Listing the greatest guitarists or greatest singers or such seems just too broad to get the best results. For something more narrowly focused, let’s look at individual songs with the greatest rhythm guitar parts.
Looking to tease out the best rhythm guitar performances leads to some consideration of what even constitutes “rhythm guitar.” Some of the stuff is not strictly chords, but riffs or some of both. You’ll see.
Some of the best guitar work, especially rhythm guitar parts, don’t obviously dominate the song. A good example of this is “Sign O the Times.” The guitar part is so sparse and understated, but so precise that the whole song doesn’t quite make sense without it.
Another problem: I have trouble picking out a good rhythm guitar performance to represent some of the biggest guitar hotshots. What Jimi Hendrix song would you pick out to represent him playing “rhythm guitar”? Likewise for Jimmy Page.
Ah, well, we do the best we can. To that end, then, here are the official, 100% objective Al-picked greatest rhythm guitar performances of the rock era:
1) “Love and Happiness” John Mellencamp – Strictly on the basis of the rhythm guitar, no song in the rock tradition lays out a more perfectly dramatic presence than this lesser known Mellencamp classic.
2) “Maybellene” Chuck Berry – If you had to pick out one musician as the main architect of rock and roll, it would have to be Uncle Chuck. In this first single, he defined the basic jumped up blues guitar rhythms that were the original DOS programming of generations of musicians.
3) “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – James Brown This record pretty much invented funk as we know it today, including a new conception of guitar rhythms.
4) “Black Betty” Ram Jam – This studio concoction managed to take a Leadbelly song, and turn it into ultra heavy metal and sheer joyous bubblegum all at the same time. The jumping chord figures turn this into a lead rhythm guitar. This is definitely one of the more awesome rock records ever.
5) “Mystery Train” Elvis Presley – This early Sun record defined the jumpin’ country side of the early rock equation.
6) “You Really Got Me” The Kinks – Along with the even slightly better “All Day and All of the Night,” these two chords were not just career makers for the band, but one of the main beginning points of power pop and even heavy metal.
7) “Pinball Wizard” The Who – The high drama of a pinball championship expressed in guitar chords coming through the subtle wrist of Pete Townshend.
8) “Kiss” Prince – So seemingly simple, yet so high and tight and perfect. Notice the rhythm guitar solo just before the lead solo. I particularly recommend the 12″ extended mix.
9) “Monkey Man” The Rolling Stones – Those high lonesome strokes of rhythm guitar just before the vocal starts ache with understated longing. So hot, so sophisticated and articulate.
10) “Turn, Turn, Turn” The Byrds – Roger McGuinn’s classic twelve-string guitar sound became one of the three or four most influential basic guitar styles in the rock era, and this would be the textbook example.
11) “Amos Moses” Jerry Reed – Here’s a good example of my confusion about what even counts as “rhythm guitar” parts. There’s the basic recurring riff intercut with chord changes in which Jerry Reed invents his own personal brand of jangling country funk.
12) “Tattooed Love Boys” The Pretenders – James Honeyman Scott had great promise, before taking himself out with a stupid OD. Ah, but this slice of 5/4 precision assault forces an extra beat of aggravated aggression, making something work that lesser guitar mortals just couldn’t.
13) “Detox Mansion” Warren Zevon – Those hard, sleazy guitar chords really communicate the pure JOY of being in detox.
14) “Blitzkrieg Bop” The Ramones – Hard, catchy guitar rhythms were the bands’ strongest suite. Nominally punk rock, they had more in common with AC/DC than the Clash. They had a special gift for combining hard rock guitars and catchy bubblegum fun.
15) “Cold Turkey” John Lennon – The jagged little guitar riff defines the whole record, and does the biggest part of the screaming of the pain of Lennon’s addiction.
16) “Cinnamon Girl” Neil Young – This simple riff and distorted sound set the standards for grunge to come, and made real the romantic vision of the song.
17) “American Girl” Tom Petty – He took the classic jangling Byrds sound, and turbo charged it.
18) “I Shot the Sheriff” Bob Marley – As the top exponent of reggae, Marley has to rate as one of the half dozen most influential rock era artists in terms of defining basic guitar rhythms. Some of his sound seems relatively languid, but the anxious jumping of this particular track gives the definition to funky reggae.
19) “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” Elton John – Don’t them guitars cut like the switchblade this guy carries?
20) “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” Creedence Clearwater Revival – Despite general intentions of being all down home and back woodsy, CCR were not generally very convincing in that aspect. The fast shuffling acoustic rhythms of this recording are the main time that I found them fully credible as country music.
21) “Tryin’ to Forget the Blues” Porter Wagoner – A simple gutbucket country blues with just the right little high accents. Porter’s Wagonmasters band has never gotten anything like the credit they deserve.
22) “Stray Cat Blues” The Rolling Stones – Though there would be substantial competition for the title, this may be the nastiest, most gutteral blues chords Keef ever played.
23) “Faith” George Michael – Whatever you may think of him, the Faith album earns status as one of the great all-time pop albums. The basic shuffling rockabilly rhythm guitar that opens the title track stands as his greatest all time hook.
24) “Smoke on the Water” Deep Purple – The basic bar chords here are one of the most recognizable guitar hooks in pop music.
25) “Add It Up” The Violent Femmes – Acoustic based music doesn’t get any more aggressive than this deadly serious rockabilly psychodrama. Funny how acoustic this sounds for something with as much electricity as this has.
26) “Hyperactive!” Thomas Dolby – This record apparently threw most people for a loop, but every part of this just burns with inspiration, not least of all the nasty James Brown guitars with the new wave edge. Dig that little burst of guitar right after “the teacher knew I had the funk.”
27) “Medley (Yell Help, Wednesday Night, Ugly)” Elton John – Cool people know that Rock of the Westies was THE best Elton album. He never made a more rockin’ album than this. He got a real unique flavor of funky studio session rock on this album. This opening song suite comes framed with two of the best sets of guitar chords in his catalogue.
28) “A Apolitical Blues” Little Feat – It’s the meanest blues of all. One simple sharp blues guitar hook with a nicely affected studio echo and some nasty slide work.
29) “Roadrunner” Jonathan Richman – Two simple chords never sounded more complete.
30) “Crumblin’ Down” John Mellencamp – Joshua had trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho. Mellencamp has these much more powerful guitar chords.
31) “Sister Morphine” The Rolling Stones – Simple, quietly played acoustic guitar chords never carried more drama.
32) “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” AC/DC – You couldn’t very well have a list of rhythm guitar greats without some AC/DC, could you?
33) “Hot Stuff” The Rolling Stones – Ah, this is what disco was SUPPOSED to sound like.
34) “Rockin’ the Suburbs” Ben Folds – Ben Folds plays keyboards, so this guitar oriented song is the rarity. These straightforward hard rock guitar chords provide the critical underpinning of sincerity to the “white boy pain” that he’s sheepishly and comically describing.
35) “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” The Rolling Stones – Those opening chords give the fullest expression of just what overwhelming determination possessed Keef to push his way through that crossfire hurricane.
36) “Jolene” Dolly Parton – The taut rolling guitar lick under the song communicates her desperate plea perhaps even more than the elegant vocal melody.
37) “Revolution” The Beatles – Raw, primal and powerful
38) “Not Fade Away” Buddy Holly – The staccato guitar pulse of this most classic of Buddy Holly jams the rock and the roll in an irresistable of righteous rocking daddiness.
39) “Old” Paul Simon – There’s nothing particularly cutting edge or experimental about this record. It’s just a pitch perfect advancement on Buddy Holly that shows the continuing viability of his basic sounds. I only regret not being able to include numerous other Paul Simon acoustic jams, including “Cecilia” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
40) “I Hate Myself for Loving You” Joan Jett – These simple chords constitute the best hook of any kind in her whole career. Meat and potatoes. Mmmm.
41) “Let It All Hang Out” The Hombres
42) “Let It All Hang Out” John Mellencamp – It’s so hard to pick just one of these performances, so why not take both? Mellencamp has had one of the best dozen or so bands in rock history, not sufficiently appreciated. His version is razor sharp, with them guitar chords cutting with James Brown level precision. The Hombres original, on the other hand, doesn’t charge quite as hard, but it has its own unique casual, informal front porch charm.
43) “Neighborhood Bully” Bob Dylan – The chord changes here are simple, but they carry great purpose, like the pulse of a telegraph carrying one of Dylan’s most urgent and direct messages. I’m not sure of exactly what musicians played what parts on this album, but the main guitar here probably comes from Mark Knopfler.
44) “This Flight Tonight” Joni Mitchell – Musicians from Zeppelin to Prince often talk of learning about orchestral color from Joni Mitchell. The unique rhythm guitar sounds on this song make a good example of what they mean. Also, let’s have a special shout out for the guitars on “Carey.”
45) “Girl of My Dreams” Bram Tchaikovsky – Besides being really catchy, the power chords of Bram Tcahikovsky’s whole excellent first album, particularly this title song communicate a rare regal high bearing.
46) “Pablo Picasso” Jonathan Richman – These two quietly agitated chords constitute some of the best punk rock hipster brooding on record.
47) “Cat Scratch Fever” Ted Nugent – Nothing particularly innovative, but this features Nugent’s catchiest and most infecting riff.
48) “Hurry Down Doomsday” Elvis Costello – Lots of good choices in the Elvis catalogue, but I especially dig the psychotic psychedelic country twang of this underappreciated classic.
49) “Wango Tango” Ted Nugent – Not the most sophisticated lyric in the world, admittedly, but he reaches impressive heights of guitar insanity with mostly just a couple of chords here.
50) “Surrender” Cheap Trick – This classic Live at Budokan recording finally made the band stars in America. The album generally, and this song in particular capture a rare moment of ascendance. You can almost see Rick looking up in the middle of this performance, say about the time of the power chords under “whatever happened to all this seasons loosers of the year” and realizing finally in just that moment that he really is a rock star.
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” The White Stripes – Jack White (not to be confused with Jack Black) lays out a simple descending set of grungy chords the equal of “Cinnamon Girl,” with just a strong a sense of burning romanticism.Powered by Sidelines