Often known as ‘The Human Riff’, Keith Richards has been at the inception of some of the most coveted and recognisable rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. No matter what you may think of his technical or professional prowess, ‘keef’ delivered time and time again for his band.
With The Rolling Stones and as one-half of the Glimmer Twins with Mick Jagger, Richards’ songwriting talent needs no introduction but his work with the guitar is too often overlooked, despite producing some of the most mesmerising riffs of all time. The guitarist’s skill is often thought of as secondary to his style. While that may have some grounding, to overlook his contribution in both fields is only to get one side of the Keith Richards story.
In a past interview with Guitar World, Richards would set the record straight on one age-old question, which of The Rolling Stones riffs would he call his favourite. Despite the question likely hitting Richards like Sophie’s Choice, he rallied and below are the ten that he picked out. When considering the source, it’s hard not to recognise these riffs as the band’s best.
It’s easy to forget the power Keith Richards seemingly possessed when he and The Rolling Stones tore up the scene in the mid-sixties. Arriving alongside Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, Richards and the group turned rock ‘n’ roll on its head when they arrived on the scene—and somehow made it even more dangerous—all with a series of unstoppable riffs.
We all may have had our turn at picking out our ten favourite riffs from Keith Richards but now we can bring you the choices the man himself made when looking back at his illustrious career with a guitar. It’s the kind of viewpoint few people ever give their music, so we’re grateful to have seen this one.
Good ol’ Keef even shares a few tidbits about how each riff came to be on record and, as you might imagine, the scenarios aren’t always PG friendly. Find the full playlist below and dive into the favourite riffs of Keith Richards.
Keith Richards faovurite Rolling Stones riffs:
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
One of the most iconic songs of the Rolling Stones man’s career, ‘Satisfaction’ is a song so ubiquitous with awkward dad-dancing it’s easy to forget how game-changing it was, let alone that Richards came up with the song, literally in his sleep.
Richards tells GW: “When I wrote the song, I didn’t think of that particular riff as the big guitar riff. That all fell into place at RCA [recording studio in L.A.] when Gibson dumped on me one of those first Fuzz-Tone pedals. I actually thought of that guitar line as a horn riff. The way Otis Redding ended up doing it is probably closer to my original conception for the song. It’s an obvious horn riff.”
He added: “At least Otis got it right. Our version was a demo for Otis.”
‘Mother’s Little Helper’
The song from 1966 effort Aftermath is widely lauded for its otherworldly lead guitar, which, like many of the guitarist’s greatest feats, Richards reveals came about purely by chance.
“It was just one of those things where somebody walked in with it and we went, ‘Look, it’s an electric 12-string.’ It was just some gashed-up job. God knows where it came from or where it went, but I put it together with a bottleneck and we had a riff that tied the whole song together. There’s probably some gypsy influence in there somewhere.”
It’s a killer track and announced The Rolling Stones as high-quality songwriters as well as performers. ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ has gone on to typify the danger the band possessed in their early days.
‘Paint It Black’
Many feel that this track was the moment The Rolling Stones truly separated from their perceived arch-rivals, The Beatles. No longer were the two competitors, they were now two sides of an unmistakable coin. The Beatles may have provided a shinier surface but the Stones were as tough as metal.
Yet they still enjoyed using a Beatles-type instrument, the sitar, “Brian [Jones] got into the sitar and used it on a few things, like ‘Paint It Black’. I found it an interesting instrument, the idea of the sympathetic strings underneath that resonate to the strings on top.”
Richards continued, “Bill Wyman was also instrumental to the sound of ‘Paint It Black’ by adding the organ pedals. That song is another one of those semi-gypsy melodies we used to come up with back then. I don’t know where they come from. Must be in the blood.”
‘Jumping Jack Flash’
Richards opens up about the beginnings of the classic track and the man behind it, Jack Dyer, Richards’ gardener. As Keef explains, “We’d been up all night [he and Jagger]; the sky was just beginning to go grey. It was pissing down raining, if I remember rightly.
“Mick and I were sitting there, and suddenly Mick starts up,” continues Richards. “He hears these great footsteps, these great rubber boots – slosh, slosh, slosh – going by the window. He said. ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumpin’ Jack.’
“We had my guitar in open tuning, and I started to fool around with that. [singing] “Jumpin’ Jack…” and Mick says, “Flash.” He’d just woken up. And suddenly we had this wonderful alliterative phrase. So he woke up and we knocked it together.” Just like that.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’
A song that would see the Stones labelled as devil-worshippers is arguably one of their finest tracks—but had Jagger had his way the song would have lost the enticing rhythm Richards bestowed upon it.
Richards reveals, “Mick brought that to the studio as a very Bob Dylanish kind of folk guitar song, and it ended up as a damned samba. I think that’s the strength of the Stones: give them a song half raw and they’ll cook it.”
He and the band certainly did that as they transformed the allegoric tale into a seething and menacing ode to Lucifer himself. It’s a song that clarified The Rolling Stones as not only the rock stars du jour, but of searing songsmiths and eccentric observers of society.
‘Street Fighting Man’
When trying to discuss ‘Street Fighting Man’ Richards walks himself around and around. It was part of what makes the song so dense and rich in the first place.
“When we went in the studio, we just couldn’t reproduce the sound of the original demo I did on cassette,” revealed Richards. “So we played the cassette through an extension speaker and I played along with it – we just shoved a microphone into an acoustic and overdubbed it onto the track from the cassette.”
In the end, and after a lot of toing and froing around capos and tunings, he concedes that even he doesn’t know which sound is which, “’Cause I tried eight different guitars, and which ones were used in the final version I couldn’t say.”
Although Merry Clayton’s incredible vocal performance will always be the best thing about the 1969 song, Richards lead line is hard to ignore as one of the band’s crystalline moments of greatness—and it all came from Richards and his guitar. Well, kind of.
It turns out that Richards actually doesn’t know whose guitar it was that he was playing while recording the track, “Some guy crashed out at my pad for a couple of days, then suddenly split in a hurry and left that guitar behind, like, ‘take care of this for me’ I certainly did.”
“At the very last note of the take, the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original track. That guitar had just that one little quality for that specific thing. In a way, it was quite poetic that it died at the end of the track.”
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’
1971 Sticky Fingers track had yet another a serendipitous construction, as with most of Richards’ favoured parts: “On that song, my fingers just landed in the right place and I discovered a few things about that [five-string, open G] tuning that I’d never been aware of. I think I realised that even as I was cutting the track.”
The luck continued as the iconic final jam sessions was never meant to be. “And then that jam at the end – we didn’t even know they were still taping. We thought we’d finished,” Keef continues, “‘Oh they kept it going. Okay, fade it out there – no wait, a little bit more, a bit more…’ Basically, we realized we had two bits of music: there’s the song and there’s the jam.”
One of the band’s finest moments came about through an organic connection to the music. That’s always how Keith prefers to operate—feeling the soul of the music.
It may not be the first track you think of when you think Rolling Stones but the funky number has always had a special place in their live set. As Richards remembers, “That was basically Mick’s song. He said, “Let’s try this disco shit out.”
It may not go down as many people’s favourite Rolling Stones songs, but the experimentation means it holds a place on Richards’ preferences.
“I think he’d been to too many nightclubs, actually. The guitar riff basically suggested itself from the melody Mick was singing. I just shadowed that and ran it behind the voice. It’s just a piece of fun, that song.”
‘Start Me Up’
Undoubtedly one of the most recognisable riffs of all time, Richards reveals the song is actually one of his biggest disappointments. “I was convinced that was a reggae song. Everybody else was convinced of that. ‘It’s reggae, man’.”
“We did 45 takes like that,” recalls Richards, “But then on a break, I just played that guitar riff, not even really thinking much about it; we did a take rocking away and then went back to work and did another 15 reggae takes.” The guitarist continued, “Five years later, Mick discovered that one rock take in the middle of the tape and realized how good it was.”
For that reason, the song remains a thorn in Richards’ side, “The fact that I missed ‘Start Me Up’ for five years is one of my disappointments. It just went straight over my head. But you can’t catch everything.”
Keith Richards’ favourite Rolling Stones songs:
- ‘Mother’s Little Helper’
- ‘Paint It Black’
- ‘Jumping Jack Flash’
- ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
- ‘Street Fighting Man’
- ‘Gimme Shelter’
- ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’
- ‘Miss You’
- ‘Start Me Up’