In a year beset by a global crisis, one of the most gratifying, triumphant pieces of music news came from, of all places, the Grammy awards. For the first time ever, the Best Rock Performance category was made up of all-female nominees, among them HAIM, Brittany Howard, Grace Potter, Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple and the Adrianne Lenker-fronted Big Thief.
It’s perhaps the most concrete example yet of the changing face of rock music, and by extension guitar playing, in popular culture.
And while we celebrate female players every day at GuitarWorld.com, in honor of International Women’s Day, we’d like to salute the guitarists who took the guitar in new directions, broke new ground and generally made the guitar world an exciting place to be over the past 12 months.
In truth, there is no limit to the number of artists we could include in such a list, but these are the players who we believe changed the game since the start of the pandemic.
We could fill most of this article with the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s achievements over the past year – an Academy Award nomination, multiple Tonight Show appearances, a freaking Super Bowl performance – but becoming the first Black female artist to have a signature Fender guitar could prove to have the longest-lasting impact.
The H.E.R. Stratocaster is a stunning, spec’d-up take on Fender’s most iconic design, kitted out with a head-turning Chrome Glow finish and noiseless pickups, but the model’s significance goes far beyond good looks and great tones.
“The coolest thing about it all is being the first Black woman to have her own signature guitar with Fender,” H.E.R. told GW in an exclusive interview.
“I think it will inspire a lot of young Black girls – and actually a lot of young girls in general – to pick up the guitar, which is something we don’t see enough of.”
And it appears that change is already underway: searches for H.E.R.'s signature Fender Stratocaster doubled following that awe-inspiring Super Bowl performance back in February.
2. Jasmine Star
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When you’re faced with just one minute to demonstrate your skills, you need to make every second count. And there are few guitarists who can match the pace of Jasmine Star, who at 17 years old, has become one of TikTok’s biggest guitarists, thanks to performance videos brimming with technique and creativity.
Star has covered everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Jason Becker, but it’s her videos shredding over the likes of Foo Fighters and Greta Van Fleet that won her headlines from the wider music press this month.
“One of my favorite things to do in the world is look for good music, no matter the genre,” Star told us last year. “I search and search and search for all the music that I can find.”
That thirst for new sounds and new skills ultimately landed Star a spot in the Young Guitarist of the Year 2020 finals with an original track and a dazzling display of technical expertise.
3. Carmen Vandenberg
There was no NAMM this year, but January 2021 still saw a raft of gear announcements, among them Blackstar’s all-new CV30, a sharp-looking, smartly appointed combo designed by Carmen Vandenberg – which makes her the first woman to have a signature guitar amp.
Vandenberg may have described the experience as “a dream that I have never even dreamed about”, but her pedigree as a player proceeds her: she not only played with one of the all-time greats in Jeff Beck, but also co-wrote his 2016 album, Loud Hailer, while rock duo Bones UK received a Grammy nod for their debut album.
A follow-up is currently in the works – while it was temporarily set back by writer’s block, Vandenberg is determined to solider on.
“The audience’s faces and joy is what fills my batteries and without that – I felt a bit lost last year,” Vandenberg told us. “I lost that incentive to write, and I am getting it back. [The amp] has been a huge inspiration and a push. You can dwell in self-pity for a little bit but then you have got to get out of it.”
4. Amy Love (Nova Twins)
With London-based duo Nova Twins, Amy Love is carving a new path in rock music – one that weaves the bass-heavy sonics of UK grime and hip-hop with the abrasiveness of punk and alt-rock into one of the most exhilarating genre mash-ups to feature six strings and a boatload of effects pedals.
But Nova Twins’ ambitions go far beyond changing rock; they’re on a cultural mission, too. To that end Love and bandmate Georgia South this year assembled a limited-edition compilation, Nova Twins Presents Voices For The Unheard , to showcase POC alternative artists.
“I am half-Iranian and half-Nigerian,” Love told Total Guitar. “I think when you are already from different cultures and backgrounds, you already don’t necessarily feel like you can fit in. You do feel on the outside sometimes, and I think when that happens you look elsewhere. There was no point where I thought, ‘This is where I belong.’
“I had the privilege to just walk around and take my pick. Obviously, the people who looked like me were in the hip-hop category, so I was looking at people like Missy Elliott and Destiny’s Child, and more R&B/hip-hop artists. I think that is why [Nova Twins have] quite a broad sound and it crosses over.”
5. Nandi Bushell
Throughout lockdown, this 11-year-old Londoner has communicated with more musicians than your average GW writer, with Tom Morello, Flea and Dave Grohl all lining up to sing the praises of the multi-instrumentalist wunderkind.
But it’s the performances, and the sheer joy Bushell exudes, that should fill guitarists with the kind of giddy sensation they had when they first plugged in, dialed up the gain and rung out that E chord.
But Bushell abilities go far beyond what most guitarists are capable of at 11 (and, indeed, when turned up to 11). It’s why Dave Grohl wrote songs about her, and why Tom Morello gifted her a guitar and commended her for “recogniz[ing] the purity and authenticity of holding a guitar in your hands, stepping on the distortion pedal and just rocking the f**k out”.
The rest of the world noticed, too: Nandi’s cover of Rage Against the Machine’s Guerrilla Radio, shared in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, was GuitarWorld.com’s single biggest news story of 2020.
Sidenote: we’ve spotted a nifty metallic blue HSS Strat with an angled bridge humbucker in Nandi’s latest clips. Can we get a Nandi Bushell Stratocaster sometime soon, pretty please, Fender?
6. Rebecca and Megan Lovell (Larkin Poe)
While much of 21st-century guitardom is focused on the pursuit of perfection, Larkin Poe’s Lovell sisters seek to keep the flame of roots Americana burning with a distinctly old-school recording approach: guitars are cut live and vocal takes are limited to just a few run-throughs to retain the humanity.
“We love roots American music, and not putting it behind glass, and giving it the opportunity to breathe, to go to new places, feels very important,” Rebecca told us last year.
“To keep that lifeblood kicking through the music and make sure it’s got a pulse, ‘cos the last thing we want to do is treat blues music, bluegrass, or America like a time capsule.”
Last year’s Self Made Man was filled with monster electric and lap-steel riffs rooted in the blues, but with hooks and production that nod towards contemporary pop. And with their progressive approach, Rebecca and Megan are bringing one of the genres most synonymous with guitar to a new generation.
7. Yvette Young
Yvette Young’s announcement as Ibanez’s second-ever female signature artist – following Nita Strauss – technically arrived just prior to the past year. But what she’s done with that model since continues to be an inspiration.
Last year’s Technicolor was an uplifting, technically astounding achievement for her math-rock outfit Covet, but Young has used the platform her abilities have given her to promote positivity and inclusivity on the instrument. After all, this is an artist for whom guitar saved her life.
The definition of a guitarist who carves their own path, Young has also espoused the importance of measuring success in your own way, and finding your own individuality on the instrument – something that landed her the cover of Total Guitar’s January 2021 issue.
It’s one thing to be championed by Brian May – and with compliments like “Arielle’s playing reaches places I never knew existed”, no less – but it’s another to convince the Queen founder to create the first Brian May Guitars model that, well, isn’t for Brian May.
Yet the American singer-songwriter has made her dream a reality, with a signature model that splices an Explorer with Red Special DNA, and is all the cooler for it.
Similarly, Arielle’s musical leanings span the decades. Her forthcoming debut album, appropriately titled Analog Girl in a Digital World, is recorded half-digital, half-tape, with each track captured in a single take. The style may be rooted in the past, but the approach takes the best of classic and contemporary.
9. Diamond Rowe (Tetrarch)
Tetrarch are on the verge of world domination. Their anthemic brand of heavy – which draws deep from nu-metal and metalcore – has resonated on a colossal scale, with their most recent singles amassing well over a million views apiece. It’s no wonder new album, Unstable, was snapped up by Napalm Records for worldwide release at the end of April.
But it’s lead guitarist Diamond Rowe who really makes the Tetrarch sound shine. Her riffs span Trivium head-bangers to Gojira wrecking balls, while her leads team technical precision with the modulated eeriness of Head and Munky’s finest output.
A regular ESP demo artist and the first African-American female metal guitarist to be featured in major industry publications – GW included – Rowe is an inspiration to the next generation of metal players.
10. Helen Ibe
Helen Ibe is known for formidable jazz guitar playing in her home country of Nigeria, but her worldwide followers will be more familiar with her tasteful neo-soul electric licks, as showcased on her burgeoning YouTube channel.
2020 saw Ibe’s fanbase increase at an impressive rate thanks to a surge of new video output, from no-nonsense, tonesome guitar demos to masterful instrumental cover versions, and smart tips on topics such as how to teach yourself how to play guitar.
With original material in the works and a welcoming persona, Ibe serves as a refreshing reminder of the raw guitar talent that YouTube can unearth.
11. Lari Basilio
Ibanez shocked the gear world this year with the launch of its own Tele-inspired AZS range, and alongside Josh Smith, the Japanese guitar giant signed up Brazilian virtuoso Lari Basilio for its first signature models in the new body shape.
The LB1 is a model deserving of Basilio’s ability, equipped with signature Seymour Duncan pickups, Gotoh tremolo and a custom finish inspired by her signature shade of lipstick.
It also inspired her to write and record Sunny Days, her first new material since 2019’s exemplary Far More, which showcases the touch, dynamism and flair with which she’s made her name.
“It was challenging doing everything from a distance, but Ibanez nailed the LB1 in the first sample they sent me,” she told Guitarist magazine.
“I knew this was it. I felt at home immediately. I didn’t need any time to adapt to the guitar, which is the first time that’s happened.”
12. Phoebe Bridgers
Way back in the introduction to this piece, we mentioned those all-female Grammy nominations – and few artists have received quite so many awards nods as Phoebe Bridgers, who is up for Best New Artist, Best Alternative Album, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.
Last year’s Punisher was truly a defining achievement for one of today’s premier singer-songwriters – lyrically devastating and swathed in must-learn chord progressions, it quickly shot up the ranks of album-of-the-year lists.
Yet, somehow, it was Bridgers’ performance of I Know the End on Saturday Night Live – you know, the one where she had the sheer audacity to smash a guitar on live television – that generated the most attention.
But guitar-playing Bridgers fans knew what’s up: this is a player who eschews conventions. Someone who made a Danelectro ’56 baritone – the victim of aforementioned smashing – her main performance partner, or who brings out a budget Bronze by B.C. Rich Warlock to play open-tuned rhythm guitar on a multiple Grammy-nominated indie-rock single.
Phoebe Bridgers is a reminder that there are no rules when it comes to guitar – a sentiment that holds true now more than ever.