It is not often that you see lists of great rhythm guitar players – well, not compared with lists of best lead guitarists. So, I thought we’d make one. And let’s be clear – it is to praise guitarists for their rhythm-playing ability. So if you want to select Jimi Hendrix that is fine, but make sure you’re selecting him for his rhythm playing (and he was a good rhythm player, sure). If anyone lists B.B. King for this activity I will be very suspicious.
I’ve been thinking about how important the role of the rhythm guitarist is – when performed properly. It might seem undervalued – in fact so many of the great rhythm players are underrated due to keeping it simple; due to playing what is required – keeping time, providing an anchor.
Malcolm Young is the first person I think of – he is the sound of AC/DC for me. He and Phil Rudd locking in perfectly; allowing Angus Young to wander and duck-walk and boogie, leaving space for the rasp of the vocals and for the guitar solos but never allowing the riffs to fall flat. He was a perfect rhythm player and irreplaceable in AC/DC. (Well, they did replace him. But you know what I’m saying). If what he does was so easy then I’m surprised we don’t have a surplus of great rhythm guitar players.
Pete Townsend played some great solos with The Who but he is a great rhythm player; using the guitar to anchor tunes in a band of soloists. His windmilling power-chord style would be reason enough for him to make any best guitarist list. He sure played a mean guitar.
Joni Mitchell is another who really anchored her tunes with her guitar playing; she’s a fascinating player – her songs are full of alarming structures and textures, fresh ideas. But in her albums with Jaco Pastorius he takes on a role, much like John Entwistle did in The Who of, essentially, lead bass – the guitar driving the sound with a solid “chug” as the bass pokes and prods and explores around the tune.
Speaking of the “chug” – this is where being a great rhythm guitar player is a lot like being a great backing vocalist. You don’t have to have the greatest voice but you have to know when to hit the note, you have to have great time. You have to know when to step back – or to allow that space for others to shine.
Tim Finn is a great rhythm player – his underpinning acoustic strum is most definitely an anchor – staple of so many Split Enz and solo Finn songs – and a highlight of many of the tunes he has written with brother Neil for their two duo albums and Crowded House’s Woodface.
Elvis Presley is often looked at as a pop star only not a musician – but I disagree. And I will always use the film Elvis: That’s The Way It Is as proof. Watch that concert film – it shines through in the rehearsal takes as well as the live footage; Presley knows every inch of every song. He’s building the arrangements and is aware of what every single musician is doing on stage. And sure, many times – particularly early on – his acoustic guitar was little more than a prop but he kept great time. And he (too) played a mean (rhythm) guitar.
There are so many names to bring up as great rhythm guitar players – but obviously I want you to help build the list and I don’t want to steal your thunder, I simply want to get this started. I am interested to read your picks.
But I will add James Hetfield in here because he was a great riff-provider when Metallica was at its best. And another great right-hand in metal is his one-time band-mate, Dave Mustaine.
Elvis Costello is a great rhythm guitar player. I really like John Fogerty’s southern stomp. Gregg Allman too for that matter.
And no discussion of rhythm guitarists ever misses out The Rolling Stones – Keith talked in his book about how important the “weave” of guitars that he and Ronnie create together is to the sound of the band. And of course that locking in between Keith’s guitar and Charlie Watts. And now we’re back to where I started when talking about rhythm players, with the approach of Malcolm Young from AC/DC.
So that seems a good place for me to stop. And for you to start. Do you appreciate a good rhythm guitarist and a great rhythm guitar part? Who are the rhythm guitarists you find inspiring? Who is your favourite rhythm guitar player?
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