Rolling Stones Keith Richards live in Germany, 1965
(Credit: Bent Rej)

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.

Richards is a man synonymous with rock and roll. Like the ground beneath our feet it feels difficult to remember a time when Keith Richards wasn’t a part of your life in some form, either roaring through the radio or tearing up some newspaper column inches.

Old or young, Keef 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.

The Dartford lad found his musical nous across the Pond and in the backwaters of Americana. Soon enough Richards was consuming every R&B record that came his way. Keith soon interpreted his love of Bluesmen like Muddy Waters and rock and roller Chuck Berry into his own work with the axe. In fact, it was how he and Mick Jagger became reacquainted.

Unlike those two 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 Clapton and Hendrix and instead focused on creating energy and power with his all-action riffs. Keith Richards in his guitar playing, much like his life, never backs down.

“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 really hard to top Jimi as it is—he should be regarded as one of the finest constructors of a rock and roll riff ever. Creating work which resonates for decades and 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 10 favourite Keith Richards riffs of all time below. Let us know the riffs we missed (not ‘Brown Sugar’ as that’s Jagger’s 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’s rocking rhythm which does all the heavy lifting.

Take it in below.

9. ‘Honky Tonk Woman’

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 it’s decadent chorus or perhaps because it pounds away like a Richards riff should.

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 forever more.

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.

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.

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.

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