one of them. It’s an amazing group of men and women. As time goes by, we’re definitely seeing more and more women in the music industry. I saw a show at a huge venue in San Francisco last summer and the whole stage crew was made up of women. The tech crew, sound and lighting crew—everyone was a female! They were clearly really smart, hard-working women who are really good at what they do, completely pro. I was so inspired! You would have never seen anything like that 40 years ago.

Being a female in a male-dominated industry has its advantages and disadvantages. It can be a spotlight as well as a curse. Some people will determine whether you are great or not without ever looking at your work, which is true for everyone, but when that’s a gender-based decision, great or not, it’s a completely different kind of discouragement. Don’t be distracted by this nonsense. It’s not what’s important. Take care of your craft, and it will take care of you.


A guitarist and composer known for her percussive style and vivacious live performances, Kaki King has recorded eight albums, toured relentlessly, and scored and contributed music for numerous TV shows and films, one of which (the soundtrack for Sean Penn’s Into the Wild) received a Golden Globe nomination (along with contributors Eddie Vedder and Michael Brook). Rolling Stone named King one of “The New Guitar Gods,” of which she was both the youngest and the only-woman listed.

I was an outcast. I was a gay kid in an alt-Christian high school in Atlanta, Georgia, and I think if I had been born a decade later, in a different town, my life would’ve been extremely different. I may not have been the misfit, I may have been the cool kid! How strange would that have been? But playing guitar by myself was this healing thing, and one day I looked up and was like, “Oh, I really know what I’m doing on this instrument,” despite having one parent who was supportive and one who wasn’t.

Most of the time, I never feel more like a woman in the music industry—that it’s a prominent part of my identity—than when I’m being asked about being a woman in the music industry. I feel like, “Do I want to be a team player and speak about the female experience?” And at the same time, I feel like I’m cheating my story and cheating other women out of hearing something that they can identify with.

Maybe that’s part of the problem—there’s so much like, “I’m just gonna keep my head down and do good work and hope I don’t get any sh*t for it.” That’s always been my goal. To deflect everything by being undeniably excellent. And that’s really, really hard. I’ve worked extremely hard to do that and I wonder if I hadn’t put that pressure on myself, what my music would’ve ended up like.

For the first time in my life, I’m acknowledging these mixed feelings and trying to understand them to be more productive in the conversation, because before I have said, “Yeah, I’m a woman, but it doesn’t matter.” And I think that’s taking away from the experiences of women for whom it does matter. At the same time, it’s a lie to say, “It’s hard and men are the worst” because that’s not true, and I’ve met so many awesome and supportive men in my career.

We all know that women are discriminated against and it’s already been a generation since the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s, like we’re the daughters of that movement. Equality is gonna take some time, but let’s acknowledge that there’s inequality in almost every single industry and speak to that.

What she plays:
Kaki King Signature Ovation.

Read more stories from AG‘s Women & Guitars special section.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Whitney Phaneuf
Whitney Phaneuf

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