Grace Notes

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Alan Messer

Quick. Name at least three female guitarists who helped shape the history of 20th-century pop music. Give up? Then give Sue Foley (MA ’15) a listen.

A top-ranking blues guitarist and singer-songwriter, Foley is back at York University advancing Guitar Woman, her research project into female players whose identities and importance have tended to be obscured.

Begun in 2001 from her home in Austin, Texas, and drawing on dozens of interviews with some of the world’s leading women guitarists, Foley’s self-generated study has morphed into a PhD program that York pop music historian and scholar Rob Bowman, a Grammy Award-winning ethnomusicologist, has been leading since the fall.

Foley, who plays a Fender Telecaster electric guitar, always loved the six-string playing of her fellow female artists, but wanted to know more about the players themselves as a way of advancing her own artistry.

“I wanted to know what makes them tick,” says the 50-year-old Ottawa native who earlier this year released her 11th solo album, The Ice Queen, to critical acclaim.

Her study includes such powerhouse musicians as Maybelle Carter, inventor of a scratch style of fingerpicking that influenced Nashville legend Chet Atkins, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a.k.a. First Lady of the Gibson) whose electric guitar playing inspired Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Keith Richards, and Canadian classical guitarist and Andrés Segovia protégée Liona Boyd.

With talent this compelling, Foley is already looking ahead to writing a book that should answer once and for all the question of just how much women guitarists have contributed to the craft and culture of recorded music.

“I loved the idea of uncovering the wisdom of someone who was a great musician but who also had a great outlook on life,” says the musician-scholar who is on tour in Europe this summer promoting her new record.

“I was always looking to the future when I was doing my interviews. I was always thinking of what I could do to be like them, and have their aura of grace.”

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