Britain's 'Queen of the Stratocaster' rocks the world at 17, while at home she's just a girl

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The Independent Culture

When the mayor of the Texan capital, Austin, recently proclaimed three days in July to be "Zoe McCulloch Days", one might have imagined that the McCulloch in question was a local girl who had performed some valiant act during the Iraq war.

But this Zoe McCulloch is a 17-year old guitarist from Northumberland, virtually unknown in Britain but being hailed across the Atlantic as a British musical export capable of cracking the American market where even the likes of Robbie Williams have failed.

Will Wynn, mayor of Austin, conferred the honour after witnessing McCulloch's performances on a recent tour, which featured sell-out concerts, and radio and television appearances in Texas and New York. Other admirers include the Grammy Award-winning gospel artist, Art Greenhaw, who invited her to star in a festival at Mesquite, Texas, last weekend. He paid homage to "one of the foremost practitioners of instrumental pop and instrumental rock guitar". Next year will see her playing more shows in America and Japan, playing in front of crowds of up to 60,000.

McCulloch grew up in Stakeford, a former colliery village 25 miles from Newcastle. Neither her father or mother had a musical background but McCulloch began classical guitar lessons when she was nine. They soon gave way to rock music after she found an album by The Shadows in her parents' record collection.

Her love for the band - renowned for songs such as "Apache" and "Dance On", but forever associated with Cliff Richard - led her to enter a competition in 1997 judged by one of the group's founding members, Bruce Welch.

The guitarist instantly picked up on her "raw promise", and just two years later she was collaborating with the bass player Jet Harris on an album of covers. She was voted Best Newcomer in 2000 by the Instrumental Rock Guitar Hall of Fame and has already toured the US five times, playing with, among others, Tommy Emmanuel, Nokie Edwards and Hank Marvin himself. She has released five records on an independent label and her fame has spread as far as Brazil, where she is known as the "Queen of the Stratocaster".

"When I first met Zoe, she was just 11," recalls Welch. "It was so unusual to see a little schoolgirl with this huge electric guitar. She was only just picking out the tunes then but you could tell she had potential."

McCulloch has managed to juggle homework with her music, achieving good GCSE passes and taking a diploma in popular music in south Wales. "Now her talent is growing and she really looks the business," Welch said.

Art Greenhaw was just as complimentary. "I really think she can be huge in the guitar world. She's incredibly dedicated to her instrument and her fans and is technically a great player. She also has a dignity and a stage appeal far beyond her years," he said.

"If she continues to expand her styles she can become a definite superstar," he said. "I think she has that rare ability to break beyond the instrumental guitar niche to a wider audience."

McCulloch - dubbed by her manager, Patrick Terrett, as "a sort of Vanessa-Mae on guitar" - is more circumspect.

"I didn't expect things to move on so fast, and it was really hard work on tour with all the travelling. But I loved every minute of it," she said. "I only took up the guitar seven years ago for a hobby, but it's what I want do with the rest of my life."

Her mother, Lynn, appears almost bemused. "We're just a working class family really, it's quite amazing," she said.

As for the British market, her manager is not overly concerned by her anonymity here. "But we are hoping for a major label in the UK with a bit of imagination to pick her up," he adds.

"Zoe's not a pop star though. And Zoe doesn't want to be a pop star. Pop stars come and two or three years later pop stars go. Guitarists go on forever.

"She is getting amazing experience playing with the very best," Welch says. "That's a sign of the respect in which she's held."