Lead guitarists get all the glory.
But a good rhythm guitarist can have a much bigger impact on a band’s sound.
And the best rhythm guitarists of all time are indispensable to their bands.
Take them away and you also take away the band’s success.
So who are the best rhythm guitar players ever?
Obviously, that is subjective.
Keep reading to see who I consider the best ever. I hope you agree with at least some of them.
Best Rhythm Guitarists Of All Time
As mentioned, lists like these are always subjective. Take a look at my choices and if you think I missed anyone, please let me know in the comments below. I’ll be happy to add new suggestions. Also let me know if any of my picks shouldn’t be on the list (along with why).
Not only was Izzy Stradlin an incredible songwriter in Guns N’ Roses, but he is also one of the most underrated guitar players of all time. Playing rhythm never seems to be that challenging to many people, but what he did with the band requires impeccable skill and feel.
The deliberate, slightly off-beat playing added a slight “bounce” to Guns N’ Roses’ music and it’s something that’s really difficult to replicate. And he did it pretty much effortlessly, which further added to the flow of his music.
While Aerosmith is often remembered for Joe Perry’s lead guitar work and Steven Tyler’s high-pitched and energetic vocals, no one should ever underestimate Brad Whitford and his approach to rhythm guitar in the band.
The idea behind a good rhythm guitarist is not to take over the spotlight with flashy skills that land your jaw on the floor, but to serve the song and complement lead parts. And that’s exactly what Brad is really good at.
Whitford is also the perfect blend between classic blues rock, hard rock, and the early heavy metal of the 1970s. Although the band has changed a lot over the decades, you can always hear those vibes in their music. And a lot of that is thanks to Brad.
Playing in a power trio is far from an easy task. And while Andy Summers isn’t considered a “shredder” virtuoso, what he did in The Police was just mind-blowing.
If you’re not convinced, just take any of the band’s classic songs and try to perform them with the same feel and intent. You’ll quickly realize that Andy is a monster of a player.
After all, he had Sting and Stewart Copeland in the band handling the usual rhythm section duties. That’s a challenge of its own, but Andy’s playing perfectly complements them and gives some incredible results in the bigger picture.
Yes, we know that it may sound like an absolute cliché, but the magic of The Beatles is irreplaceable, and there’ll never be another band like them. Obviously, a huge part of their sound was John Lennon, who remains famous for both his vocal and guitar work. And, most importantly, his writing credits.
As far as the guitar side of things goes, Lennon shared the duties with George Harrison. And while Harrison handled most of the lead parts, Lennon always had the best ways of finding the right chords and chord inversions and making them work in the context of any song.
While Keith Richards mostly handles rhythm duties in The Rolling Stones, he’s the name associated with the guitar in the legendary band. And there’s a pretty simple reason behind that.
It’s his parts that made The Rolling Stones so big and popular. Although not overly complex, his playing is very unique and has that irresistible bounce that helped set the standards in rock ‘n’ roll music.
This is probably best heard in a song like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” where his steady and bouncy rhythm work completely changes the song.
Despite his tragic passing in the mid-1990s, Kurt Cobain’s impact is still felt to this day. He was present on this planet for 27 years, and there are still many aspects of the way his music impacts the new generations of musicians, without them even realizing it.
Kurt’s primary role was that of a songwriter. But his true artistry was a combination of what he wrote and how he handled it in practice while playing and singing. The style was more than perfect for grunge, giving his music a specific feel.
Here we have yet another Nirvana member on the list. Dave Grohl, was already a skilled multi-instrumentalist when he started Foo Fighters.
We could argue that his drumming contributed to his rhythm guitar skills. After all, you don’t often get to see so many successful guitarists who are also featured as drummers on some of the best-selling albums of all time.
Grohl’s rhythm work is seemingly simple. However, once you start listening to his music more closely, you can easily notice that what he is doing is not easy to replicate. His feel goes close together with his writing, in the same way as it did with Kurt Cobain.
Although best-known as the co-founder of the disco-funk band Chic, Nile Rodgers will go down in history as one of the finest rhythm guitar players of all time. For those who may not know, he’s the one playing guitar in Daft Punk’s massive 2013 hit “Get Lucky.”
Just think about it — it’s this one song that a lot of guitar players out there are learning, but not many can fully replicate the feel. That’s all due to Nile’s incredibly innovative, one-of-a-kind approach to the instrument.
Obviously, this list cannot exist without James Hetfield. The Metallica frontman is famous for his downpicking of heavy riffs, as well as his impeccable sense of rhythm, all of which is paired with his performances of vocal lines.
Not only is this incredibly impressive, but his performance is unique and pretty much impossible to fully replicate. It is a big reason there is no other band like Metallica. It is also why I included Hetfield in this list of the best metal guitar players of all time.
Hetfield has also shown so much diversity in all eras of Metallica. His picking hand can pull off subtle and soft parts, like the one in the …And Justice for All intro, as well as some of the most aggressive sections, like a huge portion of riffs in Disposable Heroes.
Although it’s difficult to say who’s the best, you can make a very strong case that it has to be Malcolm Young. Most rock ‘n’ roll fans will focus on his brother Angus Young and the energetic, bluesy lead parts. But what made AC/DC so great was actually Malcolm’s work.
His rhythm, groove, and timing were as impeccable as it gets. This was also paired with his great sense of dynamics, and you could notice all the nuanced contrasts between soft and heavy parts in the same riff.
Best Rock & Metal Rhythm Guitarists: Final Thoughts
Rhythm guitarists often get overlooked a bit. Buty the type of people drawn to the rhythm guitar role often like it that way. It is one of the important considerations when deciding whether you want to be a lead or rhythm player.
Of course some rhythm guitarists are just as flashy as lead players. And other get a to of attention even when they don’t look for it, simply as a result of their incredibly playing. That is the case with most of my picks for the best rhythm guitarists of all time.
If you enjoyed this list, you should also check out or list of history’s top jazz guitar players.