Evidence has suggested that the nucleus basalis magnocellularis has the potential to influence the functional state of the cerebral cortex through topographically organized, widespread projections of the cholinergic cells in that nucleus. It has also been shown that, in addition to the cholinergic neurons, other non-cholinergic magnocellular basal forebrain neurons, some of which have been identified as gamma-aminobutyric acid-ergic, project into the cerebral cortex and thus may also participate in the modulation of its activity. We have performed a comparative study of the intrinsic rhythmic properties of immunohistochemically and morphologically characterized choline acetyltransferase (ChAT)-positive and ChAT-negative cells of the nucleus basalis by means of intracellular recordings in guinea pig brain slices. Our results demonstrate that relatively large, multipolar cholinergic and non-cholinergic neurons each display differential voltage-dependent properties that allow them to discharge rhythmically in spike bursts and spike clusters, respectively, at low frequencies (< 10 Hz). Cholinergic cells display bursts of 2-4 action potentials (at approximately 200 Hz) riding on low-threshold spikes recurring at a low frequency (< 5 Hz) when depolarized from a membrane potential more negative than -55 mV and display low-frequency (< 10-15 Hz) tonic firing when depolarized from a more positive level. In contrast, non-cholinergic cells fire in a unique mode, displaying non-adapting clusters of spikes interspersed with rhythmic subthreshold membrane-potential oscillations when depolarized from levels less negative than -55 mV. The spike clusters repeat rhythmically at relatively low frequencies (2-10 Hz). The intracluster spiking frequency is relatively high and coincides approximately with that of the intervening membrane-potential oscillations (approximately 20-70 Hz). The cluster frequency of the non-cholinergic cells corresponds, in the same manner as the burst frequency of the cholinergic cells, to a delta (1-4 Hz) or theta (4-10 Hz) range of activity, whereas the intra-cluster and tonic spike frequencies of the non-cholinergic cells correspond to high beta to gamma ranges of electroencephalographic activity (19-30 Hz and 30-60 Hz, respectively). We propose that the different modes of oscillatory firing by the cholinergic and non-cholinergic basal forebrain cell populations could collectively contribute to the rhythmic modulation of slow and fast rhythms within the cerebral cortex.