20. Chuck Berry
The OG rock ’n’ roll star was a whir of motion. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, Chuck Berry seemed to be contorted involuntarily by the sheer force of his playing. The syllabus of Rock ’n’ roll Rhythm Guitar 101 could be taught using only Chuck Berry Is On Top as a reference text.
He would adapt grooves from adjacent musical styles and make them his own, like Maybelline, which reworked the Western swing track Ida Red and caught Leonard Chess of Chess Records’ imagination. Chess would not be the last; the world was listening.
That those old Chuck Berry records have lost none of their zip and energy is testament to the self-renewing energy of nascent rock ’n’ roll. It was a mighty high, the likes of which pop-culture is yet to come down from. Boy, did he made that Gibson ES-350T sing…
19. The Edge
For a stadium rock band, U2 have a fairly avant-garde guitar player in the Edge. He uses some conventional guitar touchstones to build his sound, such as the full-throated power chime of the ’64 Vox AC30 tube combo, and all the main vintage guitar food groups are covered. But it’s the effects and his response to them that make his style so unique.
Famously, the dotted eighth-note delay pedal settings are critical to nailing the psychedelic euphoria of their big-ticket pop anthems I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Where The Streets Have No Name but so too is the playing.
You can’t cheat the rhythm of the machine, and the Edge doesn’t. After all these years, the machine’s become part of him, and he part of the machine. By now he probably needs a 9VDC power supply to get out of bed in the morning.
18. Dimebag Darrell
The late Pantera and Damageplan guitarist was the consummate all-rounder, and for a while he was the most influential, most groundbreaking metal guitar player on the planet, making extreme sounds mainstream.
But where Dimebag’s lead guitar could provide moments of high-gain grace and beauty, courtesy of an eloquent sense of phrasing gleaned from Messrs Frehley, Rhoads and Van Halen, his rhythm was total audio violence.
His tone had a V-shaped EQ and gain maxed out on solid-state Randall heads. This was Captain Caveman stuff. And the groove was something else. This was a metal band that knew how to swing, to chug, to bounce along on a syncopated riff pitched in the key of buzzsaw.
Such was his showmanship as a full-spectrum pop-rock entertainer par excellence, the rhythm guitar chops of the late Prince Rogers Nelson often get lost in the mix. Indeed, those ecstatic solos, evoking Hendrix and Eddie Hazel, tend to grab our attention. But right across the Prince canon, and in the live show, there is an abundance of evidence that suggests rhythm guitar was the backbone of his whole sound.
As such, it had the humor, an appetite for transgression, for hedonism, and for celebrating the life-affirming effervescence of funk. Some rhythm players are on this list because of the focused delivery of their riffs, but in the case of Prince, it’s because he made it as expressive in its own right as lead playing, whether in a distorto-fuzz riff like Bambi or the hip-loosening strut of Lady Cab Driver, his irrepressible personality was all over it.
16. Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers has got to be the world’s highest-grossing rhythm guitar player. Those who keep the receipts on who played on what and how it sold will tell you that the records he played on have sold more than 500 million units. That’s why his guitar of choice, a modified 1960 Strat refinished in Olympic White, is known as the Hitmaker.
His style is Funk 101. The elasticity of his right hand, his feel, the chord choices and the notes he chooses not to play are unparalleled. Chic alone would see him on this list, but then there’s his work with Madonna, Sister Sledge, Daft Punk, and of course that tone and part on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
15. John Frusciante
John Frusciante comes across as a kind of reluctant virtuoso. He’s like a kid with telekinesis trying to fit in. But he doesn’t fool us, and his reentry into the Red Hot Chili Peppers gives the world occasion to pay attention once more to his casual acts of genius, of Hendrix-informed chord work with an ebb and flow as though it were a naturally occurring phenomenon and not the product of hard work and practice.
He walks a fine line between simplicity and embellishment, with just enough of the latter to bamboozle lesser players, but plenty of the former, so that RHCP remain one of the blue-chip rock bands of our time.
14. Bob Weir
Bob Weir had to make a decision early on. Faced with the super-expressive lead guitar player – not to mention a little older – Jerry Garcia, Weir had to find his own voice on the instrument. He’d be a rhythm player, but why just take inspiration and copy what other guitar players did?
He looked further afield, drawing upon the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s work with John Coltrane, who worked choose chords that were stable jumping off points for the rest of the band.
“My guitar style is basically derived from listening to piano players to begin with. “Back in those days, playing rhythm guitar was a pretty functionary kind of deal,” he told AXS TV’s Dan Rather in 2015.
“There wasn’t a lot to it. There weren’t any examples of people for me to compare. What I heard from McCoy Tyner was he was taking a lead in his own way. He was finding new direction every time he sat down at the piano. Finding new places to take the harmonic structure of the song they were playing. So I very quickly figured out that that was what I was going to be up to.”
13. Alex Lifeson
Any guitar player with designs on writing prog-rock would do well to borrow Alex Lifeson’s chord charts. With an extensive library of suspended chords to draw open, Lifeson widened Rush’s sound and populated it with color and life. That’s the thing with progressive rock: sometimes it is not enough to extend the composition and make it rhythmically challenging. You need those colors, melodies, intrigue.
Sure, Rush could get clever with their time-keeping, audacious with their ideas, but Lifeson’s chord choices – the add11, #11, sus2 et al – were of a piece with the Canadian trio’s esprit de corps, which is to say there is something deeply humane about them.
12. Mark Knopfler
What is it about the Dire Straits guitarist’s style that feels so familiar and yet is so elusive when we try to recreate it? Is it because he is a southpaw playing a right-handed instrument, just as so many players of his generation had to because of a paucity of left-handed guitars? Maybe. Dexterity matters. But maybe it is because his fingerstyle approach to electric guitar brings with it a sensibility of an acoustic player, in which he is even more aware of the dynamics in his playing.
The sense of familiarity we hear in Knopfler’s sound comes by way the blues, country and folk, and rock. His ability to move between these modes with such fluidity is uncanny, and combined with a truly epicurean guitar tone, his playing often presents itself as this möbius strip of Americana.
11. Tony Iommi
The man who invented heavy metal has an origin story akin to a superhero. Recovering from an industrial accident to tune down, turn up, and marry this new approach to playing electric guitar to a songwriting sensibility informed by horror cinema.
Some rhythm players distinguish themselves with chord choices, or with the embellishments they use. Others, such as Iommi, are all about the riff. There is no better riff writer than Iommi.
Tracks such as Lord of this World, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Children of the Grave defined the very contours of heavy music. They were – they are chilling. And then you have Paranoid and Iron Man and all the foundational elements you need to understand what a guitar riff is and the power it assumes when placed within a song.