From Stevie Nicks to Patti Smith, we’ve gathered the ultimate list of groundbreaking frontwomen who have made rock history. These are women who have ignored the rules of a relatively male-dominated game. Instead of playing pop music or strumming an acoustic tune, these women opted for electric guitars, fast drumming, and bold, unyielding lyrics.
There’s a high chance that the women on this list had to fight, work and play harder just to be granted the same recognition as their male counterparts. When they finally made it, they tore up the rule books they were given by society and re-wrote the manual on their own terms.
Joan Jett Was Told That Girls Don’t Play Rock n’ Roll
On Christmas of 1971, Joan Jett’s parents gifted her a simple guitar and an amp. They thought it was a strange request, but they let their spirited daughter have her wish anyway. Jett was over the moon with her new instrument, which she immediately plugged in and began using.
Jett didn’t know how to play at all, so she signed up for some guitar lessons. Her teacher insisted on teaching her light-hearted, sweet folk tunes, explaining that “Girls don’t play rock and roll.” Needless to say, she proved him and many others wrong.
Joan Jett, an Unruly Feminist
Crowned “The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll,” Joan Jett broke into rock’s music scene as a staunch feminist who didn’t give a damn about her “bad reputation.” She founded The Runaways, an all-girl band comprised of Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, and Sandy West.
After five albums and four turbulent years, The Runaways disbanded. But that was far from the end for Joan Jett. She formed Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and produced ten more albums and several chart-topping hits.
In 2015, she was inducted into Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame, a title she very much deserves.
We Have Grandpa Nicks to Thank
Stevie Nick’s grandfather, Aaron Jess Nicks Sr., was a country artist whose dreams of stardom never really took off. Still, he had high hopes for his granddaughter. Aaron noticed that his granddaughter was musically talented when she was just four years old.
He encouraged her to sing and often performed duets with her to help her grow her confidence. She joined his small shows at local bars, happily dancing her way on and off stage. It was in those simple bars that Stevie Nicks’ journey began. All thanks to Grandpa Aaron.
Stevie Nicks Took Fleetwood Mac to Another Level
From her early days with Fleetwood Mac to her prolific solo career, Stevie Nicks has grown to become rock royalty. She’s enchanted all of us over the years with her mystical persona, prolific songwriting, and bold stage presence.
In 1998, Nicks was inducted into Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame with her band Fleetwood Mac. But in 2019, her status as one of the greatest female rockers was fully etched in stone after being called onto the stage and enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
Patti Smith Just Had a Lot of Guts
Patti Smith once said she “thinks” she sang in the school choir “or something,” but that she didn’t “have any real gift.” What the singer did have, though, was “a lot of guts.” She could talk and perform in front of a crowd full of people.
Speaking of guts, Smith, who was a poet long before she became a singer, started reading her poetry in places where poems aren’t typically read. She never fit in the “poet clique.” In fact, Smith didn’t have much respect for poets and found it difficult to relate to them. So, she looked for different venues where she could perform her art.
Patti Smith, a Chanting Rock, and Roll Poet
Over the years, Patti Smith has grown to become one of the greatest female rockers of all time. Her debut album, Horses, is a beautiful blend of rock and poetry, and it absolutely stunned its listeners when it first hit stores back in 1975.
The singer couldn’t care less about being polite, feminine, or agreeable. She sang about humping on parking meters and suicide. She sang of cosmic anarchy and the shattering of one’s identity.
Smith’s music has paved the way for more female rockers. And in 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ann Wilson’s Salvation Was Singing
Life wasn’t easy for 13-year-old Ann Wilson. She was transitioning into puberty and felt disconnected from her own body. “Hitting puberty, you’re either super confident and popular or ugly and hate yourself.” The Heart singer admitted she saw herself as the latter. A terribly shy kid, she found herself stuttering and tripping over her words.
Incredibly, the only times she let out a smooth, unbroken phrase from her mouth was when she sang. Therefore, Ann spent her teen years singing in churches and knew that she would make singing her life’s work from the very beginning.
The Birth of Heart
Ann wasn’t the only musical prodigy in the Wilson family. Her sister, Nancy, grew up playing the guitar and was outstandingly good at it. In the mid-’70s, the two talented sisters became the forefront of Heart, a classic rock band originally formed by a group of men (Steve Fossen, Roger Fisher, Don Wilhelm, and Ray Schaefer).
Ann was the first to join as the group’s lead vocalist, and Nancy followed shortly after on the guitar. Together, Heart sold over 35 million records worldwide and topped the charts with their hits, big rock anthems that showcased Ann’s bombastic voice range, and Nancy’s swift finger work.
In 2013, Ann and Nancy were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as members of Heart.
Tina Turner Was Born Into Chaos
Born Anna Mae Bullock, Tina was born into a family of “well-to-do farmers.” While they were comfortable financially, they had other problems. Her parents, Floyd and Zelma, were constantly at each other’s throats. “They didn’t love each other,” the singer told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1986.
Her skewed view of love impacted her later on in life. She found herself head deep in an abusive relationship with Ike Turner, her husband and musical partner who helped produce her music when she first started out. After years of abuse, Tina finally ran away from Ike. With no money in her pockets and nowhere to go, the singer lived on food stamps. But that wasn’t the end of her story.
One of the Most Remarkable Comebacks in Rock History
One of the most incredible comebacks in music history occurred when Tina released her album Private Dancer in 1984. It sold 11 million copies, driving the world mad with hits like “Let’s Stay Together” (a cover of an Al Green song) and “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Tina was inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once, in 1991, for her work with Ike, and again in 2021 for her outstanding work as an independent, strong, female artist. She’s been through hell and back, yet no amount of hardship can dim Tina’s extraordinary talent.
Wanda Jackson, a Rockabilly Legend
If there’s one person who needs to be on this list, it’s Wanda Jackson. With her astonishingly raw, raspy voice and bold dance moves, she became the Queen of Rockabilly in the 1950s. Jackson was considered an anomaly in a field mostly dominated by men.
Jackson’s biggest hits include Let’s Have a Party, Hardheaded Woman, and Funnel of Love. Despite straying from the scene and transitioning to gospel, Jackson’s rock legacy hasn’t diminished. In 2005, Elvis Costello wrote a letter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organization explaining why Jackson should be on that list. A few years later, in 2009, she was finally inducted.
Elvis Gave Her the Nudge She Needed
Hearing and watching Wanda Jackson perform, you might be reminded of a particular artist – Elvis Presley. And there’s no coincidence there. As a teenager, Wanda toured with Elvis, and the two dated briefly. Elvis would constantly encourage her to explore her vocal range.
“Well, I’m just a country singer. I can’t sing the stuff that you do,” she once told him. But Elvis knew that all Wanda needed was just a little nudge for her to take the rock and roll world by storm. The more she dared, the better she sang, the more successful she became. There’s no doubt that Jackson is a true pioneer in the history of female rockers.
Dolores O’Riordan, a Little Pixie With the Voice of a Rebel
Safe to say, we owe a huge thank you to Dolores O’Riordan, The Cranberries’ frontwoman, who created some of the greatest rock songs of the ‘90s. With her strong Limerick accent and signature yodeling, this Irish artist stood out among the many rockers of her time.
From Linger to Zombie to Salvation, Dolores O’Riordan delivered the band’s heart-piercing lyrics with an emotive range like no other. U2 members once said of her, “She had such strength of conviction, yet she could speak to the fragility in all of us.”
She Struggled With Bipolar Disorder
At the age of 46, Dolores O’Riordan suffered a tragic accident and drowned in her bathtub after having way too much to drink. Members of The Cranberries said she was in great spirits in the days before her death and were astonished by the unfathomable event.
While Dolores may have seemed happy, the singer struggled for years with bipolar disorder and periods of dark depression. “You can get extremely depressed and dark and lose interest in the things you love to do, then you can get super manic,” she explained. Dolores battled those demons for a long time, and while she left this world prematurely, the legacy she left behind will linger on for decades.
Kim Deal, aka Mrs. John Murphy
Kim Deal first showed up in the rock scene as co-singer and bassist of the Pixies’ iconic indie band. She joined them at the start of 1986 and used the stage name Mrs. John Murphy as an ironic feminist joke, meant to tease women who wish to be called solely by their husband’s name.
When the Pixies disbanded, Kim decided to form her own band along with her sister, Kelley. They called themselves The Breeders and released enduring hits like Gigantic and Cannonball. Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain later stated that their album. Pod was one of his favorites. “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies,” he said.
“Nobody Would Play in a Band With a Girl From the Midwest”
Kim Deal, who was writing songs from a young age and had formed her first band somewhere in her teens, joined the Pixies after answering a newspaper ad they posted looking for a bassist. She didn’t know much bass but borrowed her sister’s instrument to practice.
Kim joined the Pixies and tried convincing her sister Kelley to join as the drummer. Kelley declined, so they ended up hiring David Lovering instead. Kim’s time with the Pixies was unforgettable, and she was grateful for meeting them. “I wasn’t in a band until Pixies,” she once admitted, “Nobody would play in a band with a girl from the Midwest.”
PJ Harvey’s Humble Beginnings
During the ‘90s alternative rock heyday, Polly Jean Harvey’s voice, and avant-garde performances helped her stand out from the group of female musicians of the era. The authenticity of her music matches her gritty lyrics, and she remains one of the greatest female rock singers of all time.
She kicked off her career with a band called Automatic Dlamini, with whom she grew in both experience and confidence. “I ended up not singing very much, but I was just happy to learn how to play the guitar,” she revealed, “I wrote a lot during the time I was with them.”
Her First Show Was a Disaster
Harvey eventually embarked on a solo career and recalled her first performance with her new line-up as an absolute disaster: “We started playing, and I suppose there was about fifty people there, and during the first song, we cleared the hall.”
But Harvey didn’t let that suck the air out of her. She recorded a string of demo songs and handed them out to different record labels. Finally, after hearing the record “Dress,” an independent label called Too Pure took her in.
Karen O Became New York’s Favorite New Artist
As the unruly lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen Lee Orzolek (aka Karen O) dominated the early ‘00s indie rock scene with her boisterous howls and flashy theatrics. The success of the band’s song “Maps” made Karen O one of New York’s favorite artists.
Born to a Korean mother and a Polish father, Karen admitted she was an “embarrassingly well-behaved child,” which is likely why she does “things like spit water on myself on stage as an adult.” Karen’s wild behavior has influenced many of the female artists today.
She Met Her Bandmember in College
Karen met Yeah Yeah Yeah’s drummer, Brian Chase, at Oberlin College, which they both attended. After transferring to New York, Karen ran into the band’s guitarist, Zinner, in a local bar, and they instantly connected. The aspiring artists were parts of all sorts of duos and trios before finally coming together as one band.
Karen adopted a weird, artistic look, and her ethereal voice, accompanied by her riotous moves on stage, turned her into one of rock music’s most interesting female stars. She paved the way for other quirky prodigies to come, including Grimes and M.I.A.
Shirley Manson’s Wild Vocal Range
Scottish singer Shirley Manson is undoubtedly one of the coolest female rock stars out there. The fiery redhead rose to fame in the ‘90s by singing out angsty lyrics with her band Garbage. Their biggest hits, “I’m Only Happy When it Rains” and “Why Do You Love Me,” cracked the charts and showcased Manson’s wild vocal range.
The band’s founding members, Duke Erikson and Butch Vig were searching for a strong female vocalist, one like “Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and Siouxsie Sioux, all really strong unique personalities,” Vig declared.
They Tracked Shirley Down
While Garbage’s members were searching for a frontwoman, Shirley Manson was busy with her short-lived band, Angelfish. They released a music video for their song “Suffocate Me,” which caught the eyes of Erikson and Vig.
When they contacted her, Manson had no idea who Vig was (and that he produced Nirvana’s album, Nevermind). She was taken aback by the offer and agreed to meet him in London. Garbage was put on hold until Angelfish finished touring. The band’s first sessions in the studio were a bit off, but over time they learned to work with one another and became one of the ’90s most notable bands.
Pat Benatar Was Discovered at a Comedy Club
While Pat is mostly known for feisty singles that shined on MTV like “Love Is a Battlefield” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” the singer first took the rock world by storm with her ‘70s debut album, In the Heat of the Night, which became a commercial success, reaching number three on the best album chart.
Pat was discovered while performing at a comedy club in New York City in the late ‘70s. Fittingly, the place was called Catch a Rising Star. Over the years, Pat has gifted us with numerous hits and has proved that female stars can fly solo. They don’t need to be part of a band to get themselves heard.
A Three Time Award Winner
The Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performer was given to Benatar for three years in a row, from 1980 to 1983. Other awards include a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, American Music Award for Favorite Female Artist, and People’s Choice Award for Favorite Female Artist.
Along with Sheryl Crow and Tina Turner, Pat holds the record for most Grammy wins in this category. Clearly, she has had a tremendous effect on the music industry, paving the way for more female artists to rise.
Janis Joplin, the Soulful Voice of a Hippie Generation
This list wouldn’t be complete without naming one of the greatest rock and blues singer-songwriters ever to live. Janis Joplin was a flame that burnt out way too quickly; she shook the world with her rich voice. She was a storm of a singer, with a ferocious grit and a natural knack for reeling in the crowd.
Her raspy voice reverberates in “Summertime,” adding to the dreamy feel of the slow melody. In “Me and Bobby McGee,” her story-telling voice flows so beautifully it’s enough to bring you to tears. Some might say her early death is why her legacy has endured for so long, but we beg to differ.
She Had Serious Substance Abuse Issues
Janis Joplin’s death in 1970 was ruled as an accidental heroin overdose. She passed away in her Hollywood hotel room, clutching her cigarettes in one hand and several dollar bills in the other. How and why did she end up in that state?
“She had a tremendous amount of assurance when she got it all together on stage, but offstage, privately, she seemed to be very frightened, very timid and naive about a lot of things,” her friend Bill Graham reported; “I don’t think [she] ever knew how to handle success. I think it created problems for Janis.” It created problems of addiction and self-destruction.
Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees
Siouxsie, the frontwoman of Siouxsie and the Banshees, is not only one of the best female rockers in music, but she’s also one of the most influential rock singers in the U.K. Her poignant songwriting is what turned her into such an affecting musician.
She writes about sexual abuse, mental illness, and crippling periods of depression. Her exceptional talent has led her to collaborate with other great minds in music, including John Cale and Morrissey. Siouxsie and the Banshees rose in the mid-‘70s, but to this day, their music is played and cherished all over the country.
They Offered to Fill In
Siouxsie Sioux met bandmate Steven Severin at a concert in the mid-‘70s, a period in music history when glam rock was slowly fading away. Youngsters like Siouxsie, who loved the unique and wild sound, didn’t have any new songs to relate to.
In September of 1976, at the 100 Club Punk Festival, Siouxsie and Steven filled in for a band that didn’t show up. It was their first time in front of a huge crowd, and they didn’t technically have a band to play with, so they borrowed two musicians, one of whom was Sid Vicious (from the Sex Pistols), and together they improvised a 20-minute set. It was a hit!
Joni Mitchell, a Canadian-Turned-American Superstar
Joni Mitchell will forever be remembered in rock history as the woman who wrote “Woodstock,” the song of a generation. It’s actually pretty funny because Joni didn’t actually go to Woodstock (she was busy getting ready for a TV appearance).
Still, Joni didn’t have to be there to pick up on the event’s vibe. She knew exactly what her fellow friends longed for – the freedom to love and be loved. Over the years, Joni has swooped her listeners off their feet with songs like A Case of You and The Circle Game.
A Teenage Misfit
Rolling Stone named Joni Mitchell one of the 100 best guitarists of all time, which makes perfect sense considering she has used around 50 non-standard tunings in her career. She isn’t afraid to explore different rhythms and unique harmonies.
Joni was always an artist and a freethinker, so it is no surprise that she was a total teenage misfit. Young Joni wasn’t interested in school at all. “The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think,” she told Rolling Stone.
Chrissie Hynde’s Strong Energy
As The Pretenders’ frontwoman, Chrissie Hynde has been a prominent figure in the rock scene since 1978, and, over the decades that followed, she has become one of the best female rock singers out there. Chrissie has worked with everyone from Cher to Frank Sinatra.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 as a member of the Pretenders. Her captivating stage presence and strong energy have turned her into an inspiring figure for women in the music industry.
A Confident Woman in a Man’s World
Chrissie is one impressive woman. In 1994, Madonna was quoted saying in awe: “I saw her play in Central Park once. She was amazing: the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome! It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
Chrissie’s confidence stems from a place of a genuine belief that we are our best teachers. And that life is a huge lesson in and of itself, and as long as you’re experiencing it to the fullest, you’re on the right path. She’s avoided vocal training her whole life because, “Voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness – anything but a teacher.”
Carly Simon Became the Ultimate Darling
Carly Simon began performing in New York clubs as part of a folk duo with her sister Lucy but then branched out on her own and released a self-titled debut album. She became an immediate star with her hit ballad “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” a feminist song questioning traditional marriage.
But it was only a year later, she really blew up with her hit single, “You’re So Vain.” She sang, “You had me several years ago when I was quite naïve,” causing the media to question whether it was about Mick Jagger or actor Warren Beatty.
It Wasn’t Always Easy
Carly’s brother Peter made a startling revelation in his book. He revealed that Carly was a victim of sexual assault when she was just seven years old. The attacker? A family friend who was still in his teens.
Carly would later describe it as a life-changing event that shifted her views about sex for a long time. The singer developed severe stuttering a year later, at the age of eight, and found comfort in singing, which was the only time she managed to keep her quivering voice intact.
Grace Slick Partied Harder Than Everyone Else
Since joining the psych-rock group Jefferson Airplane in the ‘60s, Grace Slick has grown to become one of the greatest forces in the history of female rockers. She has fully embodied the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle, out-partying all her male counterparts.
Slick became the poster child of Summer of Love, and she’s the brains behind some of Jefferson Airplane’s greatest hits, including White Rabbit, Greasy Heart, and Leather. Incredibly, Slick hadn’t really considered a musical career before joining the band.
“We’re Rock and Rollers! Not Bankers”
Slick really went all out with her rocker lifestyle. She took all the drugs, drank all the booze, and slept with whomever she wanted to. “The way I saw it was this,” she explained, “I’m young, healthy, I’m not miserable, I can take all the drugs I want, screw whoever I want, ‘cos they don’t have Aids yet, and I’m being paid to travel all over the world and dress any way I want. Come on! We were rock and rollers, not bankers.”
Slick has definitely calmed down over the years. Now 81, she devotes her life mainly to painting and sketching. She does art shows and isn’t a fan of traveling anymore. She’d rather stay in her comfortable nook and have people visit her there.