Legends of Rhythm Guitar

Published on 22 September 2020

When you're growing up as a guitarist, it tends to be lead playing that catches your ear. Firing on Van Halen albums and having your mind blown by the terrifying tapping techniques is a right of passage we all must go through! However, as your playing progresses and you start to appreciate some of the subtlety of the instrument, you begin to realise that rhythm playing is equally impressive. You don't need to be able to hit 100 notes a minute to be a great player and in fact, some of our favourites are the guys in the background, belting out chords and keeping the groove alive. So, we thought we'd run through some of our favourite tracks, from a few of the most badass rhythm guitarists of all time. Check em out below:

Let's Dance - Bowie (Nile Rodgers)

Let's Dance is a certified classic no doubt. While we could go on all day why this track is a belter, we're going to focus on the silky smooth rhythm playing of a certain Mr Rodgers. Nile is the king of laid back funky riffs and this is the perfect example of his style; subtle but totally essential to the feel of the track. His playing here comes in short sharp bursts and that's kind of the beauty of it, the funky little strokes fill the space without overcomplicating the track or making it sound too busy. Essentially, he just flavours it, accenting the chord changes and sitting right behind Bowie's iconic vocal. Easily among the greatest rhythm players of all time, Nile can inject the funk into anything and a tasteful delay on top of his timeless tone was exactly what Let's Dance needed to finish it off. Put on your red shoes and check it out above!

Brown Eyed Women - Grateful Dead (Bob Weir)

There are few bands who carry the legendary status the Dead do among guitarists. Known for their legendary live jams, with epic lead sections from the likes of lead player Jerry Garcia and latterly none other than John Mayer with Dead and Company, each member is an astounding musician, working more as a unit that a collection of players. However, their most essential cog is long-serving rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. Bob is a true master of rhythm, with a seemingly endless supply of tasteful chord progressions and licks that fit in beautifully behind the rest of the band. Don't forget, there's a lot going on here and plenty of improvisation, so Bob's ability to contribute that missing ingredient deserves some serious praise. We've chosen Brown Eyed Women as an example because of the interesting voices used, along with some really lush little fills that fit in with the keys, bass and lead without ever overstepping. Kick back and enjoy, this is a really cool one. 

The Smiths - Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now (Johnny Marr)

Johnny Marr is a bit of a king of rhythm playing. People often think of rhythm playing as big dirty chords (don't worry, we'll get there...), Marr's is the polar opposite, creating delicate textures within tracks and seemingly always picking exactly the right notes to accent Morrissey's crooning along with the smooth bass lines the band are known for. This track features some gorgeous, jangly 335 playing with that touch of chorus that became his signature sound. Marr has a distinct talent for creating seemingly simple patterns that are incredibly difficult to replicate with anything like the same authority or class, earning him a reputation as one of indie's leading rhythm men! Have a listen to the video above and have a go at playing it yourself, you'll quickly see what we mean!

ACDC - Let There Be Rock (Malcolm Young)

Here we are rockers, you knew this moment was coming. Of course, Malcolm Young was going to feature here. He may not have run laps of the stage in a schoolboy outfit but aw man did he drive that band's sound. Sometimes all you need is a killer chord sequence, a big tone and a heavy right hand and Malcolm is the only proof you need of that. AC/DC were nothing short of a force and make no mistake, without that powerful playing in the background, their sound would've developed very differently. Malcolm's style and signature sound is simply unmistakable and we honestly don't think there are many players who come close to his level of influence. Angus may have been the one to get your attention but Malcolm was the real star of the show for us. A true legend and pioneer of hard rock. Rest in Rhythm Malcolm. 

Bad Religion - Anesthesia (Greg Hetson)

Time to crank the old BPM up considerably and look to our punk pals Bad Religion! The band are an absolute powerhouse with a catalogue that doesn't really lose the magic at any point. That said, we've gone for one of their earlier tracks - a little slice of punk perfection which comes from the album Against the Grain. We've always seen the band as standing out from the crowd, lacking the aggression of the hardcore scene but maintaining the driving power and energy that made it so explosive. Greg Hetson is our man on rhythm here, blasting through power chords to those huge drums with a tone that's just so thick, fat and driving, creating the thickness of the track. His playing is utterly relentless, dipping into a half time groove towards the end that really shows off that amazing tone. Punk guitarists often get a bad rep due to the DIY mentality of the genre but unless you have forearms like Arnie, playing along with any of Hetson's tracks will be tough. In fact, have a go and let us know how long it takes before your timing becomes non-existent! 

Metalica - Master of Puppets (James Hetfield)

Chhhhyeeeaaaah! You already know where we're going with this... We're not simply going to make a list of rhythm legends and not include the most solid arm in metal! Hetfield is a true machine of rhythm guitar, dominating the genre for the last... what, 30 odd years now!? His rhythm work is always fast furious, heavy and pretty complicated if you ever brave trying to play along. However, Pappa Het rarely breaks a sweat, nailing killer riffs tour after tour, all the while handling the band's lead vocals. There are a ton of tracks we could've chosen to demonstrate this but as much as it may be an obvious choice, Master of Puppets is our go-to for the instant wow factor. It's rhythm parts are just brutal and they're ALL played using downstrokes only, just in case they weren't impressive enough... It's tracks like this that have cemented Metalica's role as kings of metal with brutal tones and the type of tight rhythms that just rock any crowd. Get this one turned up loud, it's the only way!

Final Thoughts

Rhythm is often overlooked but it's an essential part of playing the guitar. Whether you're a solo guitarist or jam alongside a face-melting shredder, it's essential to carry the groove and fill the space to allow the full band to shine. This was actually a really tough list to narrow down because there are so many players that we go to for incredible rhythm work but we hope this has given you a snapshot of some of the true greats. As always, we'd love to hear your favourites so drop us a comment and let us know who we've missed! 

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