For every debaucherous antic and debased lifestyle choice that he made throughout the past 60 years, Keith Richards is a master of the guitar. Never a showy or flashy player, Richards is interested in groove, timing, and simplicity. Any extraneous element is quickly removed from his playing, even if it’s one of his guitar strings.
Richards famously became unsatisfied with the guitar around the end of the 1960s. Albums like Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request brought out the experimental side of him, and Richards began to feel as if he had taken his playing to its furthest point. He mastered the blues idiom, could write pop chord progressions and knew his way around a good rock and roll solo. What he needed was a challenge.
Enter Ry Cooder. The American slide guitar virtuoso contributed to a number of Rolling Stones sessions, and his signature style can be heard on Let It Bleed track ‘Love In Vain’ and Sticky Fingers effort ‘Sister Morphine’. Cooder utilised open tunings in his playing, specifically an open G tuning that fascinated Richards.
Let’s get technical: alternative tunings are used to create chords, tones, and sounds that standard tuning doesn’t allow. Guitarists such as Joni Mitchell, Robert Fripp, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ronaldo use different combinations of tuned strings to produce the unique characteristics of their music. Open tunings are so-called because strumming them without any chord shapes or fingerings produces an already complete chord. When you strum a guitar tuned to open G, the G chord is already built-in.
A guitar in standard tuning goes E-A-D-G-B-E from low to high. In open G, the strings would normally be tuned to D-G-D-G-B-D, the three notes in a G chord. Richards initially found the low D muddy and wound up removing it completely, leaving the low G as the bass note. The result is a blues-infused tuning that you can hear on some of the Stones’ most signature songs: ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Happy’, and ‘Before They Make Me Run’, to name just a few.
As part of Noisey‘s now-sadly defunct Guitar Moves series, Richards provides an impromptu demonstration to guitarist Matt Sweeney of how to get his signature 5-string set up from standard tuning. Richards detunes the lowest string and removes it from the peg, holding it under his foot because the two comically can’t get it fully removed. From there, he finds the G string and tunes the A string down a whole step to match. Finally, the high E string is also tuned down a whole step to match the D string. The rest is rock and roll history.
See the clip, below.