10 unsung female guitar heroes you need to know

(from left) Kelly Johnson, Morgan Lander, Emily Burton and Janet Robin perform onstage
(Image credit: Paul Natkin, Tim Mosenfelder, Scott Dudelson, Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images)

You probably know about Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson and Jennifer Batten.

Though all of those players are incredibly talented, and more than earned their places in history, there are several heroines of rock and metal electric guitar who arguably – from the 1970s through the 1990s – did just as much to advance the guitar in those genres as those celebrated players. 

Though many of the 10 guitarists on this list enjoyed some degree of commercial and critical success, they have never gotten the recognition they truly deserve, and made contributions to the instrument that still resonate today – via modern-day virtuosos such as Lzzy Hale and Nita Strauss, and bands like The Iron Maidens, Plush, Nervosa, Lovebites, and Doll Skin – and are worth further exploration. 

10. Donna Nye (Kings & Queens)

Donna Nye might just be the best-kept secret on this list. 

The Nye sisters – Sandy on bass guitar and Donna on guitar and vocals – formed Kings & Queens in the mid-1980s. With their father, Don, on keyboards, the band built a regional following in Pennsylvania, putting their own spin on classics by Heart, Scorpions and Van Halen.

Brandishing a Les Paul – a choice influenced by her blues-rock heroes – Donna Nye was an anomaly on the testosterone-heavy rock scene, and could tackle Eruption, heavy metal and Rush tunes with equal skill.

Though Kings & Queens never scored a major label deal, they've forged on, anchored by Donna's tasty riffs and signature raspy vocals. The guitar-slinger embraced social media from its earliest days, and a number of action-packed live videos of the band can be found on their YouTube channel

9. Miki "Sun-Go" Igarashi (Show-Ya)

Show-Ya can be thought of as a counterpart to Japanese metal kings Loudness, who – with guitarist Akira Takasaki – ruled the '80s metal scene in Japan and even crossed over to America. Show-Ya gave it their best shot, too, with a more pop-metal vibe à la Vixen.

Hugely successful in their native country, Show-Ya built up a formidable live reputation over the years.

Miki "Sun-Go" Igarashi – who replaced the band's original guitarist, Mitsuko Numata, in the early '80s – paralleled the band's flamboyant, high-energy performances with her fast, technical playing, tapping and aggressive pick scrapes.

Igarashi's melodic shredding is on par with MTV's best Jackson-playing dudes, and helped pave the way for future hard-rocking, all-female bands like Aldious, Lovebites, and Mary's Blood.

8. Emily Burton (Fireball Ministry, Black Sabbitch, Hexandagger)

When Emily Burton's side band, Black Sabbitch – at Dave Grohl's request – performed at the Foo Fighters' 2018 CalJam festival, her fiery guitar playing came to wider attention.

Burton's been at it a while, having first come to prominence with the acclaimed stoner-metal band Fireball Ministry. Burton's a killer rhythm player, and in that role she creatively steers Fireball Ministry's eclectic tunes, which range from sublimely heavy to more textural, even ambient-like, territory. 

The significant influence of Tony Iommi's riffs is one of the main threads connecting Burton's Fireball Ministry work to that with her dark, hard-rocking trio Hexandagger, and, of course, Black Sabbitch. 

Using either a flame-shaped Minarik guitar or her well-worn Gibson SG, Burton is a true road warrior, wowing audiences around the world with her unique and spirited take on classic Sabbath tunes, not to mention her electrifying original material.

7. Morgan Lander (Kittie)

Morgan Lander's breakneck, hard-driving riffs played a huge role in powering the ascent of Canadian nu-metallers Kittie. Along with her sister, Mercedes, on drums, Lander and Kittie helped usher in the nu-metal era with edgy lyrics, a glam-meets-goth look, and thrashy speed and intensity. 

The success of Kittie's 2000 debut album, Spit, got them a slot in the 2000 Ozzfest tour. Those prominent shows (the band had also previously opened for Slipknot), made Lander one of the most prominent and influential female guitarists of the post-grunge, post-riot grrrl, early nu-metal era.

6. Jody Turner (Rock Goddess)

A classic, all-girl New Wave of British Heavy Metal band, Rock Goddess formed around the core of another sister duo, Jody and Julie Turner.

With Jody on guitar and Julie on drums, Rock Goddess cranked out melodically fierce metal that closely paralleled their American contemporaries, the Runaways. 

Her guitar slung low, Jody delivered crunching riffs and a killer vibrato that anchored the trio's bottom-heavy, galloping anthems. That guitar work, coupled with menacing vocals and cool time changes, made anthems like Heavy Metal Rock 'n' Roll a fist-pumping good time.

5. Rena Sands Petrucci (Meanstreak, Ride 'Em All)

When Meanstreak sang the anthemic Roadkill, on their 1988 debut album of the same name, they meant it. The LP bulldozed plenty of other hard-rock and metal albums released in the same time period, but, sadly, didn't help Meanstreak achieve mainstream success. 

A killer dispatch from one of the early all-female thrash metal bands, Roadkill is a fistful of riffage and wicked-fast solos courtesy of rhythm guitarist Marlene Apuzzo (now Portnoy) and Rena Sands, respectively. 

Sadly, Meanstreak only ever made that one album, but Sands is still shredding in the Metallica tribute band, Ride 'Em All, and recently re-teamed with a reunited Meanstreak to open for guitarist John Petrucci (Rena's husband) on his recent solo tour. Sands' playing has evolved impressively over the years, and remains criminally underrated.

4. The Great Kat (Katherine Thomas)

Jaco Pastorius was reported to have said, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up," and Katherine Thomas – a Juilliard graduate who calls herself "The Great Kat" – surely does. 

Though Thomas is one of the more commercially successful guitar players on this list, she's still not as much of a guitar household name as, say, Jennifer Batten. 

A skilled violinist, Thomas's marriage of classical music and speed metal makes for a uniquely astounding, virtuosic (and weird) sound that's all her own.

The obvious comparisons to Yngwie Malmsteen came quickly, as did eye-popping amazement over Thomas's outrageous dominatrix, neoclassical-metal-playing-plasmatic stage look. An expert self-promoter, Thomas is still playing, and devising new and creative ways to rev up classically-influenced shred. Like her vibes or not, her chops win the day.

3. Janet Robin (Precious Metal, The String Revolution)

At a young age, Janet Robin took guitar lessons from the legendary Randy Rhoads, and by high school was flexing her guitar skills in the all-female rock band Precious Metal. Laden with catchy hooks and sweet, blazing lead runs, Robin's playing immediately stood out in the crowded and competitive mid-'80s LA hard-rock scene.

Though Precious Metal never quite made it big, Robin has continued to make her mark as a versatile session player and singer/songwriter. Robin also founded her own label, Little Sister Records, on which she's released several solo albums. 

Robin also played in Lindsey Buckingham's solo band, has written with the likes of Heart, Poison and Cheap Trick, and continues to create fascinating arrangements of classic tunes with her String Revolution project.

2. Kelly Johnson (Girlschool)

With her Les Paul front and center, Kelly Johnson graced the cover of Guitar Player magazine in 1983, and changed the game for aspiring female rockers.

A brilliantly versatile hard rock player, Johnson's gritty, bluesy style was integral to the sound of Girlschool, an essential New Wave of British Heavy Metal band. Johnson's sweet tone and fierce rhythmic passages were the engine of classic songs like C'mon Let's Go and Not for Sale.

Aside from her influential work with Girlschool – which she left in 1984, before rejoining in 1993 – Johnson also prominently collaborated with the Go Go's Kathy Valentine. Sadly, she passed away from spinal cancer in 2007.

1. Maxine Petrucci (Madam X)

Maxine Petrucci (no relation to John) is the homecoming queen of this list. One of the groundbreaking women of technical guitar, Petrucci has been dazzling audiences with her high-level chops for decades. 

At age 12, Petrucci got her start on classical guitar, and was later influenced by early female rockers Fanny and the Quatro sisters.

With Madam X, Petrucci developed a wild, flamboyant image and stage presence on par with arena-packing metal bands of the day, like Judas Priest. When paired with her shred-tastic, classically inspired fretwork, Petrucci helped raise the metal bar to new heights. 

Petrucci is well-known for her unique, rapidly fluttering right-hand picking technique – sometimes called "the hummingbird effect". Good examples of Petrucci's biting guitar playing include Madam X's We Reserve The Right and Monstrocity and her solo album, Back to the Garden.

Having spearheaded a successful Madam X reunion in the early 2010s, Petrucci is still rocking today. Her impressive solo recordings are chock full of technical gymnastics and creative songwriting. Along with her sister Roxy Petrucci – drummer for Vixen and Madam X – Maxine Petrucci is truly part of metal's elite.

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