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7 Guitarists That Prove Black Women Were Pioneers In Music History

Get to know the names and stories that are often left out of history books, but who pioneered the path for music as we know it today.

September 28, 2020
Written by
Fabi Reyna

Mamie Smith (1891–1946)
“The Queen of the Blues”

The recording artist who made the Blues a national sensation in 1920—albeit the only woman on this list who is not a guitarist—Mamie Smith deserves every inch of recognition when discussing pioneers in music. Read more about her contributions here.

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In 1920, Okeh Records recorded Mamie Smith singing a rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues,” making it the first blues song recorded by a woman. The song was an overnight sensation among Black working-class consumers, and resulted in record companies finally considering the tastes of Black consumers and producing the music of Black women musicians. Smith was known as the “First Lady of the Blues” and “Crazy Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994.

Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987)
“The Mother of Folk”

Composer of “Freight Train,” one of the first popularized folk songs written in the early 20th century.

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Elizabeth Cotten was a self-taught left-handed blues and folk musician whose signature alternating bass style (playing the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumbs) came to be known as “Cotten picking” and continues to influence musicians today. Her most recognized song, “Freight Train,” was written in 1904 when she was just 11 years old. Cotten didn’t record or receive recognition until the folk revival of the 1960s, when she was in her 60s. In 1985, just two years before her death, she won the Grammy Award in the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category for Elizabeth Cotten Live!

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973)
“The Godmother of Rock N Roll”

Invented and pioneered the sounds of Rock ‘n’ Roll as we know it today.

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The queer godmother of rock ‘n’ roll came into the spotlight in 1938 with her rollicking song “Rock Me.” Over the next two decades, she crossed between gospel, blues, and early R&B; religious and secular music; and notably, black and white audiences during the days of segregation. Her most famous song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” has been cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, and Tharpe heavily influenced early generations of rock musicians, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Sylvia Robinson (1935 – 2011)
“The Mother of Hip Hop”

Singer, guitarist, record producer, and record label executive of “Sugar Hill Records,” known as the label which introduced rap to the public in 1979. Read our 2019 feature on Sylvia Robinson

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Aside from having two R&B chart toppers—Mickey & Sylvia with “Love Is Strange” (1957) and solo record “Pillow Talk” (1973)—Robinson was also the founder and CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records. She was the driving force behind the two groundbreaking hip-hop singles, “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, and “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, resulting in the nickname “The Mother of Hip Hop.” In 2000, Robinson received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and as the founder of Sugarhill Records at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala.

Beverly “Guitar” Watkins (1939 – 2019)
“Queen of the Blues Guitar”

Toured nationally and worked alongside acts such as BB King, Ray Charles, and James Brown. She was one of the first women to be recognized as a lead blues guitarist. Read our 2016 interview with Beverly Watkins. 

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Beverly “Guitar” Watkins was an internationally-known blues guitarist who started her career in 1960 as a rhythm guitar player with local radio host turned platinum-selling blues musician Piano Red. As the only woman in the band, Watkins was a 20th-century pioneer in blues guitar, touring the world and opening for acts like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Despite her striking talent and innovative style, Watkins wouldn’t be recognized autonomously until 1999, when she teamed up with Music Maker Relief Foundation to launch her solo debut, Back in Business. She went on to receive multiple awards, including a European Grammy for her 2007 release, Don’t Mess With Miss Watkins.

Lady Bo aka Peggy Jones (1940 – 2015)
“Queen Mother of Guitar”

Although never rightfully credited, Peggy Jones co-wrote many of Bo Diddley’s early songs credited for playing a key role in the transition of Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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Peggy Jones, also known as Lady Bo, was an innovative and expressive guitarist who was an original part of Bo Diddley’s sound from 1957 to1962, becoming one of the first women rock guitarists in a highly visible rock band and dubbing her “Queen Mother of Guitar.” Also influential in her own songwriting and musical endeavors thereafter, Jones left Bo Diddley’s band in 1961 to focus on her work with R&B band the Jewels. She is known for her popularization of the guitar synthesizer, not typically heard in rhythm and blues music, and has remained a pioneering source of inspiration for hundreds of musicians to follow.

Barbara Lynn 1942 – Present
“Mother of R&B Guitar”

Left-handed guitarist, composer and performer of the popular #1 US Billboard R&B chart hit  “You’ll Lose A Good Thing”

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Known as the “Lefty Queen of R&B” for being one of the first left-handed woman guitarists to appear on television and radio, Barbara Lynn has been playing blues-infused soul since the 1960s. She’s had numerous billboard-charting hits, including “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (1962) and “I’m a Good Woman” (1966), blazing the trail as a young woman fronting a band, playing an instrument, and writing her own songs. Since the 1960s, Lynn has toured with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Gladys Knight. Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones, among others, have covered her songs, and artists including Moby and Lil Wayne have sampled her music.

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