10. Izzy Stradlin
With his engineer’s cap, white shirt and black waistcoat, wrestling a white Gibson ES-175 hollowbody that looks two sizes too big for him, the former Guns N’ Roses rhythm guitarist was this like slightly shambolic character from Dickens who just happened to play in the world’s most dangerous rock ’n’ roll band. And he was effortlessly cool, the perfect foil for Slash.
Stradlin was instrumental in the GNR sleaze machine, which is to say a sound that could be all helter-skelter chaos, licentious grooves, pure rock animalism with a sense for radio-friendly grandeur when the occasion calls for it.
There was an illusory quality to his playing. He didn’t rely on gain. Stradlin’s strength, and by extension the band’s strength, was in how the guitarists played complementary rhythm parts rather than doubling each other. It made for a tangle of sound, thickets of detail and texture, a jungle of electric guitar.
9. Dave Mustaine
There are easier ways to make a living than fronting the modern beat combo Megadeth. Dave Mustaine writes rhythmically complicated, technically awkward, high-tempo arrangements that demand precision then performs them with the intensity of a berserker, and sings on top of all that. It’s remarkable.
The best example of this state-of-the-art thrash metal approach can be found on the band’s career-best album, Rust in Peace, and on its more commercial but similarly creatively successful follow-up, Countdown to Extinction, which proves that Mustaine knows the value of restraint when the song calls for it.
Riff-wise, people will look to Symphony of Destruction as the high-water mark. Sure, it is Megadeth’s Livin’ on a Prayer, their Enter Sandman, but when he throws the kitchen sink at tracks like Holy Wars… The Punishment Due and Wake Up Dead it is spectacular.
8. Jimmy Page
With Jimmy Page, you can talk about the riffs, and he has all kinds of them. There were those rooted in the blues, in rock ’n’ roll. There were slide riffs and stately, majestic riffs, the likes of which would only have made sense amid the epic dimensions of the Led Zeppelin sound (who else could have summoned Kashmir into being?). He is equally adept at settling down into a front-loaded acoustic folk groove, too.
And what we are getting at here, is that Page is an all-rounder, the archetypal studio polymath. An alumnus of the session muso circuit, he found the perfect outlet for that encyclopedic knowledge and musical adventurism with Led Zeppelin. They were a band for whom anything was possible.
7. Pete Townshend
The original high-volume rock guitar player, Pete Townshend had a taste for the spectacular but never let it spoil his appetite for meat-and-potatoes rhythm playing. Sure, the guitar might finish the set in pieces, but the groove, the song will make it through bang on schedule.
Again, it is instructive to find another great rhythm player in a band with a truly great drummer. There is a ‘birds of a feather’ aspect to this, but on a practical level, in the rehearsal room and onstage, just playing with Bonham must have rubbed off on Page, so too with Pete Moon and Townshend.
The Who guitarist was among the first cohort to avail themselves of fuzz pedals and treble boosters, but his windmill right arm was the most significant ordnance available to him, hitting chords like he were bringing the hammer down on a high striker at the local carnival. This power was complemented by the artful use of sus chords and cool inversions, and open strings that would sound good no matter how they were performed.
6. John Lennon
John Lennon’s rhythm guitar playing had a sensibility that came from early rock ’n’ roll and skiffle, and the undiluted energy of these styles helped give those early Beatles recordings their forward motion, as though they were always accelerating. Little wonder they captured a generation’s imagination.
But amid the whir of era-defining performances on Ed Sullivan, the electrifying of popular culture, and a songwriting machine that was creating youth culture from the ground up, there were details to Lennon’s playing that reward deeper investigation.
Even in the early days, his chord choices were inspired, throwing in a passing chord to take the song neatly from A to B, building the energy, using a syncopated, aggressive attack to accentuate the beat, or using unorthodox voicings that foreshadowed the musical adventurousness to come. When that did arrive, studio sessions siring new ideas and developing ways of thinking about recorded sound, the fundamentals were there.
5. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitar player that ever lived, is another of those players who seemingly did not distinguish between rhythm and lead guitar in as much as he would take a similarly expressive and free-form approach to both enterprises. Rhythm guitar did not end just as the solo began, and vice versa.
He was forever embellishing his rhythm guitar, reinforcing the melody, to simply change the feel of the song, to make it more heady. Onstage, this would only be more pronounced as he would use the freedom from the power trio format to improvise in search of the song’s best version of itself.
Hendrix’s signature chord was of course the 7#9, its harmonic structure seemingly devised to jump out of a mix, to funkify it, but he would also seesaw down the sus2 voicings, using triads and double-stops to sort of spell out chord shapes, using his thumb to fret chords, but most of all using his imagination, and letting it run wild.
4. Eddie Van Halen
You can learn as much from Eddie Van Halen’s rhythm guitar playing as you can from his leads. Naturally, the two-hand tapping and proto-shred methodology of the latter gets a little more attention, with Eruption a solo that became a signature piece of music that offered a blueprint for the Shrapnel generation and beyond.
But mastering EVH’s riffs, the rhythmic quirks in tracks such as Unchained and Panama, and the dynamic to and fro of Runnin’ With the Devil, is a more involved enterprise.
This was what separated EVH from the legions of imitators, players who could shred the guitar from nut to bridge but who failed to command our attention during a verse. The Van Halen groove was untamable. Famously, Runnin’ With the Devil plays fast and loose with rhythmic propriety but it offers a case study in how the pocket works. Van Halen, led by their irrepressible and revolutionary guitar player, knew how to work the pocket as well as anyone.
3. Keith Richards
Even if Keith Richards had sold his guitars on eBay after writing the riff to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction he would have still made this list. By 1965, that riff and those preceding it would have been enough. It inaugurated the fuzz pedal. It filled dance-floors. It sold Snickers bars. And, later in 1965, it actually got fully realized as the horn part it was envisaged to be when Otis Redding covered it to great effect.
But of course there is a lot more where that came from. They don’t call him the human riff for nothing. There is the urgent pre-punk rock ’n’ roll of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, stadium shakers such as Start Me Up, and Gimme Shelter’s dark energy reverberating to the sound of America unravelling at the tumultuous climax of the swinging ‘60s.
All these and more can be summoned to support Richards’ inclusion here, but it is his whole approach – gleaned from rhythm and blues, soul, blues, the first wave of rock ’n’ roll – that makes him such a compelling player.
Some players need something extra to help them along the way. Richards needs less, removing the low E to deploy the open G tuning, paring the guitar down to be used as percussion, or alongside it, but always with that gut instinct to follow the beat and build the groove.
2. James Hetfield
It is no coincidence that metal’s most successful band has metal’s greatest rhythm player, parked front and center as master of ceremonies. Hetfield has put his name to some of the most legit, stone-cold classic riffs in metal, a battery of rhythm figures typically meted out with a punishing regimen of downstrokes that ordinary mortals would need forearms like Popeye to reproduce.
At his peak, Hetfield could squeeze a number of these classic riffs into one song. Indeed, as the Bay Area quartet pursued ever more ambitious arrangements through the mid to late ‘80s, it was house style that he did.
Master of Puppets, the epic title-track from their 1986 magnum opus, has three. So, too, Disposable Heroes, The Shortest Straw, and Blackened; all songs with byzantine structures and mass appeal. The effectiveness of these riffs and of Metallica’s songwriting hinges on Hetfield’s unerring technique, on his precision and attack. After all these years, Hetfield is the gold standard. None have eclipsed him.
1. Malcolm Young
Malcolm Young’s rhythm playing was to rock music what the combustion engine was to the Industrial Revolution. At an AC/DC show, you would hear him before you’d see him. Young preferred to hang back by his amps, feeling the air push through them as his kid brother would tear around the stage in a school uniform, the late Bon Scott then Brian Johnson working the room, lending blue-collar verses to the Young Bros’ riffs.
Young favored simplicity, and this was the designing principle from which the AC/DC canon was established. His tone came from his heavily modded Gretsch Jet, nicknamed the beast, and a phalanx of Marshall Super Bass heads and cabinets. The right hand did the rest.
How hard he hit the powerchords would determine how much crunch he had. That’s all you need. That, a metronomic sense of timing, and a bunch of songs proving that rock ’n’ roll is a self-renewing and evergreen art form as long as you had the riffs.