While Keith Richards has never officially labelled somebody his favourite guitarist of all time, he’s hardly been covert in his love for one individual. It’s a guitarist whom he holds in the highest regard. As far as The Rolling Stones’ riff machine is concerned, the guitarist in question was a saviour sent from another planet to bring the world the blues and light up his life.
Richards himself would be the first name on many people’s lips when the topic of “greatest guitarist” arises, as it often does, but even Keith wouldn’t go as far as naming himself as his favourite guitarist of all time. In Richards’ eyes, he’s just a messenger keeping rock ‘n’ roll alive and spreading the message sparked in him during his adolescence. It turned into a roaring fire of furious performances and outlandish behaviour, and it all followed after the blues changed his life.
Keith Richards has never been one to keep quiet about his feelings, whether it’s positive, or more commonly, negative. The Rolling Stones’ ultimate riff machine kept himself busy with verbal sparring matches during his downtime with the Stones — both within and outside the band. But there’s one person who didn’t receive a single tongue lashing for literally punching him in the face.
Chuck Berry is the guitarist who your favourite guitarist most likely grew up inspiring; Keith Richards is just one graduate from the Berry school of thought, and it’s clear that Berry is his ultimate idol. He taught the world a new way to play rock ‘n’ roll throughout his prolific career, and every chord he played was infectious.
“When I started, all I wanted to do was play like Chuck [Berry]. I thought if I could do that, I’d be the happiest man in the world,” Richards once remarked of the iconic rock and roller.
Speaking with Rolling Stone, he shed some more light on the moment Berry spoke to him and the performance he gave on a landmark film. “When I saw Chuck Berry in Jazz on a Summer’s Day as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys.
“They were brilliant — guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone — but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: ‘Ooh… this rock and roll…’ With ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that’s blues. That’s the attitude and the guts it takes. That’s what I wanted to be,” Richards mused.
The duo famously teamed up in 1986 for the concert film Hail! Hail! Rock’ n’ Roll, and in preparation for the show, Richards spent a few weeks living in Berry’s home, which he called a “childhood dream come true.”
The footage captures Richards in his element, his whole life was building towards that moment, and he was savouring each second. Despite his wild achievements, performing alongside Berry was a life-affirming moment for Richards that eclipsed almost everything the guitarist had previously done.
Following Berry’s death in 2017, Richards was beside himself in grief. “I kind of got the strange feeling that I remembered when Buddy Holly died,” the guitarist revealed. “I was in school, and this whisper started to go around the classroom. The whole class gave this collective gasp of horror,” he said. “This was that same blow to the gut. It hit me harder than I expected.
“Chuck is the granddaddy of us all. Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry,” Richards added. “He is rock & roll in its pure essence.”
Keith Richards is a hard man to impress, but there are a few people that he’ll never slander and Chuck Berry is part of an exclusive club that the guitarist loves with every ounce of his body. How Berry shaped his life is impossible to deny and made him the artist he is today. Even though The Rolling Stones have enjoyed more commercial acclaim than Richards’ hero, without Berry, then The Stones wouldn’t even exist.