How can you expect a house to stand without its foundation? You really can’t. The same principle applies to the process of songwriting and the role of the rhythm guitarist.
Without a foundation from a solid chord sequence, even if it’s expressed in secret, there wouldn’t be anything to guide a song’s progression and anchor down all its fluttering melodies. If a song lacks this necessary structure for the creation of riffs and repetition, it might not hold up as well as others that do. When those hurricane force winds of criticism descend upon it, hopefully it has enough support to not topple over onto its neighbor’s fence.
Naturally, the purest example of assuring chord structure is bolstered belongs to the role of the rhythm guitarist. Whether it’s a designated band role or simply a playing style, rhythm guitarists almost exclusively strum the song’s unabridged chord progression behind the lead guitarists’ melodies and the bassist’s often-wavering undercurrents. For this reason, they act as a crucial part of an artist or act’s intended sound, unless the intended sound is something unusually sparse along the lines ofPete Seeger.
But this musical role is also a loveless one.
Columnist Luke Furman discusses what characteristics to look for to gauge the quality or illusion of quality music holds.
If you don’t think so, then how many rhythm guitarists can you name? And, hard mode, how many rhythm guitarist can you name who are not also lead singers? For reference, that eliminates Chuck Berry, George Harrison, Joan Jett, Glenn Frey, Bob Marley and Dave Grohl.
So, unless they’re in an über-famous group or contribute vocals, sole rhythm guitarists’ names seldomly rise to prominence of the household variety. But that’s not their fault.
Their role allows them to fill in the frequency gaps between the bass, drums and leads, which is important enough that it doesn’t require conscious recognition. Perhaps it is then the most selfless role in music.
Some rhythm guitarists who have achieved fame of their own include Keith Richards, whose rhythmic playing functions doubly as a lead, Izzy Stradlin of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam, but the majority of solely rhythm guitarists remain unsung for their seemingly passive contributions whether live or in the studio.
Keyboardists, whose support role serves a similar, if not the same, purpose of providing dense structural padding, share an equal level of anonymity. Except for legendary players such as Ray Manzarek of The Doors and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, along with the previous examples, musicians in sound-spectrum support roles seem to pass by unnoticed and unthanked.
But ultimately, fame doesn’t really matter as long as you’re doing your job.
Without the sonic layering rhythm guitar provides, we might not become as immersed in the textures and timbres of songs as we so often do. The importance of the role essentially boils down to one of those cases where, in the words of 80s glam-metal band Cinderella, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.
So to all the rhythm guitarists out there, I thank you for your work. You keep a lot of houses from crumbling into ruin.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. Do you have a favorite rhythm guitarist? Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.