“You check out guitar George, he knows-all the chords, Mind, it’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing” – Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”
I believe it was John Mellencamp who once sang, “Let me give you some good advice young man, you better learn to play guitar.” Every rock n roll fan wants to be the guitar player. Oh, sure I had those weird friends who played “air drums” but for the most part the guitar is the star. And I suppose a number of us have held a beer bottle in our hand and pretended it was a microphone as we lip-synced along. But for my friends and I, we all imagined being Hendrix and melting faces off with our epic, gnarly solo where we finish by playing the strings with our teeth. In most of our imaginations we were all the lead guitar player. Some of us – my friend Brewster or my friend Drew – actually owned a guitar. OK, Drew’s was a bass guitar but he owns a number of guitars now. Drew has what appears to be an awesome music room which unlike mine, has actual instruments in it. Brewster’s guitar had the neck snapped by a guy named Mickey (named changed to protect the guilty), karmic retribution for taking Mickey to see Springsteen on The River tour. My brother used to play an acoustic guitar but I don’t know if he still plays? I can’t play the radio.
But my utter lack of musical ability with an instrument didn’t stop me from dreaming. Other than lead singers – who often suffer from LSD, “lead singer disease” – when I was a teenager, I always held the dream of being the lead guitarist in a band. Whether I was Hendrix or Clapton in a power trio or Eddie Van Halen, the wizard, on guitar in a four piece, that was what I wanted to do… in my head at least. You’re in the spotlight but you’re sharing the spotlight with David Lee Roth, er, or whoever is singing. Some bands – the Allman Brothers Band, Thin Lizzy or the Paul Butterfield Band – had two lead guitar players. Oh, my… guitar nirvana. However, there are many, many bands that play as a five piece with two guitar players where there’s only one lead. That second guitarist is usually listed in the credits as playing “rhythm guitar.”
The Stones were always my gateway drug into rock n roll and while early on I had a Mick Jagger fetish, I quickly shifted my focus to Keith Richards. I couldn’t dance like Mick, but who can? At my most inexperienced, I assumed like most my guitar heroes, Keith was the lead guitar player. Paging Brian Jones… Mick Taylor… Ronnie Wood, but I digress. As time went on, the more liner notes I read taught me that there was such a thing as this fabled rhythm guitar player and that’s what Keith played (mostly). While playing solo’s gets all the attention the rhythm guy is just as important. He’s the guy that sets the riff which is the foundation of the song. It’s the riff that allows the soloist to soar, so to speak.
I’ve always thought of the rhythm guitar player as being the linchpin in any five piece (with two guitarists). He’s part of the front line of any band along with the lead player and the lead singer. That front line is face to face with the crowd. But he’s also part of the rhythm section with the drummer and the bassist. And as any true rock fan knows, the rhythm section is the engine of any band. In the parlance of the restaurant industry, the rhythm player is working the front of the house and the back room. He’s helping set – with the aforementioned drummer/bass player – the foundation upon which the singer and the lead guitarist “stand” upon.
Sadly, true rhythm players never get the glory, outside of a very few. If you google rhythm players the lists you’ll find are littered with lead guys. And yes, there are plenty of lead guitar players – Eddie, Jimi, Angus Young – who play fabulous rhythm guitar. Many of the lead guys are the only guitar player in the band so they do double duty. For the purposes of my list, I wanted to focus on the guys who are dedicated rhythm guitar players. And yes, occasionally the rhythm guy might step forward and take a solo… heaven knows they’ve earned it. Without further adieu, these are my favorite (predominantly) rhythm guitar players. These guys might be hanging out in the shadows by the drum riser having a smoke, but they certainly deserve some attention and love… I’ve listed the player and the band(s) they played with below.
- Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones/Xpensive Winos – Keef! Well, any long time reader would know this would be where my list started… Keith is the self described “Riff Meister.” He’s got so many iconic riffs that he and Mick built into songs, “Satisfaction,” “Jumping Jack Woman,” and “Honky Tonk Woman” to name but a few. When I think of sublime rhythm this is what I think of. He’s admitted playing with a virtuoso like Mick Taylor allowed him to perfect the rhythm guitar. Indeed.
- Malcolm Young, AC/DC – We lost Malcolm only a few years ago which truly makes me sad. While his brother Angus gets all the glory in AC/DC for his amazing solo’s (check out “Whole Lotta Rosie”) it’s Malcolm whose the hero in that band. AC/DC is all about riffs and feel and that starts with Malcolm.
- Stone Gossard, Pearl Jam – I feel Stone Gossard is sometimes the forgotten member of Pearl Jam. The chicks all dug Eddie Vedder and the guys like Mike McCready’s wicked solos but I always dug the riffs coming from Stone. He wrote most the music on their epic debut Ten. They’ve gone through a number of drummers but they couldn’t survive losing Stone in the engine of that band!
- Izzy Stradlin, Guns N Roses/solo – I’m still pissed the greedy Axl Rose hasn’t included his old Indiana buddy Izzy in the GnR reunion. When Slash, Duff and Adler first teamed up with Axl, he made Izzy’s being in the band a condition. Slash wasn’t too happy about it but Izzy wrote a lot of the songs and played fabulous riffs that Slash could play off of. He’s truly a great player. I saw Izzy and the Juju Hounds from right in front of the stage and oh, my, the riffs!
- John Lennon, The Beatles/solo – Sure John gets credit for his singing and songwriting and he was the front man of the Beatles, at least in the beginning, but he never gets credit for his great rhythm guitar. Ringo said he always played too fast but I love the way he plays. It’s an under appreciated part of the juggernaut of the Beatles.
- Joe Strummer, The Clash/solo – Much like Lennon, Joe sang most of the Clash tunes. He was another great songwriter. But he was also a great rhythm player. He didn’t adopt the last name “Strummer” for nothing. I love his playing on the early stuff like The Clash or Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
- James Hetfield, Metallica – Hetfield is perhaps the greatest rhythm player in all of heavy metal. He plays some lead with Kirk Hammett but I love the aggressive, in your face rhythm the guy plays. When he and drummer Lars Ulrich lock into a groove, look out. I’m really digging the new songs they’re putting out from “Lux Aeterna” to “If Darkness Had A Son.”
- Bob Weir, The Grateful Dead/various bands – The Dead were like the Allman Brothers in that they played rock n roll with an almost jazz sensibility. Bob Weir would probably have been a lead guy in other bands but he was in a band with genius Jerry Garcia. He developed into one of the most original, extraordinary rhythm players in the game. I’m not a huge Dead fan but I do dig Weir. I do like the Dead’s country rock stuff.
- Brad Whitford, Aerosmith/Whitford St. Holmes – Whitford is another guy who might have been the lead guy if he wasn’t in Aerosmith with Joe Perry. Indeed he was the lead player in his short lived band Whitford St. Holmes. Check out their tune “Sharpshooter.” And, in truth Whitford does play lead on songs he co writes. But for the most part he’s playing those dirty blues rock riffs that allow Perry to solo to his hearts content. When asked who his favorite guitar players were, Joe Perry included Whitford… rightly so.
- Joan Jett, Runaways/Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Whether with the Runaways or solo Joan Jett’s rhythm guitar is the foundation of all her music. I saw her recently with Cheap Trick opening, and man does she play the riffs. She’s more known as the front woman of the Blackhearts but close your eyes and listen to that rhythm guitar, it’s super rich.
- Nile Rodgers, Chic/producer/session player – Most of us rockers probably don’t own a lot Chic records. But Nile Rodgers who went on to become a big time producer started in that iconic band. The rhythm guitar that Nile laid down when he produced Bowie’s Let’s Dance with Stevie Ray Vaughn playing lead is enough to land him on this list. I love what he played on “China Girl.”
- Chrissie Hynde, The Pretenders/solo – Like Joan Jett or John Lennon, Hynde is known more for her singing and songwriting. But, if you listen to the punchy punk rock of the Pretenders you know it’s all about her pugnacious riffs. I love the way she plays. I saw the Pretenders open for the Stones once and she was so impressive on guitar.
- Bob Marley, Bob Marley & The Wailers – Bob is so iconic, he’s on posters and t-shirts everywhere I turn. Especially when I vacation in warmer climes. And he’s known for his singing and onstage dancing. But I really dug his rhythm guitar playing especially in the early days when Peter Tosh was playing the lead. “Positive Vibrations,” indeed.
- Tom Petty, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers/solo – Petty always shied away from lead guitar because he was standing next to guitar maestro Mike Campbell in the Heartbreakers. But he was quite a good guitar player in his own right. He was such a great singer and songwriter nobody noticed he was playing all these iconic riffs. I can’t help but think of “Change Of Heart,” one of my all time favorite riffs…
That’s our list folks. It was high time we turned a bright, hot spotlight onto these great players. All of these rhythm guitar players are legends in my mind. Do you have a favorite I might have missed? Drop them in the comments section. I love to talk about the nooks and crannies of rock n roll. And sadly, I fear the rhythm guys have been wrongly pushed into the background of rock n roll.
Cheers and I hope everyone is recuperating from their St. Patrick’s Day festivities with Bloody Mary’s and bloody good rock n roll.