(Credits: Far Out / Tom Petty)
The importance of the rhythm guitarist tends to be overshadowed in the world of rock and roll. Even though many artists want to create songs with a guitarist who can play nasty licks for hours on end, it takes a specific power to get a rhythm guitar that can make the band jump to life whenever they are onstage. While Tom Petty may have been known to provide a great pulse to every single one of his songs, he was indebted to the rhythm guitarists that came before him.
For all of the great sense of rhythm, though, not everything that Petty played is necessarily about keeping in time. When looking at the grid on some of the band’s greatest material, things often begin to speed up and slow down gradually depending on where the pulse of the song is.
While most modern artists would fix such inadequacies in the modern age, the magic of Petty’s early records is not about being on a grid. Regardless of whether he was playing strictly on the beat or not, there’s a subtle heartbeat to every song that feels indebted to the way that Petty consistently performed.
When looking at the most prominent rhythm guitarists before him, Petty learned from the greatest artists of the British Invasion, starting with John Lennon. After seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, Petty knew he wanted to be a musician, but it was Lennon’s approach to writing songs and playing guitar that made him pay attention.
That signature pulse would also inform every early Beatles track, making the band jump in certain places from the clangour or ‘Twist and Shout’ to their more subdued moments like ‘And I Love Her’. Since The Heartbreakers were also about blues-infused rock and roll, Brian Jones and Keith Richards were big inspirations when Petty and Mike Campbell were getting together.
Playing foils of each other, both Jones and Richards developed their own vocabulary in their short time together, making the most out of simplistic blues riffs and turning them into rock and roll symphonies on tracks like ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Even though Richards might get a lot of recognition as the guitar hero of the band, Jones was no slouch, either, having a distinct sense of rhythm that kept the band balanced whenever they played live.
Above all else, Petty knew the power behind having a solid rhythmic foundation in a band. Having already turned in time providing the low end for the group Mudcrutch, Petty thought it essential to have a solid technique to make the band feel like a living, breathing entity whenever they played.
When speaking to Vintage Guitar, Petty thought the rhythm guitar was essential to the band’s soul, saying, “I really concentrated on being… I guess, because I’d been a bass player, I wanted to play rhythm in a real solid way. So our music is really based on that rhythm guitar, and everything else grows from there. If I’m showing the band a new song, it’s based on rhythm guitar, and they fill in around that. But I stick really closely to the groove with the instrument”.
Even though what Petty played can be considered simple by many, what separates him from the standard strumming guitar heroes was his ability to keep the band rooted to the ground whenever they played in stadiums. There might be little adornment, but you know you have a good song if it can be translated with just a guitar and still affect someone.