The unstoppable Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards is an inimitable figure. Not only are his off-stage exploits unmatched but his guitar style, while not always technically proficient, is so unique and utterly dripping with style that he is rightly considered within the argument of greatest guitarists of all time.
While we can hear the snorts of derision the argument is a good one. Not only did The Rolling Stones breathe new and dangerous energy into the pop music scene when they arrived in the sixties, but they did so by paying homepage to the past. It means that while Richards was the face of a new sound he was still indebted to those before him, and he knew it.
So while we could go on for an eternity about the self-described style of Keith Richards, “five strings, two fingers, one asshole,” we thought we should reflect on those artists whom Richards deems musical heroes. We’re looking at six of Keith Richards favourite guitarists.
If you’re relatively well-read on Richards and The Rolling Stones you’ll know that they are indebted most handsomely to one man, Chuck Berry. As well as the band covering many of his songs, and Berry’s record even being the reason lost childhood friends Richards and Mick Jagger reconnected, Berry was the reason Richards picked up a guitar.
“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,” the avid jazz-lover himself, the dissent sparked life into an idea for Richards. “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. During the same interview, the guitarist also mentioned a few other notable guitarists from whom he got “it”. What that “it” really is, is anyone’s guess. But we’d guess it was connected directly to the soul.
“I listened to every lick he played and picked it up. Chuck got it from T-Bone Walker, and I got it from Chuck, Muddy Waters [whom Keith has played with], Elmore James and B.B. King. We’re all part of this family that goes back thousands of years. Really, we’re all passing it on.”
Another member of the pantheon of guitar players according to Keef, was Elvis Presley’s man with the axe, Scotty Moore. An often overlooked yet influential figure of guitar playing. He epitomised the style that Richards would hold so dear.
Though he wasn’t the technical player Jimmy Page is, for instance, Moore could certainly make your toes tap, and to Richards that is about as good as it gets. Speaking with RS, he told the magazine, “Scotty Moore was my hero. There’s a little jazz in his playing, some great country licks and a grounding in the blues as well. It’s never been duplicated. I can’t copy it.”
The guitarist remembered Moore after his death, “He was a gentle, unassuming guy. He liked his scotch – they didn’t call him Scotty for nothing. In 1996, I went up to Woodstock to do a session at Levon Helm’s barn with Levon, Scotty and Elvis’ drummer D.J. Fontana.”
“I’ve gotten used to playing with my heroes,” effused Richards. “I played with Little Richard in his dressing room when I was 19, thinking, ‘This’ll do!'” but this was the crème de la crème. It was a session of good old boys. There was plenty of whiskey that day. There will never be another Scotty Moore.”
The final name on our list, of which we’re well aware could be filled one hundred times over with different names counting the different guitar icons that have influenced Richards, is one we weren’t necessarily expecting—least of all because of one apparent decades-long rivalry.
Of course, we’re talking about the faux-feud between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. While varying members of each outfit have taken shots at the other during their time, Keith Richards has always held a special affection and appreciation for the late great George Harrison.
Richards noted his style and, as reported by Harrison’s Stories, the Stones guitarist thought he was better than some of the instruments greatest players for one subtle reason. “The thing is, you’ve got your Jimi Hendrix, you’ve got your Eric Clapton, and then you’ve got guys who can play with bands,” Richards said. “George was a band and a team player.”
“People get carried away with lead guitars […] and feedbacks,” Richards noted, highlighting the lack of integrity he gives to pure soloists. “And it’s all histrionics, when it comes down to it.” It’s a position that Richards has maintained throughout his career. Being a guitarist wasn’t about being the main man, it was about being an integral part of a gang, “George was an artist but he was also a fucking craftsman,” concluded Richards.
If there’s one man who has painstakingly given every single bit of his mind, body and soul to the guitar it has to be Keith Richards. An expert player, the ultimate riff machine, an undoubted vibe merchant, and as it turns out, he has fantastic taste in music.
Below we’ve gathered up a playlist of some of Keith Richards’ favourite guitarists and their best work.
Keith Richards favourite guitarists:
- Chuck Berry
- Muddy Waters
- Elmore James
- B.B. King
- Scotty Moore
- George Harrison