The best rhythm guitarists

By Sergio Ariza

At first, when I thought about doing this special on rhythm guitarists, I thought about making a list of the top 10 (or rather, my 10 favourites) but it was impossible to narrow the list to just 10 names. In the end I pulled it off (now that I’ve already started, here they are:  Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Tony Iommi, Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, Steve Cropper, Malcolm Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, John Fogerty) but it didn’t seem completely representative. So I started thinking of them in groups, seeing which things they had in common and it occurred to me some clusters could be like others. Inadvertently, without trying to make absolute or enclosed judgements e, this is what I came up with, many of them could be in other groups at the same time (for example, Page could easily be among the ‘acoustic genius’, Hendrix among the ‘riff masters’ or Richards in with the ‘groove masters’) and surely there are painful omissions, but put this way , it seems to me that this is a broader look at the tremendous importance of the rhythm guitar in rock and popular music from the 20th century, the base on which all else was founded.

The Riff Masters

Most people will not remember a solo, but a good riff is branded in your head forever. Rock is full of examples of great riffs, from ground breaking You Really Got Me, by the Kinks , to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, which are the most popular and remembered  bits in each song, a lot more so than the melody. Sculpting a great riff is one of the signs of identity that all guitarists aspire to. There are the lucky ones who manage to get one or two, then there is a small list of the chosen with several under their belt like Page, Richards, James Hetfield, Joe Perry or Marc Bolan, and then there is the Lord and Master of the riff, Tony Iommi, on which the Metal cathedral is built.  His Gibson SG was capable of delivering riffs seemingly sculpted by Michelangelo, if he’d been a guitarist rather than a sculptor. Just the Iron Man riff is better than all of Yngwie Malmsteen’s solos put together.

Prime examples: Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, James Hetfield, Joe Perry, Marc Bolan...

The Funk Brothers

One cannot speak of rhythm and guitars without mentioning the funk masters, from the innovative work of Jimmy Nolan with James Brown, on such morsels like Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and Give It Up or Turn It Loose, where the guitar starts to be used like a percussion instrument. His substitute in Brown’s band, Catfish Collins is another great example of this style, where the rhythm is set and the bass has a more predominant role. Although possibly, the 2 best examples of this type of guitarist are Leo Nocentelli from the funk band from New Orleans, The Meters, and Nile Rodgers, the creator of Chic. The first guy is an absolute institution of funk guitar, with a Gibson ES-335 as his main model, and several songs have gone down in history such as Cissy Strut and Look-Ka-Py Py, where you can see his amazing style. As far as Rodgers goes, he put funk to disco music on numbers like Good Times, the song on which hip hop was built on, and Le Freak, without forgetting his multiple collaborations with other people like the gem We Are Family by Sister Sledge, or more recently, Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  

Prime examples: Leo Nocentelli, Nile Rodgers, Catfish Collins, Jimmy Nolan...

The Jingle Jangles

This section has a main star: the Rickenbacker. From the first chord on A Hard Day’s Night on the 12-string 360 by George Harrison  to the frills played by Johnny Marr on The Headmaster Ritual, the Rickenbacker has served to give that characteristic jingle jangle sound much associated with Roger McGuinn and his Byrds. Its sound on songs like Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! was widely copied and led to what is known as folk/rock. Harrison himself (the man who inspired McGuinn to buy his first Rickenbacker) fell under its influence as you can hear on If I Needed Someone. In the 80s there was a rebirth of this sound when two of the most important bands at the time, The Smiths and R.E.M. based their sound on it with Marr and Peter Buck shining proudly showing off  their Ricks, getting tasty arpeggios out of them. I also wanted to  include in this group the underrated Dave Davies of the Kinks who despite being known primarily for giving us his classic riffs on You Really Got Me and All Day and All Of the Night (and never touched a Rick in his life), he shares a place with these first players in  that enormous taste for sprucing up any song with their way of playing. Nobody can deny that the melody his brother Ray Davies made on Waterloo Sunset is perfect in itself, but without his guitar the song wouldn’t be as magic.

Prime examples: Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, Peter Buck, Johnny Marr, Dave Davies...  

The Groove Masters

In this group I put guitarists who are capable of carrying the band themselves, those who push a determined character and sound all their own. People like Pete Townsend, someone who with just one chord can sound like an entire orchestra, (look at Won’t Get Fooled Again) , or Bo Diddley, who can get a complete song out of one chord and you can’t stop moving. We can also include the missed Malcolm Young (who could also appear in the Riff Master column) because he was the heart of AC/DC, Johnny Ramone who invented a genre based on speed and barre chords, and The Edge, the man who defines U2s sound all throughout his reinventions. Also dudes like John Fogerty and Paul Weller, passionate, dynamic players able to carry a beat to the other side. They are all the basic pillar on which all else depends, the most distinctive sound element kin their bands, based mainly on chords.

Prime examples: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Don Everly, Malcolm Young, John Fogerty, Pete Townsend, Johnny Ramone, Paul Weller, The Edge...


The Acoustic Genius

Not all great rhythmic guitarists have played an electric. These guitarists with their Martins or Taylors and their special tuning methods, didn’t need anything more than their guitars to make enormous songs. Make no mistake, many of the things they play are much more complicated than some of the most complicated solos. From the folk world, with its many lifted chords from jazz, they all got the magic out of their guitars without much more than their voices, also able to mix with other musicians. From British Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, and John Renbourn (we could also throw in Page on acoustic) to Americans like Lindsey Buckingham  (also a great electric guitarist), Paul Simon, or Canadian Joni Mitchell, with their odd tuning arrangements, they are some of the masters of the acoustic guitar.   Prime examples: Bert Jansch, Lindsey Buckingham, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, John Renbourn...

Rhythm & Soul

The guitars with the most soul, which can accompany a voice better than anyone and give color to empty spaces without pulling focus. From one of the founding fathers of rock Ike Turner, to the most important guitarists of all time, Jimi Hendrix. Perhaps the guy who best defines the style is the great Steve Cropper, the guitar of soul, with his Telecaster.  But we mustn’t forget people like Curtis Mayfield, as much in The Impressions as in his solo career, who had a tremendous impact on Hendrix. The author of Purple Haze was able to play it all, and could appear in various columns in this special, but if he’s here it’s because of the sound of his guitar in things like Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, Castles Made of Sand, and Bold As Love, nobody can color up a song on a rhythmic better than Hendrix at his peak. Being the best soloist in history, none of his solos matches the beauty of his work in Little Wing

Prime examples: Jimi Hendrix, Steve Cropper, Curtis Mayfield, Ike Turner...