PHOTO: Larry Hulst | Getty Images: AC/DC rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, circa 1980
Whatever style of music you play, your rhythm carries the day. That’s as true in rock music as in any other genre.
As this list of the 10 greatest rhythm guitarists demonstrates, there isn’t one “right” way to play rhythm, but there is one truism: If it feels good, it is good.
The late Chuck Berry changed the rhythmic landscape of popular music forever. And his unique sense of groove and pocket is much deeper than it may seem upon first listen, as sideman extraordinaire and all around badass player Rick Vito pointed out in GP: “On many of his tunes, such as ‘Carol,’ ‘Little Queenie,’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ you’ll find Chuck playing a rhythm that is a cross between an eighth-note downstroke shuffle and a straight eighth-note rock feel. But he changed the accents of the shuffle so that it mixed those two feels and made the groove jump and swing more.” In the end, the boundless energy and utter timelessness of Berry’s music speaks for itself. As does the fact that without him there would be no Beatles, no Stones, and maybe no rock and roll. Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!
The only player on the list who actually has a rhythm named after him, Diddley— unlike a lot of guitarists—never worked as a sideman. “I always had my own group, he said. “I never played sideman for nobody.” With some of the funkiest tones known to man, Diddley relied on his mutated rumba, often chucking chord changes altogether and putting all of his chips down on the groove. Classic sides such as “I’m a Man” and “Hey Bo Diddley” sound as fresh now as the day they were cut. Tell me now, who do you love?
A school unto itself, Hendrix’s rhythm playing in many ways feels like an even deeper ocean than his astounding soloing. From “The Wind Cries Mary” and “May This Be Love” from Are You Experienced to his beautiful rhythm work on “Little Wing, “Castles Made of Sand,” and “Bold as Love” from Axis: Bold as Love, Hendrix rolled his Curtis Mayfield-inspired chordal movement and tasty flourishes into a style all his own. The culmination of that style comes on Electric Ladyland’s title track, which finds Hendrix expounding even further on the sultry double-stop slides and bubbling trills that connect the spacey, at times ambiguous, but always beautiful chord sequence.
Is there a guitarist more influential in Brit pop? Marr’s work with the Smiths showed the way for countless pop guitarists in the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond as he wrangled jangle and extended clean-toned arpeggios with a steadily grooving right-hand that would be equally at home in a dance band. Marr is also a master of using multiple guitars to create one big propulsive behemoth, with every part, lick, and chime accounted for. “I’ve always believed that any instrumentalist is basically just an accompanist to the singer and the words,” he said. “That’s borne out of being a fan of records before I was a fan of guitar players—I’m interested in melody, lyrics, and the overall song. I don’t like to waste notes, not even one.”
As much as he is remembered for being a heavy riff architect, much of Page’s rhythmic identity is based in ’50s rock and roll from influences such as Scotty Moore, James Burton, and Cliff Gallup. He also rolled a major wild card into his style, the whirling feel of Les Paul. When you throw all of that in with a hefty acoustic jones stoned on British Isles folk, an uncanny ear for modal tunings, and a good dose of riff thuggery (Johnny Ramone worshipped Page’s “Communication Breakdown” assault), you end up with one of the electric guitar’s most defining voices.
“I always wanted the guitar to sound like energy coming out of the amplifier,” said Ramone in ’85. “Not even like music or chords. I just wanted that energy.” Mission accomplished, Johnny. With his Mosrite plugged into a Marshall stack and a sledgehammer right-hand attack, Ramone wrote the book on punk guitar. “I was influenced by the New York Dolls, T. Rex, and Slade, but I can’t play any of their songs,” he said. “I can only play Ramones songs and the few covers that we do. I just like to play punk rock, and that’s it—real loud rock and roll— no slow songs or soft songs.”
Rock and roll’s high priest of groove, Richards’ lifetime of work with the Rolling Stones stands as a sonic monument to the hip-shaking power of rhythm guitar. His use of open-G tuning on nearly everything he’s done since the late ’60s spawned a style and sound that is still being imitated. “With open tunings, you can get a drone going so you have the effect of two chords playing against each other,” he told GP. “It’s a big sound.” Richards’ other contribution to the rock rhythm lexicon is the way he views the interplay between two guitars. “Rather than going for the separation of guitars, we try to get them to start to sound at a point where it doesn’t matter which guitar is doing what,” he explains. “They leap and weave through each other, so it becomes unimportant whether you’re listening to the rhythm or the lead because in actual effect, as a guitarist, you’re in the other player’s head, and he’s in yours.”
Sonically, Summers is possibly the most influential player on this list. His frothy chorus and dubapproved delays became irreplaceable cogs in the Police’s machine. But dig deeper and you find Summers’ grasp of reggae feels, as well as his propensity to extend chords (giving even the simplest progression, a modern makeover), were also a huge part of his sound. “I used to be in bands with keyboard players where we had to always watch out for what the other guy was doing harmonically, because there would be conflict,” he explains. “I didn’t have that restriction in the Police, so I could stretch chords out and make my rhythm parts more orchestral.”
To call Townshend’s rhythmic contributions to rock guitar “huge” doesn’t even begin to describe the influence he has had. Yet, it’s not as if he inspired a legion of Townshend sound-alikes. His style—which boasts an incredible right-hand strumming technique— has remained intensely singular and attached to the tunes that embody it. Townshend possess the ninja-like skill of knowing when one big chord will not only do the job, it’s big enough to be the hook (see “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). Those are some onions, my friend. More than anyone, Townshend has also shown how high an art form rhythm guitar can become in a rock and roll band.
Did anyone personify the role of a rhythm guitarist in a rock band better than Malcolm Young? For over 35 years in AC/DC, not only did he play some of the most swaggering, swinging, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll guitar ever, he did it with zero solos. Young knew exactly what his role was as a rhythm guitarist in a rock and roll band, and he thrived in it. “Learning an instrument has to be natural,” he says. “If you stop to think about playing, the feeling just goes.” Feel was always behind what Young did. Without it, he would be just a dude strumming chords. “It probably has something to do with the attitude I put into it. I don’t think what I do is hard, really. If it doesn’t swing, it doesn’t mean a thing. That’s about it.”