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Into her 90s, Northwest music legend ‘Bonnie Guitar’ gigged every weekend

Gabriel Spitzer
Bonnie Guitar still plays every weekend at a club in Soap Lake, Washington.

 This story originally published Nov. 26, 2016. Bonnie Guitar died early Sunday, Jan. 13. She was 95. 

Growing up in Seattle in the 1930s, it was Bonnie Buckingham’s brothers who played the guitar. But Bonnie coveted it, and would take any opportunity to get her hands on the instrument. Soon, she says, “they couldn’t get it away from me.” So began the musical life of the woman who would become known as Bonnie Guitar.

Bonnie showed herself to be a prodigy and, in spite of having hardly any female role models, she busied herself playing local gigs and slowly getting better and better. 

In the early 1950s, she was recruited to be a session musician for a studio in Hollywood, a fateful career move that would fuel two sides of her musical passion. It led, first of all, to her first major hit: "Dark Moon" climbed both the country and pop charts in 1957, leading to a taste of bona fide fame.

But that studio job also served as a training ground for what may be a equally unusual accomplishment: Bonnie Guitar started her own record label in Seattle in 1958, eventually landing two acts that still tower among the giants of Pacific Northwest music: The Fleetwoods and the Ventures.

Bonnie Guitar continued to make music, flirting with commercial success many times over the decades. But what may be her most impressive musical accomplishment, besides the mark she’s left on the industry as an artist, businesswoman and innovator, is her longevity. Now 93 years old, Bonnie Guitar still plays a weekly gig at the Businessman’s Club in Soap Lake, Washington, where she’s lived for about 17 years. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.