Northern Lights

Jan Kuehnemund, 59: Her guitar shredded barriers for women

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2013 - 2:23 PM

She founded the all-girl metal band Vixen in 1973, while she was still in high school. Kicking open doors for women in the sexist world of rock music, she would one day be known as the Guitar Queen.

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Jan Kuehnemund

Photo: Courtesy of Vixen,

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Looking at film of Jan Kuehnemund diving into a guitar solo during a concert, it is unclear if she was even aware that she was on stage before throngs of adoring fans. Or was she, in her mind, back in the bedroom of the St. Paul home where she grew up, her attention focused solely on nailing the next riff?

She stood with her head slightly bowed, her eyes half closed, the expression on her face simultaneously intense but relaxed. Her long blonde hair was often teased into a poofy, backlit headdress that shrouded her with a glowing aura. There, she would lose herself, the fingers of her left hand deftly flying up and down the neck of her guitar.

Only when the solo ended would she look up and acknowledge the crowd and her bandmates, often with a small, shy smile that seemed to say, “Oh, were you listening to that?”

People did listen, and that forced record companies — which had rejected the notion that women could play hard rock — to listen, too. The band became a regular on MTV and, in 1988, earned a gold record. Kuehnemund used the attention to further the cause of female hard rock. “Sometimes people think we’re just dolls, all hype and just all dressed up and we can’t really play,” she told the Star Tribune in 1989. The music industry has “been male dominated for so long that I think a lot of people have to see the band to believe that we really play.”

When Kuehnemund died of cancer in October, heavy metal Screamer Magazine said she had used determination and her guitar to “carve out a place in rock ‘n’ roll history as one of the most influential women in music.”

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