While many aspiring guitar players have dreams of blazing solos and taking up the spotlight, some are content to stay more in the background as a rhythm guitar player. Rhythm guitarists do what the name implies; they keep the rhythm, particularly when the lead guitar player is soloing. The rhythm guitar player is an integral part of a rock band, and many of the best rhythm players are just as much guitar heroes as lead guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Slash.
The Role of the Rhythm Guitar
Rhythm guitar players keep the rhythm by strumming or plucking the key chord changes that make up the structure of the song. Rhythm guitar players commonly use a chunkier or heavier sound than the lead guitar player. Humbucking pickups are more common among rhythm guitar players than single coil pickups for this reason. However, you don't need to have humbucking pickups to get the heavier, chunkier sound. You can also get this sound by using distortion, overdrive or other effects pedals.
Noteworthy Rhythm Guitar Players
Not all guitar heroes are lead guitar players. The rhythm guitar has its own set of luminaries that you can look to for inspiration.
Perhaps the most noteworthy rhythm guitarist in rock is Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Keith is known for his bluesy style and alternate "Nashville"-style tuning. Other guitar players in The Rolling Stones, such as Brian Jones and Ron Wood, played lead guitar in the band, but have not achieved the iconic status of "Keef." Richards stands as an inspiration and influence to many rhythm guitar players, including those on this list.
Johnny Thunders (known to fans as "JT") was the rhythm guitar player of The New York Dolls and his own band, The Heartbreakers. He is heavily influenced by Keith Richards, from his bluesy style of playing to his mannerisms, haircut and clothing. Thunders has been emulated by many guitar players in punk, hard rock and glam metal for his distinctive punky take on Richards.
Izzy Stradlin, the original rhythm guitar player of Guns 'N' Roses, cuts a figure just as distinctive and striking as lead guitarist Slash. Stradlin takes a great deal of influence from both Richards and Thunders, updating this classic, bluesy sound for the 1980s and 1990s. He even played the Fender Telecaster that is associated with Keith Richards.
Joan Jett was the rhythm guitar player of The Runaways, as well as her own band, The Blackhearts. She played in a heavy style, straddling the area between punk rock, hard rock, and heavy metal. Jett inspired a generation of guitar players of both genders, showing that women could rock just as hard as men.
While less famous than his brother Bootsy, Catfish Collins is an accomplished rhythm guitar player in the world of R&B, soul and funk. He got his start playing in James Brown's second band, The JB's, alongside his brother. He later went on to play in Parliament, Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band.
With his band The Eagles, Glen Frey pioneered the country rock sound. He incorporated the sound of country guitar with the bluesy, rootsy style of rock and roll players like Keith Richards. He was the author of many of the band's hits along with Don Henley. He also played in Linda Ronstadt's band for a time before he founded The Eagles.
Rhythm guitarist of Heart, Nancy Wilson was a pioneer for women in rock. In addition to inspiring more women to play guitar, Nancy was also influential in the realms of hard rock, heavy metal and alternative rock. She has also starred in a number of films directed by her ex-husband Cameron Crowe.
Known for his time in The Clash, Joe Strummer got his start in British pub rock band The 101'ers. He later had a solo career. Strummer was influenced by a number of styles of music, including reggae, rockabilly, and R&B. The fusion of these styles were what gave The Clash its unique sound, standing outside the confines of "the rules" of punk rock at the time. The band's later work also included forays into disco, dub and dance music.
Playing Rhythm Guitar
Keeping rhythm and melody are the most important parts of rhythm guitar. Listening to influential rhythm guitar players will give you a good idea of what you want your guitar to sound like. Listen to what is going on underneath the lead guitar playing to get a feel for the differences between the two, and then look around for exercises for rhythm guitar players. You may find that you are more interested in this role in a band than you are playing solos.