“Guitar groups”, according to executives at Decca Records, were “on their way out” in 1962. That comment infamously came at the expense of The Beatles, who were rejected from the label in the early months of that year. Evidently, no one on that board had noticed that an explosion of interest in the blues was beginning to crop up, that nearly 400,000 guitars had been sold in 1962, and that a young band of ambitious Londoners were soon to transform into the world’s biggest guitar band. They actually probably noticed the last one, because Decca decided to read the room and sign The Rolling Stones in May of 1963.
It wasn’t hard to see the potential. Lead singer Mick Jagger was dashing and magnetic, even if he wasn’t yet 20. Band leader Brian Jones was a blues purist and a shrewd businessman to boot. Drummer Charlie Watts had established himself as one of the best R&B drummers in London, while bassist Bill Wyman was a technological whiz who was able to make his own equipment. The X-factor was the other guitarist: a wiry, troublemaking fellow with a high yelping voice and a distinct love of Chuck Berry. He loved practical jokes, drinks, and was sneakily taking control right from under Jones’ nose. His name was Keith Richards, and he would go on to be perhaps the most influential rock star of the next 50 years.
What wasn’t obvious from The Rolling Stones’ blues and beat origins was how diverse Richards’ listening tastes were. He learned how to play the guitar by practising the traditional Spanish flamenco song ‘Malagueña’ and was fluent in American country music. He detested pop but knew how to intuitively orchestrate it, whether it was with studio musicians or just between him and Jones “weaving” their guitars. Jazz records sat side by side with Elmore James and Elvis Presley. Richards took it all in, but initially, he struggled to find his own unique voice.
Richards helped pioneer distorted riff-rock with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, but that kind of style was being perfected by The Kinks at the same time. The Stones drifted in and out of styles, often one step behind their main competition, The Beatles. Jones’ interest in Indian music allowed them to explore raga rock as psychedelia pushed them into more experimental territory, but the band were still trend-chasing as the ’60s were winding down. And then something happened: Jones began to fade. From the band, from his friends, from life itself.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time, either. Their Satanic Majesties Request was a tremendously off-kilter acid pop album that came off as a Sgt. Pepper’s knockoff. The Stones were unstable and in desperate need of a singular identity. Jagger and Richards had established themselves as the leaders through their songwriting partnership, but now Richards took on strict musical director responsibilities as well. Blues, country, and roots music were now the focus, mixed in with a healthy heaping of rock and roll. Richards overdubbed himself on guitar and put his sound at the forefront of the mix. It was at this time that he stumbled upon the sound that would be his enduring legacy: the five string open G tuning.
Inspired by blues slide guitarists and country banjo players, Richards found that the unique chord shapes that the open tuning allowed gave him a distinct sound. It wasn’t blues. It was hard-edged rock and roll. But there was a problem – the lowest string was getting in the way. The solution was simple: just get rid of it. The first real taste of Richards’ newfound love for open tunings came on ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ (tuned to open E), but it was on ‘Street Fighting Man’ that Richards found his perfect setup. Open G tuning, with a capo on the fourth fret to put it in open B, would be the combination that gave classic songs like ‘Happy’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’ their signature chime.
Without the capo, Richards managed to do just fine staying in open G: ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Before They Make Me Run’, ‘All Down the Line’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, and ‘Start Me Up’ were all written and played in the tuning, and Richards found his unmistakable sound. The power didn’t come from physical strength or ear-splitting volume. Instead, it came from the chime of open strings, the driving nature of the riffs, and the groove established between all the other instrumentalists. Starting with Beggars Banquet, The Rolling Stones officially found their sound, largely thanks to Richards.
Richards cycled through a number of different brands and models of guitar in the early days, but around the same time that the open tunings became his calling card, Richards pledged allegiance to Leo Fender and his selection of six strings. Most prominent was his love of Telecasters (his most famous being a 1953 model named ‘Micawber’), and even though he would continue to use Stratocasters and Tele Customs along with the occasional Gibson model, Richards’ signature sound on stage and on record became defined by the Fender Telecaster.
When it came to studio work, Richards preferred low-watt combo amps that, just like his guitars, also came from the Fender factory. Fender Twin amps would be set to a clean channel while a Fender Champ would get the same signal only overdriven. The mix of cut and clarity was key for Richards: the overuse of effects was never his way of working.
That being said, Richards stumbled on a few tricks over the years. While recording demos for ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’, the guitarist realised that a cassette recorder could be overloaded and used as a pickup. When played with an acoustic guitar, the sound would be crisp and stinging like an amplified electric, but still retained the shimmer of an acoustic.
When it came to effects, Richards was a master of single-utility uses. Stomp boxes and guitar pedals were like pinch hitters – only used in the right situation. The Maestro fuzz tone created a unique drive on ‘Satisfaction’, the wah-wah pedal found a perfect funk counterpart in ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’, and the MXR Phase 90 was the perfect accompaniment to the material on Some Girls. Otherwise, it was about clarity of tone and the right combination of amp and guitar that gave Richards the sound he was searching for.
Most importantly, however, when learning to playing like Keith Richards, is to understand his role in The Rolling Stones music. He’s the musical leader, setting the pace and dictating the direction to which all the other musicians take their cues from. Richards usually plays slightly in front of the intended beat, which often made Watts play slightly behind to compensate. This delicately unstable wobble was only a fraction of a second difference in terms of length, but it was key in establishing the group’s guitar-centred groove. Richards’ riffs shot out like cannons because he was ready and rearing to go.
To play guitar like Keith Richards, you can’t just pick up a Telecaster, tune it to open G, and hit the ground running. You need a diverse intake of music, an ear for melody, a natural sense of rhythm, and a keen desire for groove. In other words, it’s alchemy and magic you’re looking for, the kind that is almost impossible to either simulate or replicate. Keith Richards doesn’t sound like Keith Richards because of his guitars, or his effects, or his tunings. He sounds like Keith Richards because of his hands, his head, and his heart. But if you can’t get that, then messing around in open G is a pretty good start.