Rock music and rhythm guitar are inseparable. Oftentimes, rock outfits feature two guitarists, one playing lead guitar and the other specializing in rhythm. Although this is not always the case – the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Ron Wood are often so intertwined that the idea of “lead” and “rhythm” is meaningless, and someone like Jimi Hendrix can cover everything at once – for all intents and purposes, separate lead and rhythm players are the “traditional” setup, if you will. While lead guitarists generally receive most of the praise, credit, and attention, it’s the rhythm players who drive the songs – or keep them on track, or both. Furthermore, rhythm guitar playing is arguably the most difficult aspect of guitar playing.
What?! In theory, syncopated down strumming should be relatively easy to learn, and truth-be-told, if you’ve got a knack for guitar – it is. Still, why is it so hard to master the seemingly simple rhythms of old Stones or Pixies songs? The reason is that rhythm guitar playing is often idiosyncratic. Sure, you can cop the riff to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” but you will never be able to play it in the infuriatingly particular way that Neil Young does, and that’s not because Neil Young is a virtuoso, it’s because Neil Young possesses something intrinsically inside of himself that is singular to him. No matter how hard you try, you will never sound the same. Maybe you’ll come close, but you’ll never quite get there.
This is just one reason why rhythm guitarists are incredibly important to music, especially rock music. You can have an amazing solo but without steady, driving, and memorable rhythm playing and riffs, you hardly have a song. So, today, I am highlighting five of the blue-collar workers of some favorite bands. Their impact may seem low-key on the surface, but their collective legacy is larger than life.
Kelley Deal – The Breeders
The Breeders have been an incredibly important alternative and indie rock band over the last 30-odd years. While Kim Deal is predominantly known as the on- and off-again bassist for the seminal indie rock band the Pixies, it’s her work with The Breeders where she really shines. Kim is generally one who garners the most attention, yet it’s her twin sister Kelley who over time has become more and more important to The Breeder’s sound and overall development as a band. So much so, that I argue that without the input of Kelley Deal, Kim Deal’s Breeders may never have had developed their own strong identity, or separated themselves from their deep-rooted ties to the Pixies and Throwing Muses (The Breeders began as a side project to the Pixies and original member Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses). In the early years, Tanya Donnelly (who formed her own band, Belly, in 1991) actually played lead, with Kim handling bass as she did in the Pixies. The credits on The Breeders albums can get a bit confusing, as a lot of their albums credit both Deal sisters simply as “guitars.” To that end, it’s also important to note that the Breeders are an indie band, and basically have next to no formal “guitar solos.” I chose Kelley Deal as the better rhythm player as I feel her playing and style in that regard exceed that of Kim’s, and her chord progressions and structure are far more prevalent in The Breeders’ songs. Having said all of that, it’s incredible to think that Kelley didn’t even pick up the guitar until the age of 30, and didn’t join The Breeders until 1992 at the age of 31. Just a few short years after picking up the instrument, Kelley’s defining moment came with The Breeders’ 1994 indie rock masterpiece, Last Splash. Kelley’s arpeggio-laden, punk and surf rock-inspired playing helped define a sound that would go on to be imitated by many but mastered by only one – Kelley Deal. While she’s no virtuoso, her playing, style, and songwriting are distinctive, a huge part of a watershed moment in 1990s indie rock.
Kristin Hersh – Throwing Muses
When it comes to women who shook up the world of 1980s and 1990s indie rock, Kristin Hersh just about has it all. Her stream of consciousness delivery, coupled with her sometimes traditional, oftentimes jagged, dissonant, and aggressive rhythm playing are a key element of what sets her band, Throwing Muses, apart. While the band was originally formed by both Hersh and her best friend Tanya Donnelly, once Donnelly broke away from the band in 1991, Hersh took control. Her songwriting and guitar work, both with and without Donnelly, are some of the finest of the genre. Albums such as House Tornado, Hunkpapa, The Real Ramona, Red Heaven, and University are essential to any ’90s indie rock playlist, and Kristin Hersh’s angular guitar rhythms are front and center the whole way. Hersh’s emboldened and chaotic style is often punctuated by extreme dynamic shifts, staggered by rhythms that could only have come from the oblique, rage-laden mind of one of indie rock’s most mesmerizing figures. If you haven’t witnessed to Kristin Hersh’s surreal, anguish-filled style, I suggest you give a listen. She will not disappoint.
Johnny Ramone – the Ramones
Punk rock guitarists don’t ever get any credit. Punk rock playing as an art form is criminally underappreciated. When it comes to the Ramones, it’s a tale we’ve heard endlessly. Four bums from Queens clad in leather and chains took the stage one fateful evening at CBGB, and as the story goes played an entire set in 12 minutes, and the rock world shattered on impact. We know the legend. We remember the songs (“I Wanna Be Sedated,” Rock and Roll High School,” “Rockaway Beach” and so many others). However, what made the Ramones the quintessential punk rock group was their three-chord primitivism, which represented the absolute apex of their technical know-how and musical abilities at the time. Johnny Ramone armed himself with a cheap surf-rock Mosrite guitar and strummed chords relentlessly on the down-stroke. He played as fast as he humanly could, for as long as he possibly could during each short burst of a song.
The true unintended brilliance of Johnny Ramone’s barbaric playing was his inability—or refusal – to make it through even a simple guitar solo. Johnny Ramone was a pioneer of punk rock and rhythm guitar playing. Though he never intended it, he inspired droves upon droves of imitators who ironically aspired to play as fast and simple as he did. It goes to show that you do not have to be gifted with supreme talent or virtuosity to make an impact, or create meaningful, lasting art. Hey-ho – nobody could go like Johnny Ramone.
Malcolm Young – ACϟDC
When you think of ACϟDC, rhythm guitar might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Although lead guitarist Angus Young is an icon with his schoolboy outfit, shorts and onstage antics, rhythm guitar is the bulk of what we’re hearing. Few will remember that in the band’s infancy, Malcolm Young was the lead guitarist, and when Malcolm’s younger brother Angus joined the band, for a time they shared lead guitar duties before Malcolm turned the role over to his then-teenage brother full-time. While Angus Young deservedly gets an immense amount of credit for the success of ACϟDC, it’s Malcolm who was the group’s de facto leader up until his health-related departure and subsequent retirement from music in 2014. While rhythm guitar has always played an integral role in rock music, it was Malcolm Young, along with a select few (like Pete Townshend, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, and James Hetfield of Metallica, among others), who took rhythm guitar to newer, heavier levels as rock moved through the 1970s, ’80s, and beyond.
When it comes to style, sound, and relentless groove, Malcolm Young had it all, and yet kept it simple, playing open chords through Marshall amplifiers set to relatively low gain for a cleaner, less-overdriven but immensely powerful sound. Before Malcolm came along, a lot of rock rhythm players banged out loud, overdriven power chords, which do have their place, but can you honestly say there is a hard rock band with more power and force than ACϟDC? I think not. Many will label Malcolm Young as “repetitive,” and while there may be a hint of truth to that, Malcolm Young’s legacy and contributions to the evolution of hard rock, and heavy metal are indelible. Just listen to tracks such as “Problem Child,” Highway to Hell,” “Back In Black,” and “Thunderstruck.”
Keith Richards – the Rolling Stones
When it comes down to rock rhythm guitar, there can be only one Number One, and that is Keith Richards. Early on, Keith was heavily inspired by the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis’s guitarist, Scotty Moore. As he progressed, Keith honed his signature sound and technique, much of it involving playing in open G tuning with five strings (discarding the bottom string on the guitar). and wrote some of the greatest songs and riffs in rock history. Jagger may be the voice, but Keith is the Rolling Stones. His direct, incisive, and unpretentious style is the reliable engine which still drives one of rock music’s greatest bands nearly 60 years later. Keith Richards is an enigma wrapped in a miracle, somehow managing to become one of the most notable and flamboyant rock stars in history, all the while refusing to impart his flash and flair for the dramatic into his playing.
Keith’s ability to play under absolute control, while his life generally often resided in unadulterated chaos, is part of what makes Keith Richards the true maestro of rhythm guitar. Keith is a master of playing off his counterparts, and his work alongside Stones guitarists Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood is nothing short of mythological, to say nothing of his songwriting partnership with Mick Jagger. His distinctive, syncopated, ringing style is what makes songs like “Street Fighting Man,” “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Honky Tonk Women.”
The age-old image of Keith: scraggly, sweat-soaked hair, loose, tattered clothes, a leather jacket, worn leather boots, a smoldering cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, and a beaten-down Telecaster slung over his shoulder and hanging low below his waist, was the definition of punk rock before anyone ever thought of the term, and is still is the image by which rock music has come to be defined. Rock would be irrevocably different if not for the influence of Keith Richards, Guitar God in capital letters, and most people cannot name even one single solo the man has laid to tape. If that’s not a perfect demonstration of the lasting importance of rhythm guitar in rock music, I don’t know what is.
Throughout rock history, a great many guitarists have come and gone. Some left us too soon, and some perhaps stuck around for maybe a bit too long. Oftentimes we tend to focus on what’s loudest or flashiest. It’s indeed easy to get swept up in an awe-inspiring solo, and truth be told, I like what the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads did as much as anybody. Still, when it comes to rock music, it’s about the song first and foremost, and you can’t have a song without a backbone, without rhythm driving it along.
Think about it. Lead guitarist Ace Frehley is amazing, but KISS simply isn’t KISS without Paul Stanley revving the engine. (Frehley was one of the founding members of the band.) How about the Who, or Creedence Clearwater Revival? Seminal rock bands, driven by rhythm guitar. On the punk rock side, we’ve got people like Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Poison Ivy (the Cramps), and Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls) defining the music.
The rhythm guitar keeps the train moving. It’s the foundation of the music we love. If you’re picking up the guitar for the first time, I suggest focusing on your rhythm playing initially. You’ll be better for it in the long run. If you play your cards right, you might just be the next unsung but essential rhythm player to help usher in a new wave of music. At the very least, you’ll be a part of a legion of lunch pail workers who keep rock music anchored.
Header image: Kelley Deal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Santos Diaz.