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Ellen McIlwaine (1945–2021), blues singer and guitarist

by Linnea Crowther

Ellen McIlwaine was a singer and slide guitarist known for her bluesy rock music.

Pioneering musical career

McIlwaine began playing professionally in the 1960s, impressing listeners with her skill as a guitarist. She played with notable musicians of the day including Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970), Muddy Waters (1913–1983), and Taj Mahal. McIlwaine formed the band Fear Itself in the late ‘60s and released a self-titled album in 1968, but she left the band before long, frustrated that being a woman set her apart from her bandmates. One of the first successful female rock guitarists, she excelled even in the face of sexism in the music world. She went on to record memorable covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Though McIlwaine didn’t find significant fame in the U.S., she was more successful in Canada and Australia.

Notable quote

“Being a female guitar player doesn’t need to have any restrictions, but other people who use that term might think it does. You have to play what comes out of you, and in order to do that, you can’t put the brakes on.” —from a 2018 interview for Guitar Player

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Tributes to Ellen McIlwaine

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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