Considering that women make up more than 50 percent of the population, the number of female guitarists on the scene has always been something of a distressing and disappointing mystery— even today, when society is less regimented about gender roles than ever and women are inching closer and closer to socioeconomic parity with men. But from the 1940s to the ’70s, one notable exception was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And she wasn’t just a woman who played guitar—she helped invent the whole concept of rock lead guitar.

The Early Years
Rosetta Nubin (March 20, 1915–October 9, 1973) was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and began performing at age 4, billed as “the singing and guitar playing miracle.” She began her gospel career accompanying her mandolin-playing mother, evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, who played tent revivals throughout the South. In the late 1920s, she was exposed to blues and jazz when her family moved to Chicago, and to the joy of some and the jeers of others she would eventually mix both genres with gospel music. You can hear blues bends and jazz chromaticism in the solos from her earliest acoustic solo work on Decca Records, where she was backed by “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra in the ’30s. Photos from this era show her holding various pre-electric instruments, including National archtop and steel guitars, as well as a Gibson L-5. This period is also notable because it’s when she took the surname of her first husband, preacher Thomas Thorpe, though she would later divorce him and change the spelling to “Tharpe.”

Appearances in producer John Hammond’s legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” show at Carnegie Hall, as well as gigs at the Cotton Club and Café Society, and bills with Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman helped grow her fame outside the church, much to the consternation of her more orthodox fans. Her versions of songs such as “This Train” and “Rock Me” became big hits, and even those early tunes without electric guitar had traces of what would become rock ’n’ roll rhythms.

During the recording ban enacted by the American Federation of Musicians union from 1942–44, Tharpe was one of only two gospel artists to record “V-Discs”—records intended to boost the morale of US troops serving overseas. You can hear her tearing up the acoustic on her 1944 recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price. This was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s “race records” Top Ten, and some consider it to be the first rock ’n’ roll record.

In 1946, Tharpe invited a young singer named Marie Knight onstage at one of her concerts. Knight had a strong contralto voice that blended well with Tharpe’s soprano range, and they soon had a hit with “Up Above My Head.” The pair toured the gospel circuit for a number of years, during which time Tharpe’s popularity among churchgoers peaked. The duo split in 1950, but by then Sister Rosetta was so well known that 25,000 people paid to attend her 1951 wedding to her manager Russell Morrison (her third marriage) at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was followed by a musical performance.