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Keith Richards explains the secrets behind his riffs

With a career spanning six decades and a highly publicised penchant for excessive romancing and illicit drug use, Keith Richards became one of the most prominent counterculture figures of the 1960s and onwards. Journalist Nick Kent’s description of Richards using Lord Byron’s words “mad, bad and dangerous to know” is a fitting attachment of one of rock’s best-known figures.

In fact, Richards had been on trial for drug-related charges five separate times, in 1967, twice in 1973, and in 1977 and 1978; only the first led to an actual prison sentence. Richards’ extensive use of heroin and amphetamines has led the general public, right from Bill Hicks in one of his stand-up routines, to internet forum jokesters, to wonder just how it is that Keith Richards is still alive.

But given all the high publicity, it can be easy to forget just what a talented musician Keith Richards is. He’s a key member of arguably the second most significant rock band of all time for a reason. As both the chief riff master and one of the principal songwriters of the Rolling Stones in the Jagger-Richards partnership, Richards has always had a knack for pulling something out of nothing during a jam session that would often go on to form part of one of the band’s most celebrated hits.

Richards once revealed his process – or lack thereof – of coming up with ideas for riffs and phrases. “When you’re writing songs, there are no fucking rules,” he said. “In fact, you’re looking to break them. You’re looking to sort of find the next missing chord. You’re looking to find the next best way to express things. Writing songs is not about the lyrics one side and music on another.”

“It’s about the two coming together,” he added. And you can be a great poet, and you might write some lovely music, but the art and the beauty of writing songs is to pull those two together, where they seem to love each other, and that’s writing songs.”

Richards shows himself in these passages to be a sensitive soul at one with the mystique of writing music. Music does not come from a formula. Perhaps learning an instrument, you follow patterns – chords, scales, etc. – but sitting down with your instrument in hand ought to be where some kind of magic happens that simply can’t be explained.

“It should be spontaneous and absolutely the guy that’s actually doing it [shouldn’t] know where it comes from,” Richards concludes. “It just appears at your fingertips and is coming out of the instrument. And that is a great riff, totally unthought about, unstructured, no rules, no nothing. It’s just, one minute it ain’t there, and the next minute, there it is. Riffs are not supposed to be thought about; they’re just supposed to be felt and delivered.”