The Foley Files: Ellen McIlwaine

Ellen McIlwaine is one of the world’s greatest and most unique slide guitarists. Sue Foley speaks with her in this edition of "The Foley Files."
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Ellen Mcilwaine was already well known on the blues scene when I was starting out. She was legendary for having played with Hendrix in the ’60s, as well as forging her career at the cusp of the women’s movement. Ellen was one of the first females to play a really strident, aggressive style of slide, with no-holds barred and totally in your face. Even though she was categorized as a blues artist, Ellen shifted her style over the years, incorporating world music to create something completely of her own. She remains one of the world’s greatest and most unique slide guitarists.

Do you realize how much of an influence you’ve had? I see you in the same light as Memphis Minnie—a real trailblazer.

I didn’t learn the way someone else does, so I didn’t fit into a box. I was playing an acoustic guitar through an amp with a wah pedal, breaking all the rules, and not paying attention to “this is how you do it.” My slide playing is not typical, but slide is a really individual thing. If you listen to every slide player, you’ll see that we’re all different.

What do you feel is most unique about your style?

I learned from a flamenco player—that’s why I use finger picks and fling my whole right hand at the guitar.

One of the things I found interesting seeing you live was hearing your Middle Eastern influences.

I’ve always been fascinated by minor keys, and those strange Middle Eastern scales. Because I grew up in Japan, I was exposed to all different cultures. We had 200 students in our school, and 28 nationalities. When I first came to the States, people would say, “What is that? That’s really weird.” But it’s part of the whole thing called world music. I’ve always done it. Every kind of people in the world have wonderful contributions to make. I think people should share music, dance, food, and art, because we have so much to give each other.

Are there any women on the scene today, or in the past, that you’ve been influenced by?

There was nobody there but me. I was on the scene for maybe five years before Bonnie Raitt appeared, and Memphis Minnie was not somebody that anybody talked about. Those women who played blues in the ’40s kind of got buried and passed over. I didn’t hear about them until much later in my career. I consider Joni Mitchell to be a great guitar player. I’m a big fan. She’s just playing what comes out of her, and I think that’s what we women have to do. If there’s anything we can give each other, it’s just. “Let’s go for it!” 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.

For more information on Sue Foley, click to her website (, or check out her latest CD, The Ice Queen.