There’s a very good chance that Keith Richards wrote your favourite guitar riff of all time. The gunslinger is one of rock and roll’s unwavering figures and both working with The Rolling Stones, and out on his own, Richards has rightly been regarded as one of the foundational stones of modern music. But while his contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page are often lauded with praise and described as musical messiahs, Richards rarely gets the credit he deserves.
Richards was always a far more economical guitar player. He would avoid being “the fastest gun in the west” with noodling virtuoso playing like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and, instead, focused on creating energy and power with his all-action riffs. In his guitar playing and much like his life, Keith Richards never backs down and always wants to dance. Judging by these five isolated guitar tracks below, Richards is every bit the genius player those two are.
“I’m the riff master,” wrote Richards in his autobiography Life. “The only one I missed and that Mick Jagger got was ‘Brown Sugar,’ and I’ll tip my hat there. There he got me. I mean, I did tidy it up a bit, but that was his words and music.” Richards continues later in the book, “These crucial, wonderful riffs that just came, I don’t know where from,” wherever they came from, keep ’em coming!
“I’m blessed with them, and I can never get to the bottom of them,” he continued. “When you get a riff like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee. ‘Flash’ is basically ‘Satisfaction’ in reverse. Nearly all of these riffs are closely related. But if someone said ‘You can play only one of your riffs ever again,’ I’d say ‘OK, give me ‘Flash.’”
While Richards will never be regarded as the most proficient guitar player of all time—it’s tough to top Jimi as it is—he should be considered one of the finest constructors of a rock and roll riff ever. Creating work that resonates resolutely for decades is no mean feat, and Richards should be heralded for that contribution even if it isn’t the upper echelons of technical prowess; after all, rock and roll is a feeling, right.
Check out five isolated guitar tracks below that show off the guitarist’s uncanny ability to write and record the perfect riff.
Keith Richards best isolated guitar
‘Sympathy for the Devil’
Although the song is attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it is widely believed that Jagger wrote most of the song on his own through its original incarnations as ‘The Devil Is My Name’ and ‘Fallen Angels’, before settling on the song’s title. It’s one of the band’s wildest tracks and, in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said: “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong.”
He continues, “Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” Perhaps most notably, Richards suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a subterranean samba that smacked of the subversive pop the group were peddling. He was Jagger’s devil on the shoulder who was happy to suggest the final ingredient: danger.
Aside from the sinister samba rhythm and the lyrical enjoyment of tragedy, the real seal of demonic approval comes from Richards’ flaming riffs. Moved away from the London blues sound which was permeating the streets of the capital in the mid-to-late-sixties, Keef attacks with intensity.
‘Honky Tonk Women’
Keith Richards is so great, so revered and adored by so many people that not only can he perform as the distillation of the rock and roll spirit, but he is also a supreme guitar and rock geek. A fanboy, even. That is why he can transcend tone and genre with the Stones, how he can create riffs and lead lines that should be nowhere near his Dartford upbringing. But such is the enigma of Keef.
He may well be overlooked for his playing ability, but we’re betting that’s because a lot of people, caught up in the swashbuckling performance, seem to miss the small tricks and nuances that Richards adds to his playing and the band’s output. On the band’s 1969 song ‘Honky Tonk Women’, Richards lays down a funky line that simply nobody else could have pulled off.
Released as a single only, though a country version of the song ‘Country Honk’ was later included on Let It Bleed, ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was conceived when Richards and Jagger set up shop in Brazil for a while. They were inspired by the inhabitants of the country’s rural and remote areas known as ‘caipiras’ and let Richards guitar do the rest.
Richards’ shows off his virtuosos ability on the 1969 Let It Bleed single, the iconic Merry Clayton and Rolling Stones’ anthem ‘Gimme Shelter’. The guitarist’s atmospheric tone presents a perfect kaleidoscopic parallel to Jagger’s spiritual gospel sound and Clayton’s vocals — Richards’ chaos to their order. It’s something that is so seamless it’s hard to catch without isolating Richards’ guitar track.
Guitar World reports that much of that tone is because Richards’ isn’t using his usual instrument of choice. Not the trusty Fender Telecaster, nor a Les Paul nor an Epiphone. It is instead a mysterious Maton EG240 Supreme. Richards picked up the axe that someone had left at his house. It’s a mystery because Richards doesn’t remember the name of the man that the guitar belonged to, despite staying with him for a while.
“He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind,” he told Guitar World in 2002. “You know, ‘Take care of it for me.’ I certainly did.” He kind of looked after it, “It had been all revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great,” Richards said. “It made a great record. And on the very last note of ‘Gimme Shelter,’ the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original take.”
It’s the same guitar that Richards would use to record across many of the Let It Bleed sessions and adds a tremolo tone that set the album apart from its contemporaries when it arrived.
‘Live With Me’
Keith Richards would step up his game following Mick Taylor’s arrival, who joined the band after Brian Jones departed. He put in a performance on ‘Live With Me’ which would be impossible for anybody to overshadow. His isolated guitar is utterly spectacular and, although he is often not involved in the conversation regarding the greatest guitarists, this performance is an example of Keef proving exactly why he earned the nickname ‘The Human Riff’. It was a position he could hold with more regularity thanks to Taylor’s perfect control and timing, allowing Richards to run around like a headless chicken.
‘Live With Me’ was never elected to feature as a single from Let It Bleed, but it became a Stones classic nevertheless, and it’s a regular live favourite that allows Richards to show off his immaculate flair. The record is one of the most important from the entirety of their career as it sowed the seed for the brilliance that was brewing over the next few years, which would see them create Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St. and Goats Head Soup which is probably the finest streak of records from their near-60-year career.
Many have suggested that the reason for that was the introduction of Mick Taylor and, when listening to the isolated guitar of both him and Richards, it is easy to see how they could transform the band so efficiently.
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’
It’s one of the longer songs that the band have ever written, clocking in at over seven minutes and allows both Richards and Taylor to trade guitar patterns and showcase their new sound. The riff has always had a place in Stones fans’ hearts and, indeed, Richards too.
“‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying – I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it, and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove. So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player, it’s no big deal to play; the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and sparse,” remembered the guitarist.
At the end of the song, the brilliant moment was rumoured to be inspired by Carlos Santana, but Richards put that to bed quite quickly. “The jam at the end wasn’t inspired by Carlos Santana. We didn’t even know they were still taping. We thought we’d finished. We were just rambling, and they kept the tape rolling. I figured we’d just fade it off. It was only when we heard the playback that we realised, Oh, they kept it going. Basically, we realised we had two bits of music. There’s the song, and there’s the jam.”
Largely regarded as one of the greatest guitar songs of all time, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ allowed The Rolling Stones to showcase a vision of the future.