Rachelle van Zanten

After 11 years in the trenches, Canadian slide guitarist Rachelle van Zanten is done with bands. She just released her first soloalbum, Back to Francois [rachellevanzanten.com], which is packed with funky blues riffs and stellar slide performances. The surprise is that van Zanten juxtaposes her gutsy guitar playing with very personal and introspective lyrics—a stylistic trait she attributes to her diverse influences.

“After listening to Led Zeppelin, I really got a sense of groove,” she explains. “Then, after listening to John Prine, Gillian Welch, and Joni Mitchell, I came to appreciate lyrical storytelling, and how it can convey emotion—as well as getting what you believe in across to your audience.”

Describe your technique.

I try to isolate myself from listening to other slide guitar players to a certain extent so that I have my own sound. I use a lot of bass techniques such as hammer-ons and double hammer-ons with both my hands, and I don’t use a pick. I wear my slide on my middle finger—which I adopted from Bonnie Raitt—and I use a banjo-picking style incorporated with bass-string slapping and a percussive attack.

What is your idea of ideal guitar tone?

I’m really, really fond of the high-mid frequency, sizzling Billy Gibbons thing. I call it my buzzsaw slide sound, and I find this tone is easiest to achieve with vintage amps, old guitars, and heavy-gauge strings.

You’re producing and directing Western Canada’s first ever Rock Camp for Girls.

Yes. I designed a camp for young women aged ten through 16 that would allow them to be rock musicians for five days. They write their own material, organize their own bands, and learn how to set up their own gear. Vocal coaches, musicians, sound technicians, producers, and engineers give workshops on everything that has to do with being a musician. It’s very intense. Then, we prepare a final live concert that’s open to the public. Doing this has pretty much changed my life. From the first day I started the camp last year, I quit everything but making music, because the girls were so inspirational. Just seeing them go from being so nervous and intimidated on day one, and then blossoming into these little rock stars by day five was so rewarding.

Have you faced any challenges being a female slide guitarist?

Not really. For me, it works to my advantage. It’s kind of like positive discrimination, because I’m a very rare breed [laughs]. I think when I was first starting out, someone said, “Who the heck ever gave her a slide?” But that just fueled the fire. I was unstoppable from then on. I was going to prove that I could be a world-class player.