The Best Rhythm Guitarists of All Time
By Brad Tolinski
There is no higher calling in all of rock and roll than being a great rhythm guitarist. Sure, lead players grab most of the glory, but the person creating the groove and laying down the chords so the singer can sing the song is more important in our book.
And just because you’re the rhythm player doesn’t mean you have to be a shrinking violet. In this list of the best rhythm guitarists of all time, we’ve chosen players that have made both musical and visual impact with their flamboyant and imaginative strumming.
So here they are, in no particular order… the best rhythm guitarists of all time!
Best Rhythm Guitarists
(The Rolling Stones)
They call him “The Human Riff” because Keith Richards has created more memorable guitar parts than anyone in music history. It’s literally impossible to think of classic Stones songs like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” without hearing Keef’s memorable rhythm parts rattling around in your head. And let’s face it, has anyone ever looked cooler playing a guitar? In the accompanying video, the elegantly wasted Mr. Richards drives the Stones to rock ecstasy on “Midnight Rambler,” playing one of the most awesome guitars ever made—a plexiglass Dan Armstrong axe. Still think playing rhythm isn’t as sexy as playing lead?
Pete Townshend of the Who has literally built a career on making playing rhythm guitar a theatrical event. With his mighty leaps in the air and sweeping arm gestures, Pete makes the act of strumming a simple open G chord look like a fireworks display on the 4th of July. Of course none of that would matter if he wasn’t also one of the best rhythm guitarists to ever grace the planet. Whether it’s playing the thunderous power chords on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “My Generation,” or the intricate strumming heard on “Pinball Wizard” [see video], with his dexterity and musicality Pete’s rhythm chops put almost any single-note shredder to shame.
Eddie Van Halen
Now, we don’t want to give you the impression that playing lead and playing rhythm are mutually exclusive skills. The late great Eddie Van Halen is a perfect example of a player that excelled at both. While everyone celebrates his incredible lead playing, his rhythm chops were every bit as good (some would say better). “Panama'' is a masterclass in seamlessly combining chord accompaniment with brilliant fills and slinky licks. Ed was one of the greatest soloists of all time, but he was also one of best rhythm guitarists, too.
In this video for “Back in Black,” it takes the camera a minute to make its way over to the late Malcolm Young and his white Gretsch. But make no mistake, that is where many of AC/DC’s greatest moments happened. Young was not flashy like Townshend, cool like Keith Richards or a virtuoso like Van Halen, but he was equally as brilliant. His slamming rhythm guitar fueled such iconic headbangers as “T.N.T.,” “Highway to Hell,” “Let There Be Rock” and many others. It is said that every AC/DC song sounds the same, but you gotta admit, it’s a damn good song and nobody could rock a groove quite like Mal.
Kirk Hammett is an amazing lead guitarist, but it was the pulse-pounding rhythm playing of James Hetfield that put Metallica on the map. “Fight Fire With Fire” from the band’s 1984 album Ride the Lightning is still the acid test for any guitarist that wants to play thrash metal, and King James does it in this video without breaking a sweat. Bow down to the master!
You can’t really be a rock and roll or blues guitarist without learning how to play boogie rhythms like Chuck Berry on songs like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybelline” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Like Van Halen, watch how Chuck weaves his rhythms and lead lines without ever dropping the rollicking groove. This song may sound a little old fashioned to younger ears, but if you think it’s easy, come back and see us when you’ve learned to pick this like Berry.
We’re always amazed when people ask whether Beatle John Lennon was a good guitarist. When you think of the incredible variety of music the Fab Four played, how could it be any other way? Truth is, Lennon was one of the greatest rhythm guitarists ever. He could be delicate on songs like “Julia,” sophisticated like on “That Boy” or drive the band like a mother bleeper on “She’s a Woman” and “Revolution.” [see video]
Is there a bigger or badder rhythm guitar sound than Joan Jett’s Gibson Melody Maker on songs like “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Bad Reputation” or “Cherry Bomb”? One of the greatest female guitarists of all time, Jett has crafted a truly majestic tone that is more powerful than a locomotive, deeper than the Grand Canyon and bigger than Mt. Rushmore. When you’re talking about the best rhythm guitarists of all time, this Jett deserves to fly high somewhere on that list.
Nile Rodgers is known for producing gigantic albums for superstars like David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and the B-52s, but he is equally astounding at playing rhythm guitar. His scratchy Fender Stratocaster can be heard on timeless dance anthems like “Le Freak” and “Good Times” by Chic (two of the most sampled songs of all time), Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Diana Ross’s gay pride anthem “I’m Coming Out,” Daft Punk’s 2013 smash “Get Lucky,” and hundreds of other tracks that have been a part of this and several other generations.
Albert Hammond Jr. & Nick Valensi
When people think of great rhythm guitar they tend to think funk or metal, but alternative rock has a treasure trove of great strummers, including the Clash’s Joe Strummer, Robert Smith of the Cure and Frank Black of the Pixies. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi of The Strokes are among the most inventive rhythm teams working in music today. Alternating stabbing chords with harmonized riffs, the duo create driving tapestries of tones and textures unlike any other guitar team in rock history. When you listen to The Stokes, you are hearing rhythm guitar playing elevated to the level of high art.
Final Thoughts: Best Rhythm Guitarists
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Brad Tolinski is perhaps best known for his work as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine for 25 years. He is also the author of Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown); and Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday), which was the basis for a 2019 guitar-focused exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Most recently he edited the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of CREEM magazine, and his latest book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen (Hachette) will be coming out in October 2021.