The rhythm guitar is the one that gives a song life, helps drive it forward, and lays down the background for the singer. Rhythm guitarists are responsible for developing the groove of the track, and for different genres, that can mean different things. In this article, we’ll look at the 25 best rhythm guitarists of all time across all genres.
1. Malcolm Young
As a member of AC/DC, Malcolm Young is widely considered one of if not, the most brilliant rhythm guitarists of all time. Aside from a brief absence, he has always been with the band from its formation in 1973 through his retirement in 2014 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 with the members.
He eschewed the overdriven power chords most rhythm guitarists favored for open chords and lowered volume and high gain notes that gave his work the recognizable signature sound we know from AC/DC’s music.
2. Keith Richards
Not only is Keith Richards one of the top rhythm guitarists of all time, but he’s also widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of any kind and one of the best songwriters of all time. Alongside Mick Jagger, he was the co-principal songwriter for The Rolling Stones, with him ranking fourth on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 best guitarists. A member of the Rock and Roll and UK Music Halls of Fame, he has laid down some of the most iconic rhythms in all of music history.
3. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock guitarists in history, but he’s equally well-known for popularizing the tapping guitar technique. Everything about his guitar style was incredibly personal; at a glance, it looked simple, but diving in showed how complex and technically difficult his playing actually was very quickly.
4. James Hetfield
James Hetfield is perhaps metal’s greatest rhythm guitar player. Cranking out classic riffs and walls of sound in songs like Master Of Puppets and Enter Sandman is no small feat, and it’s a wonder anyone could stay so precise on those ridiculous tracks. Metallica became an iconic band, but their music relies on Hetfield’s mastery of the rhythm guitar and his perfection in technique.
5. Pete Townshend
In The Who, Pete Townshend made his name as one of the top rhythm guitar players in history. He played with power, wheeling his arm in windmills but always stroking chords right on time. On top of playing with a vigorous energy that matched that of drummer Pete Moon, he played the rhythm like an artist and included sus chords and inversions that were well beyond his time.
6. John Lennon
John Lennon isn’t particularly known for being an exceptional guitar player, though analyzing his time with The Beatles would prove otherwise. He played the rhythm guitar with the energy that permeated early rock and roll and could flawlessly build up a song as it progressed. It was clear he had skill, just looking at the range required to play all of The Beatles’ music is proof enough of that. He was also throwing in extra chords to add layers to their music, accentuating it without stepping out in front.
7. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry changed the game and really laid the foundations for rock and roll as we know it today. The boogie rhythms of early hits like Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, and Maybelline require more technical proficiency than modern listeners might expect. His songs drew on the blues guitarists of the time, weaving those rhythms into a faster, more vibrant style of guitar playing.
8. Joan Jett
Joan Jett easily ranks as one of the greatest female guitarists to ever play, and her ability to shred as a rhythm guitarist is ever-apparent on tracks like I Love Rock ‘N Roll and Bad Reputation. Without her, those songs would sound so different and would lack the power chords that have earned them a reputation that outlasted her career and is on display for modern audiences.
9. Jimi Hendrix
Is it possible to leave Jimi Hendrix out of any list of the best guitarists? He is widely considered the best guitarist to ever live and was a player that didn’t distinguish between lead and rhythm guitar, making both roles free and expressive. Among rhythm guitarists, he was part of the few that embellished their part to change the feel of a song instead of just keeping time or providing the rhythm. At his best, he was freestyling, letting the music take him where it wanted and using his imagination to find the next note.
10. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page is one of the most prolific creators of guitar riffs in rock history, summoning the lines for songs like Kashmir, Immigrant Song, and Whole Lotta Love. He could produce aggressive guitar tones that nobody else could, using melodic solos and alternative guitar tunings to achieve very specific sounds that helped make Led Zeppelin tracks so great. Rolling Stone Magazine listed him as their number-three guitarist in their 2015 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, falling behind only Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
11. Dave Mustaine
Dave Mustaine is the one and only consistent member of Megadeth, but he started out as the lead guitarist for Metallica—though he appears on none of their albums. His ability to throw down thrash metal while also singing is incredible, especially when the songs are so high-tempo and complex. He is also capable of ratcheting up the intensity beyond eleven, evident on tracks like Wake Up Dead and Holy Wars… The Punishment Due.
12. Izzy Stradlin
You would expect Guns N’ Roses to have a good rhythm guitar player, but Izzy Stradlin was among the best of the best. A founding member of the band alongside Axl Rose, he was key in their early songwriting and his riffs were the basis for singles like Sweet Child O’ Mine and Paradise City. But, that’s not it. While those tracks hit hard, he could show restraint, evidenced in singles like Patience.
13. Alex Weir
Alex Weir came up on the R&B and funk band The Brothers Johnson, appearing on their albums Right On Time, Light Up The Night, and Blam! He then went on to play with Talking Heads, one of the most critically acclaimed groups in history, before working as a session musician on several other artist albums.
14. Jimmie Vaughan
The older brother of the illustrious Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan is an excellent guitarist in his own right. Modeling his style after the Three Kings of the Blues, he has played as both a solo artist and as a member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Fender has produced a Jimmie Vaughan Stratocaster since 1997 dubbed Tex-Mex.
15. Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers is more than a musician, he’s also a record producer and composer. In total, the songs he’s written, performed, or produced have sold more than 500 million albums and 75 million singles worldwide. His chucking guitar style can be heard on numerous hit songs like We Are Family, Let’s Dance, and Upside Down.
A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, winner of the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, and chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he is one of the most successful musicians of all time and an astounding rhythm guitar player.
16. Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt was one of the earliest major jazz players in Europe and one of the greatest guitarists in history. He was among the first to use the guitar as a lead instrument in jazz, playing hard and loud and laying down licks that became the basis for rock and metal music decades later. He did all of that despite having an injured hand after a fire caused damage that made it difficult for him to play, developing new picking styles.
17. Jerry Reed
Jerry Reed served mainly as a songwriter and a session musician, but both of those skills served him well when it came to developing rhythms and being able to play them. You don’t have to look any further than the intro of the song Guitar Man to see how skilled he was, but if you need another example, check out Good Night Irene as well.
18. Joe Perry
Aerosmith’s grooving style can be mostly attributed to Joe Perry and his insane talent on the rhythm guitar. He laid down nasty funky rhythms on songs like Draw The Line, Dream On, and Sweet Emotion. On Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, he ranked number 84.
19. Bob Marley
Bob Marley pioneered reggae music and helped popularize it outside of Jamaica, and there isn’t really a music genre that’s more reliant on rhythm than reggae. He would infuse reggae with rocksteady and ska music to create his signature sound, earning him numerous awards that include a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
20. The Edge
U2 is one of the best-selling bands of all time, producing untold numbers of hit singles. But one thing many don’t know about their music is that several of their greatest songs originated as nothing more than a bassline or riff created by The Edge. His extensive experimentation with effects has in no way made him miss a timing, instead, it screams of perfection while he lays down rhythms for some of the highest-ranking tracks of all time.
21. Maybelle Carter
Maybelle Carter is known for her signature guitar style dubbed the Carter scratch. It is a rhythm guitar style that helped turn the guitar into a lead instrument and makes the musician play the melody on the bass strings. She was one of the earliest pioneers of American country music and one of the best guitar players of that early era.
22. Lindsey Buckingham
Fleetwood Mac certainly had their fair share of emotional turmoil and interpersonal issues, Lindsey Buckingham not excluded, but it didn’t stop them from producing incredibly creative music with unique rhythms. He built deep rhythm patterns and 16-note sets that drove the songs forward on top of penning and arranging many of the band’s tracks himself.
23. Dimebag Darrell
Dimebag Darrell was, for a time, the most influential metal guitar player in the world. His time in Pantera saw him produce beautiful leads, but his rhythm guitar produced walls of extreme and violent sound that made the band the icon that they became. But he wasn’t just loud, he was an all-arounder, capable of ranges of sound with his guitar that paired perfectly alongside the chainsaw of the group.
24. Tony Iommi
Metal music relies on the harsh tunes that come from their rhythm guitars, so a founding father of heavy metal music makes sense on this list. Tony Iommi was a cofounder of Black Sabbath, perhaps the greatest heavy metal band in history. He was ranked number 25 by Rolling Stone on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
25. Tom Morello
Rage Against The Machine relied on Tom Morello to produce their loud, pure anthems. He never relied on distortion to produce his sound, instead favoring “the same two strings on the same dots.” He plays unrelenting basslines that create a rich satisfaction and thrust home the message in the band’s music.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.