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Music

Watch Keith Richards teach you how to play the blues like Robert Johnson

@SamWKemp

As Keith Richards once noted, he was “brought up on a broad basis of blues music without even knowing it”. Growing up, he was surrounded by jazz. His mum loved Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan; it may not have been traditional delta blues, but the seeds of the music that Richards would later fall in love with were all there.

As Richards began to explore his own tastes, he noticed that he had developed a natural affinity for the blues sound. On hearing the likes of Chuck Berry, he recognised the same progressions that he’d heard in his mother’s records and set about tracing the lineage of the 12-bar structure utilised by Berry and his contemporaries.

“I went into this thing of finding out – where did he get it from?'” Richards remembered. “And without actually being able to call up Chuck Berry – I was 15 – and say, ‘Hey, Chuck, where do you get that from?’, you went through record labels and [found out] Muddy Waters had been the guy to introduce Chuck Berry to Chess Records – then there’s a connection. Then I got into Muddy Waters and then, before I knew it, that leads you immediately to Robert Johnson.”

On hearing Robert Johnson for the first time, Richards’ understanding of what the guitar was capable of changed entirely. Here was this man playing the most intricate riffs as if it were second nature. Indeed, Richards wasn’t the only one to be taken aback by Johnson’s virtuosity. He was so revered in his day that it was rumoured he’d met a devil at the crossroads and had sold his soul in exchange for his incredible talent.

But, as Richards demonstrates, Johnson’s unique style had more to do with fingerwork than fallen angels. By using his thumb to create motoric rhythms on the lower strings and his index, middle, and ring fingers to play melodies on the top strings, Johnson was able to create the illusion that two guitarists were playing at the same time. Richards quickly adopted the fingerstyle approach himself. “I’ve never heard anybody before or since use the form and bend it quite so much to make it work for himself,” Richards later said. “The guitar playing — it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you’re getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson.”

Richards, or so it’s been argued, also developed his penchant for using open tunings from Robert Johnson, whose songs usually fall into one of three categories: standard tuning (as with ’32-20 Blues’), open G, open D, and drop D. Open G was a particular favourite of Richards, allowing him to create Arabic-infused drones with his thumb while playing a separate melody over the top.

Below you can find two videos, the first of which shows Richards breaking down Robert Johnson’s blues style, while the second offers a short lesson on how to capture the rhythmic qualities of classic blues. For Richards, the key to accessing Johnson’s style of blues is to let his music wash over you: “It’s just something you’ve got to do,” he concludes, remembering his own introduction to Johnson’s music: “You have no choice. I mean, we had other things to do and everything, but once you got bitten by the bug, you had to find out how it’s done.”