Lead guitar players get most of the glory, but rhythm guitarists supply much of the foundation upon which those lead lines can soar. Indeed, many of classic rock’s finest moments, from The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” were forged in the smoldering fire of rhythm guitar. Of course, many great rhythm guitarists – the late Mick Ronson springs to mind – occupied dual roles as lead and rhythm players. Below are 10 rhythm players who rank among rock and roll’s best-ever.
10. CHUCK BERRY
John Lennon famously said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Berry’s innovative use of double-stops and his newfangled rhythm style comprised the backbone of rock and roll guitar. With an ES-355, or one of its cousins as his instrument of choice, Berry melded country and R&B into swinging, boogie-woogie rhythms that previously were thought to be the sole province of piano players. His distinctive two-string patterns became a template for the likes of Keith Richards and others.
9. ED O’BRIEN
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood gets more attention, but when it comes to rhythm guitar, Ed O’Brien’s amazing six-string work is just as integral to the band’s sound. “I've been heavily influenced by rhythm guitar players like Johnny Marr,” O’Brien told Guitar Player, in 1997. “He was an amazing, brilliant rhythm player, rarely played solos, so full of sounds. I'm nowhere near as technical, but I'm also into sounds, pedals, rhythmic textures and arpeggio stuff. When you get to the point when you understand what rhythm guitar is really doing, you begin to appreciate good rhythm guitar.”
8. JOHN LENNON
Recording engineer Eddie Kramer, who worked with countless guitar greats, once gushed that John Lennon (http://www.gibson.com/news-lifestyle/features/en-us/john-lennon-10-things-1005/) was “a ridiculously good rhythm player.” Lennon himself summed up his six-string gifts, often showcased on an Epiphone Casino to Rolling Stone: “I'm not technically good, but I can make [the guitar] howl and speak,” he said. Lennon went on to compare his approach to that of Richie Havens. “He plays, like, one chord all the time. He plays a pretty funky guitar. But he doesn't seem to be able to play in the real terms at all. I'm like that. I'm an artist. If you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it.”
7. JOHNNY RAMONE
The late Johnny Ramone often gets short shrift as a rhythm guitarist, but in fact his rapid, down-stroked “buzz saw” technique had a powerful impact on thrash-metal specialists, including the likes of Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine. Even six-string virtuoso Paul Gilbert has cited Ramone as a primary influence. Asked by photographer Robert Jones to name his greatest six-string inspiration, Ramone said, “Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.”
6. KAKI KING
"There are guitar players who are good, and there are guitar players who are really good. And then there's Kaki King." That's how Dave Grohl once described King, the youngest person ever named a “New Guitar God” by Rolling Stone. The six-string sensation attributes much of her rhythm skills to the fact that she was originally a drummer. “It has to do with the independence of the hands,” she said, in a 2010 interview. “Because I can do something with one hand while the other is doing something totally different, I can get twice as much done on the guitar. People sometimes see what I'm playing and go, ‘Oh, my God!’ while I'm thinking, ‘Actually it's not that hard.’ I'm using techniques I learned through playing drums, and transferring that to the guitar.”
5. DAVE MUSTAINE
Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine’s distinctive rhythm style was forged through countless hours of listening to Angus Young, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley and Michael Schenker. Asked about his current approach to guitar, he told Guitar World, “[Megadeth lead guitarist] Chris [Broderick] does all the work and I have all the fun. But that’s kind of backwards because I’m the one carrying the brunt of the rhythm responsibilities. Chris has a lot of really great abilities as a lead guitarist. I’m more of a utility player, where I play underneath. These days, when it’s time for a solo, I hold the bottom down while Chris plays lead, especially when there’s a difficult guitar rhythm on top, because that’s my strength.”
4. MALCOLM YOUNG
Angus Young once said his older brother, Malcolm, could likely fill his shoes, but he [Angus] could never fill those of Malcolm. Indeed, Malcolm Young’s sensational rhythm work lies at heart of AC/DC’s distinctive sound. Guitar Player once noted that the secret to Malcolm Young's guitar technique is playing open chords through a series of medium-sized amplifiers set to low volume with little or no gain. The fact that he uses heavy gauge Gibson nickel round-wound strings, in order to produce a thicker sound, is a key factor as well.
3. JIMMY PAGE
Fans who revere Jimmy Page for his breathtaking solos and extraordinary riff-making should add Page’s rhythm playing to that list. Few guitarists have moved more nimbly between earth-shaking power chords and subtle triads and tasteful arpeggios. Much of Page’s magic emanated from the range of dynamics he achieved with various strumming techniques, which he often employed in acoustic settings. Punk guitar maestro Johnny Ramone once revealed he improved his down-stroke picking style by listening over and over to Page’s playing on “Communication Breakdown.”
2. PETE TOWNSHEND
Few musical sounds are more instantly recognizable than Pete Townshend’s revved-up flamenco style or his wind-milled power chords. Townshend spoke about his love of rhythm guitar in a 1980 interview with Sound International. “I wouldn’t object at all to have a [lead] guitar player in The Who so that I could just concentrate on rhythm. I love it. It’s a physical thing. It’s like a dancing thing. There’s a strong syncopation element in it. My style has been formally rhythmic. I laid down the beat and John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon] worked around it.”
1. KEITH RICHARDS
Rolling Stones producer Don Was once offered up a terrific assessment of Keith Richards’ greatness as a rhythm player. “[His] rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. But in the Stones’ case, Keith is doing what the lead guitar player normally does.” Richards offered these thoughts: “[Rhythm] has always fascinated me. Mainly because I realized after quite a few years that the thing that really intrigued me, that turned me on to playing, was suggested rhythms going on, or a certain tension. Especially in early rock and roll, there's a tension between the 4/4 beat and the eighths going on with the guitars.”