When you go to a rock show, there are usually one or two people in a band that stand out the most. The singer of course gets a lot of attention, and tends to be the one that many casual fans associate with the band in question. The guitarist, or lead guitarist in a two-guitar band, is usually second in line. All the cool guitar solos and poses make him a focal point of the show. But what about the rhythm guitarist? Easily one of the most overlooked band members, he is often neglected simply because he's not at the front of the stage ripping through solos in every song. Well, a solo last for maybe a minute, but what about the rest of the song, where does the solid groove come from? And who is actually playing that instantly recognizable riff that you know and love? That's right – the rhythm guitarist. Here we will take a look at some of the most well-known rhythm guitarists in the business, each with his own trademark sound and approach to rhythm guitar.
There's no doubt who is the guitar hero in Aerosmith. Joe Perry, with his unique blend of blues and hard rock riffs has been the face of the band alongside singer Steven Tyler for the band's 40-year career. Rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford has stood in Perry's shadow for all these years. Brad spoke to MusicRadar about how he and Perry work together when playing live, and how they are able to decide who's playing what part: “We're very intuitive. We have a natural ability to complement each other's playing. [...] It makes my life a lot easier when we can both work together the way we do. Certain guitar players I've worked with, either you blend very well or you clash.”
Perhaps the ultimate rhythm guitarist is Malcolm Young. Having spent his entire career playing rhythm to brother Angus' scorching solo's and on stage antics. Malcolm has the groove necessary to carry AC/DC's live shows. In an interview with Guitar World, Angus had nothing but praise and admiration for his brother, saying “My part in AC/DC is just adding the color on top. Mal's the band's foundation. He's rock solid and he pumps it along with the power of a machine. He doesn't play like a machine, though. Everything he does grooves and he always seems to know exactly what to play and when to play it. He's a very percussive player too, his right hand just doesn't stop sometimes.”
A rhythm guitarist who doesn't stand in the shadow of the lead guitarist is Metallica's James Hetfield. James is the ultimate master at playing fast precise riffs while singing, something that is not all that easy as most of you fellow musicians know. Hetfield has perfect timing, and is the brainchild behind most of Metallica's riffs. According to Hetfield, downpicking is a major ingredient to his precise hard rocking riffs, and the technique developed out of a competition with drummer Lars Ulrich, as he told MusicRadar: “It was always a kind of contest – who could down-pick the fastest – and mostly it was a battle between me and Lars, actually. It's a hard thing to do well, because your timing has got to be dead on. If you're playing eighth or sixteenth notes then you've got to get cooking. A lot of practice is called for to build up your strength.”
But playing rhythm guitar doesn't have to be all about playing perfectly synched riffs, it's just as much about groove and swagger. If you put your soul in to your playing you're going to get an organic sound that makes the music come alive, rather than playing like a robot to a metronome. There's no better example of a guitarist who has understood this than Keith Richards. The lifelong Rolling Stone is responsible for some of the grooviest riffs in history. It doesn't matter that Richards isn't completely in synch with drummer Charlie Watts, or the other way around. In fact, this is what gives the Stones their special sound. Now, of course Richards play lead as well, but in the Stones the roles between lead and rhythm are pretty much interchangeable between Richards and Ronnie Wood. But one thing's for sure: Richards' five-string setup with open-G tuning is what allowed him to write some of the best rhythm riffs for the Stones.
So all you lead guitarists out there, make sure you appreciate what a gift it is to have a solid rhythm player to back you up, and make your solos sound good. Try to put egos aside and just play what feels right within the band. Keith Richards sums up the idea of a two-guitar band pretty well in an interview with GuitarPlayer back in 1977: “What’s interesting about rock and roll for me is that if there are two guitarists, and they’re playing well together and they really jell, there seems to be infinite possibilities open. It comes to the point where you’re not conscious anymore of who’s doing what. It’s not at all a split thing. It’s like two instruments becoming one sound.”