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The 50 best rhythm guitarists of all time

30. John Mayer

As ever with John Mayer, the secrets to his rhythm method and the talent behind it all lie in the choices. This man has a large vocabulary of chords and alternative voicings for each and he is not afraid to use it. Players of all styles can learn a lot from him, in how triads and passing notes can be performed in a way that makes a simple chord progression or motif sound melodically premium. 

On occasion he’ll rake his pick across the strings, on others he might accentuate a beats with a percussive style, but it’s all to complement those note and chord choices, adding textures and seasoning the composition.

29. Lindsey Buckingham

Amid the everyday melodrama of 1970s Fleetwood Mac were great performances and ideas of such creative vigor that no amount of fractiousness and raw-nerve emotion could derail. At least, not for a while. 

Perhaps what kept everyone at the wheel was how it all fit together. Leaning on folk, rock, country, and playing predominantly fingerstyle, Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar style helped hold it all together.

It is strange to see how Mac history has bifurcated over the years. After Greeny et al, Buckingham’s choice of chords and a unique rhythmic sensibility that saw him deploy accented 16th-note rhythm patterns to build forward momentum was a paradigm shift.

28. Kurt Cobain

Come the end of the ‘80s, Gen X disaffection had assembled all the necessary materials and had rigged popular culture to blow – all that was left was for someone to light the fuse. Along came Nirvana, the highest achievers in this challenge to mainstream hegemony, and Kurt Cobain became the poster child for a new movement and sound.

Unlike the first wave of ‘70s punk, Nirvana could draw upon metal and decades of alternative rock evolution. But it was Cobain’s primary color approach to songwriting – children’s songs for a post-adolescent audience – that resonated. A raw, unworked guitar tone, high-volume, and simplicity made Cobain the early ‘90s' most-influential player.

27. Adam Jones

That Tool resist easy categorization is much to do with the complex architecture of Adam Jones guitar playing. In cahoots with Justin Chancellor on bass, it presents what might otherwise be grunge or alternative in a progressive context, as though Jones and co could inhabit seemingly incongruous sensibilities.

Jones has the instincts of a great rhythm player. He knows the value of restraint. In doing so, he frees himself and others up for experimenting with sound, with the very texture of it, and utilizing rhythms that might otherwise be alienating to a rock audience.

26. Andy Summers

Those who want to match Andy Summers chord for chord would be well advised to warm up and do their stretches. Because if Chuck Berry popularized the double stop, and Eddie Van Halen tapping, it was Summers who filled the airwaves with the sound of the add9 chord, a chord voicing that makes many of us take a deep breath before fretting.

But there were others, inversions of the add9, and all kinds of clever tricks that Summers would use to give the Police an unmistakable sound. Some of them were technological, such as the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, Maestro Echoplex and MXR Dyna Comp, others were simply knowing when to let Sting drive the song.

25. Scott Ian

Scott Ian’s merciless right hand could quite possibly be one of the reasons the word chug is common parlance when discussing heavy metal. It is definitely one of the reasons Anthrax has enjoyed a tenured role in thrash’s Big Four, riding high on an armor-plated groove that sounds just as rad at maximum Gung-Ho tempos as it does when the servicing the low-end grind of Keep It in the Family

A knack for writing catchy riffs doesn’t hurt Ian’s credentials. Neither does a face-ripping tone acquired by his complement of Jackson guitars historically running through a TC Electronic Booster/Distortion and a Marshall JCM800. But that right hand. It’s like he’s wearing Freddie Sykes of Twin Peaks’ green glove when he plays.

24. Steve Cropper

When people talk about the space between the notes being music, they could be talking about Steve Cropper. The Colonel is all about space and letting the song breathe. That sounds easy, but minimalism demands two things of a musician, neither of which come easy: number one, what you play matters, so you’ve got to choose wisely; and two, your timing has got to be bang on.

Cropper is unimpeachable in both regards. Green Onions, that enduring shuffler from Booker T. and the M.G.’s, is case in point. Just let the Hammond play, right? Some songs in his canon called for different strategies but they all required him not to play more than what was required. That sort of discipline takes talent, the likes of which saw Cropper play with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, the Blues Brothers, and so on. Legend.

23. Stone Gossard

Pearl Jam’s zip code registered them to Seattle, but as the early-‘90s pop-cultural moment enveloped the Pacific Northwest their lithe, quicksilver groove marked them out as something different entirely. A lot of that is down to a rhythm section of Jeff Ament on bass, and drummers Dave Krusen and Dave Abbruzzese, with help from Stone Gossard, who had similar priorities when it came to songwriting.

“I have a talent, but it’s really the same thing that I’ve been doing since I was 16 years old, which is just stumbling on guitar,” he told Guitar World in 2020. “Literally just stumbling around until I hear two notes that make me go, ‘Oh, that’s cool – going between that note and that chord to this note all of a sudden,’ so that’s my change.”

22. Dave Grohl

Some guys have all the rhythm. Take Dave Grohl. Not only is he one of, if not the, best rock drummer on the planet, here is the Foo Fighters frontman charting at a respectable number 22 as best rhythm guitarist – ahead of fellow Nirvana alum’ Kurt Cobain.

There is a lesson in that; all guitar players would benefit from learning the drums and the importance of learning to count.

Grohl’s timekeeping is beyond reproach but that goes without saying. What does bear mentioning is how he has aggressively expanded his alt-rock guitar vocabulary, borrowing melodic elements of fellow blue-chip rock bands to create this stadium-shaking, unit-shifting, feel-good force of nature.

21. Tom Morello

In any Tom Morello masterclass, it is quite plausible that the courses on noise artistry will be front and center, but his rhythm style – propulsive, high-action classic rock riffs augmented with a hip-hop sensibility – should be similarly credit-bearing.

There’s a bit of Iommi and Page, some Joe Strummer too, influences that might seem conventional on the face of it, but there was nothing conventional about the aforementioned players – and there is nothing conventional about where Morello took that sound, hitching his riff-work to the chassis of a new kind of rhythm. But like all the great riff writers, no matter how aggro the jam, you can hum ‘em, they stick in the head.

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Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.