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The Human Riff: The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards 10 best riffs of all time

As the indestructible Keith Richards enjoys another orbit of the sun, we thought we’d take a look back at what made Keef and his band The Rolling Stones rock legends; the riffs. Despite what you may have read, The Rolling Stones weren’t built on the foundation of drugs and sex but pure rock ‘n’ roll, they just brought the other two factors along for the ride and none more so than Richards.

Richards is a man synonymous with rock and roll. Like the ground beneath our feet, it feels difficult to remember a time when the band’s battle-hardened guitarist wasn’t a part of one’s life in some form or another, either roaring through the radio or tearing up some newspaper column inches. However, where he is best is with a guitar in his hand and, below, we’re bringing you ten of the gunslinger’s finest rock riffs.

Old or young, Richards is likely to have soundtracked at least one of your more memorable nights with his uncanny ability to pick out and perform some of the rock world’s greatest riffs of all time. The kind of riffs that make you want to give it all up for the hum of the generator and the blur of the disco lights, throwaway your full-time job and start gigging around the clock and the country.

The Dartford-born musician might well be about as British as they come with a cockney swagger and a sarcastic smile, but he found his musical nous across the pond and in the backwaters of Americana. Like many adolescents in the sixties, soon enough Richards was consuming every R&B record that came his way. The guitarist then interpreted his love of blues musicians like Muddy Waters and rock and roller Chuck Berry into his own work with the axe. In fact, that was how he and Mick Jagger became reacquainted.

Unlike the two aforementioned rock and rollers, Richards was always a far more economical guitar player. He would avoid being “the fastest gun in the west” with noodling virtuoso playing like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and, instead, focused on creating energy and power with his all-action riffs. Keith Richards, in his guitar playing and much like his life, never backs down and always wants to dance.

“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 as one of the finest constructors of a rock and roll riff ever. Creating work which resonates 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?

So we thought we’d run through our ten favourite Keith Richards riffs of all time below. Let us know the riffs we missed (not ‘Brown Sugar’ as that is the world of Mick Jagger… as Richards told us!).

Keith Richards 10 best riffs for The Rolling Stones

10. ‘All Down The Line’

A cut from The Stones’ Exile on Main Street may seem like it’s all about Mick Taylor’s slide guitar, but in fact, it’s Keith Richard’s rocking rhythm which does all the heavy lifting. Taylor and Richards shared a magical partnership for a short while and they operated perfectly on this basis

Richards would provide the groundwork, the foundations of the tune, and Taylor would unleash licks over the top to make your toes curl. It was a set-up that saw some of the Stones’ finest work, including ‘All Down The Line’. 

Take it in, below.

9. ‘Honky Tonk Women’

A notable moment in the guitar life of Richards was his switch to the open G tuning; it would go on to define his sound and makes ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ a crispy bucket of deliciousness. A song seemingly endlessly covered, with all the swagger and sway of a straight-shooting dancefloor cowboy, this is a guaranteed gem.

About the track, Richards said: “‘Honky Tonk Women’ started in Brazil. Mick and I, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg who was pregnant with my son at the time. Which didn’t stop us going off to the Mato Grasso and living on this ranch. It’s all cowboys. It’s all horses and spurs. And Mick and I were sitting on the porch of this ranch house and I started to play, basically fooling around with an old Hank Williams idea. ‘Cause we really thought we were like real cowboys. Honky tonk women.”

He continued: “We were sitting in the middle of nowhere with all these horses, in a place where if you flush the john all these black frogs would fly out. It was great. The chicks loved it. Anyway, it started out a real country honk put on, a hokey thing. And then a couple of months later we were writing songs and recording. And somehow by some metamorphosis it suddenly went into this little swampy, black thing, a blues thing.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXqQh7Y30eg

8. ‘Bitch’

A juggernaut riff that, as the opener for side two of Sticky Fingers, more than matched the heavyweight rock of ‘Brown Sugar’—’Bitch’ is Richards at his chugging, two-tonne best. Nobody could chug a riff like Keef. We imagine nobody can chug a beer like Keith too, but that’s a different story for a different day.

According to the band’s mobile engineer, Andy Johns, it was Richards who envigorated the song, “He put on his clear Perspex guitar and kicked up the tempo,” Johns said. “The song went from a laconic mess to being all about the groove. Just instantly. As soon as Keith started playing, he transformed the song into what it was meant to be.”

7. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’

Following ‘Wild Horses’ on Sticky Fingers was always going to be a difficult task with the ballad being such a departure from The Rolling Stones’ signature sound. It’s also one of Richards’ favourite riffs from the band: “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 were never meant to be recorded. “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 realised we had two bits of music: there’s the song and there’s the jam.”

Luckily, Richards is there to help and delivers a spellbinding opening riff for ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ that will go down in the annals of rock.

6. ‘Beast of Burden’

Not the same rollicking Richards we’re necessarily used to but Keef’s ability to create a hazy riff and let it backdrop the track rather than overpower it is a lesson many of today’s rock stars could use. Teamwork makes the dream work.

It’s also one of Richards’ most personal songs: “Those who say it’s about one woman, in particular, they’ve got it all wrong. We were trying to write for a slightly broader audience than just Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull. Although that’s not to say they didn’t have some influence in there somewhere. I mean, what’s close by is close by! I’ve always felt it’s one of my best soul songs. It was another strict collaboration between Mick and me.”

5. ‘Rocks Off’

The Exile opener makes it’s way on to the list for the hopping good time it provides and the merry-go-round we jump on to get to one of the most strung-out riffs you’re likely to hear in a very long time. Perhaps one of the songs most synonymous with the band it always resonated most strongly as a Richards classic. Perhaps because of its decadent chorus or perhaps because it pounds away as a Richards riff should.

Within the first few bars, you not only know what the track is all about, but you have a pretty good idea of what is coming next—and the riff needed some extra work.

Legend has it that Richards had fallen asleep while overdubbing a guitar part as the recording engineer then called it a night. That same engineer was then pulled from his bed at 5am so that Richards could add another guitar track.

4. ‘Start Me Up’

If there was one riff that most people could point to as one of Richards’ own it would undoubtedly be the opening riff for ‘Start Me Up’. Another blessing from Richards switch to open G tuning, it remains a mark of the guitarist’s impeccable ear for a tune. The opening riff remains one of the most iconic in rock and roll history and likely will forevermore. Richards revealed 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.”

3. ‘Street Fighting Man’

If there was one guitarist ready to kick out against the establishment in 1968 it was Keith Richards and on Beggars Banquet he was a regular Karate Kid. ‘Street Fighting Man’ sees Richards at his most gnarly.

“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.”

2. ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’

Following flirtations with psychedelia, The Rolling Stones came back to rock with a thunderous punch to the gut in the imperious riff on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Famously written about Richards’ gardener it is the archetypal Stones song.

“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.” 

Meaty and soaked in sauce, Richards is at his bone-rattling best on this 1968 single. Richards said of the riff, “it just floats there, baby”. ‘Nuff said.

1. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

Keith Richards is so good that he wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in his sleep. No, really. He did. The legend goes that the guitarist woke in the middle of the night recorded a poky version of the now-iconic riff and fell back to sleep—there’s a tape with Richards snoring for forty minutes to prove it.

It’s Richards’ signature sound but speaking to Guitar World, he still thinks it was improved upon by another: “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.