"Five strings, three notes, two fingers and one a**hole – that's all it takes to play guitar!" Keith Richards: The complete 1992 interview

Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos perform onstage at WTTW TV studios for a production of Center Stage in Chicago, Illinois, USA on December 28, 1992. (Photo by Stacia Timonere/Getty Images)
Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos, Chicago, 1992 (Image credit: Stacia Timonere/Getty Images)

On September 17, 1992, Guitar Player editors Jas Obrecht and Jesse Gress met with Keith Richards in Manhattan. During a two-hour interview, Keith covered more material than could fit into GP's Dec. '92 cover story, so portions were set aside for the Sept. '93 Blues issue and the Oct. '93 Songwriters issue. To celebrate his 80th birthday, here is Keith's conversation in its entirety.

Despite his skull ring and knuckles-in-your-face stance, rock and roll's ultimate outlaw proves to be a charming conversationalist, equal parts rogue, seer, cultural historian and Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year. Keith laces his answers with wheezy, rascally laughs and reckless cigarette jabs, and no subject seems taboo. Like his guitar playing with the Rolling Stones and the X-Pensive Winos, Keith's thoughts are intuitive and funky, stripped down to the essential.

We met with Keith a few days after Richards finished mixing Main Offender. He co-produced his second solo album with guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Steve Jordan, who shared songwriting and production credits with Keith on 1988's Talk Is Cheap and Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Live at the Hollywood Palladium.

Although no other Stones appeared on Talk Is Cheap, Guitar Player called it the best Stones album in 17 years, and Main Offender mines the same vein. The grungy "999" projects a looseness worthy of Exile on Main Street. "Words of Wonder" taps into Richards' love of heartbeat reggae, while "Yap Yap," "Hate It When You Leave," and "Demon" reveal his gentler passions. "Wicked as It Seems," "Runnin' Too Deep," and "Will But You Won't" provide prime examples of Richards' distinctive open-G-tuned 5-string guitar style.

[We were looking at the photo of vintage fuzztones in the October '92 Guitar Player when Keith sauntered into the room, a large tumbler in hand. He peeked over our shoulders and began the interview.]

Oh, vintage fuzztones? Well, there's the first one [points to the Colorsound]. But where's that fucking "Satisfaction" one? They bunged me. I mean, it was a miracle. Whatever it was, it was the first one Gibson made [the Maestro Fuzz-Tone]. I was screaming for more distortion: "This riff's really gotta really hang hard and long," and we burnt the amps up and turned the shit up, and it still wasn't right. And then Ian Stewart went around the corner to Eli Wallach's Music City or something and came around with a distortion box. "Try this." It was as offhand as that. It was just from nowhere. I never really got into the thing after that, either. It had a very limited use, but it was just the right time for that song. The riff was going to make that song or break it on the length that you could drag that [sings fuzz line] -- unless you wanna get horns, which didn't work. We didn't have the time, and it wouldn't sound right. Yeah, it was one of those fortuitous things.

Distortion has become extremely popular again.
I suppose it's got something to do with the state of everybody's life. [Laughs uproariously.]

You've certainly been guilty of some pretty filthy guitar tones.
Yeah, man. Still lookin' for 'em.

It's bad, huh? Yeah, I figured you might be talking about that. Believe it or not, that's through a Palmer speaker simulator. A little box, no speakers. This is against all my principles, right? I plugged that mother in, and it's also through a Twin. But that sound basically comes out of the Palmer. Waddy and I are purists about amp sounds, but we couldn't deny that thing. At the right setting, it was, "Whoa! Hey! We can get this now, but it's taken a long time to find it."

Traditionally, how would you go about getting a nice distortion?
I'd set up that Twin and maybe slave a little Champ. Put it through the both of 'em and then mix. If I'm looking for some kind of distortion, I usually use two amps rather than go for it out of one thing, because I've always found that a really good distortion needs to come from two different places. Obviously it's not true for "Satisfaction," where it's an obvious thing, but you want some distortion and some clarity at the same time where you need it, so I'd rather put it through two amps and overload one of them.

Small amps?
Yeah. Champ or a little Silvertone, a Kay thing. I've got these little relics lying around, all of those weirdo amps. Bump that one up, use the other one for clear, and then you can mix the two in where you want them. It's very rare on a track that you want the same sort of distortion all the way through. I like to be able to play with it, so I can bring one amp up. Put them on separate tracks so you can juice the distortion where you want it. You have the opportunity to play around with it after you've played it, because when you're playing it, you're not going to hear exactly what's going down on the tape. You've got the cans on.

You have a Fender Twin that's serial number #A00003. Is that the third one made?
Yeah. It's a bad amp, man! I wish I'd had it from day one! It takes a while to find those.

Your playing -- especially in open G -- is as idiosyncratic as John Lee Hooker's.
Oh, it is. I've been aiming for it. That's the best compliment I've had all day. [Laughs.] Especially getting to play with him last year -- that one track on Mr. Lucky, that "Crawling King Snake." When it comes to that stuff, I'm still like that kid at home, saying: "To just play one time with that guy, I'd be in heaven," you know. And over the years, I've played with them all. But John Lee was the one I hadn't played with until last year. I'd never got around to working with him. With him, there's a break in the continuity of styles. What he picked up has got to come from like one generation further back than anybody else. He can still make it work now.

To me, John Lee is like Muddy Waters, somebody that took everything from where he's growing up and living and hearing and projecting it and making it work for himself and then still growing with it. I mean, those guys never stopped growing. John Lee ain't just markin' time. And that's interesting now, especially now that I'm kicking 50. [Laughs.] You know, you need a little encouragement from the older guys. Take it all the way to the end, and he's still finding out. He's still a dirty swine. [Laughs.] I mean, he's got a guitar school, and they all happen to be young teenage chicks! By a miracle, John Lee has got like ten chicks around, and they're all good players too. That says it all.

What was your passport into those types of open tunings?
Ah, let me think. In the '60s, I knew these guys were using other tunings. Obviously. Up until about '68, we were just on the road so much, I had no time to experiment: "Oh, when I get some time off, I'm gonna figure this out." Up until then, the Stones were out like 315 nights a year. It doesn't give you a lot of room to maneuver and check out new things. Around 1967, I was just starting to hang out with Taj Mahal and Gram Parsons, who are all students too. 

Guitar Player December 1992 Keith Richards cover

Portions of this interview first appeared in Guitar Player's December 1992 issue, as well as the Sept. '93 Blues issue and the Oct. '93 Songwriters issue (Image credit: Future)

I mean, Taj, as beautiful as he is, is a student who basically approaches the blues from a white man's angle. He's got it all together, and always did have. But at the same time, he came from that angle. He's very academic about it. He showed me a couple of things. And then Ry Cooder popped in, who had the tunings down. He had the open G. By then I was working on open-E and open-D tunings. I was trying to figure out Fred McDowell shit, Blind Willie McTell stuff. So in that year I started to get into that, and Nashville tuning the country boys use -- the high stringing -- and all the other things you can do. When I was locked into regular, I thought, "The guitar is capable of more than this -- or is it? Let's find out."

Open G must have struck the resonant chord in you.
It did, man, it did. It's just that vibe. And I realized that one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world ever is Don Everly, who always used open tuning. Don is the killer rhythm man. He was the one that turned me on to [windmills his right arm] -- all of that. It's the weirdest thing, right, because it's country shit, basically. That was why the Everly Brothers stuff was so hard, because it was all on acoustic. So then I had to ask, "Can I translate this 5-string thing into electric, or will it just rumble and not make it?" By being electrified, you can overdo it. You've got to get a certain dryness of tone and distortion at the same time. So it's more working on the sound. Five strings, three notes, two fingers and an asshole, and you've got it! You can play the goddamned thing. That's all it takes. What to do with it is another thing.

But, yeah, I felt very comfortable with that. After playing that concert tuning for years and years and years, it suddenly broke open the guitar again to me. It was like a new instrument almost, except I knew a few things so I could follow it through. It was like a rebirth, for me, of playing. Suddenly I got enthusiastic again, instead of thinking, "Oh, shit, I can't think of anything." Three of the strings were still the same [D, G, B], so you have the structure, and you say, "Well, what can you do? How do you make a minor? How can you do this and that?" So it was an exercise in a way, self-imposed. But it was fun to do, so I did it. The 5-string suggests new musical forms to you that you wouldn't do on 6-string. You'd say, "No way!" I'm still finding things on that 5-string, like the little [pedal steel-style] break in "Eileen" -- you wouldn't even attempt it on…

It sounds like a B-bender.
Yeah, there is a bender on there as well, but that's not the guitar that's playing. I'm always aware of the weight I put with my thumb on the neck. Half the time if I'm playing a Bender, the whole thing's gone out of tune because I've put some weight on there. So you have to learn to be pretty weightless on that thing to make it work. "Eileen" was my first attempt with it, but there's about eight guitars on there overall. We kind of decided to do that before we started. I wanted to pick up on some of those experiments that I left off around "Street Fighting Man" time. I went into the heavy overlaying of guitars, all of them different open tunings, like "Jumping Jack Flash," "Street Fighting Man."

Most bar bands covering "Jumping Jack Flash" seem to follow the Johnny Winter version.
"Jumping Jack Flash" was in open E, and there's a certain ring that you need there. And what's always fascinating about open stringing is you can get these other notes ringing sympathetically, almost like a sitar, in a way. Unexpected notes ring out, and you say, "Ah, there's a constant. That one can go all the way through this thing." And then it gets down to touch, like hitting the two bottom strings hard and leaving a little space for an open one to ring. You get into that. I thought I knew six strings, and I don't even know five. [Laughs.] Let's go to the ukulele, see what we don't know! 

After all these years, G tuning is something I still look upon as a baby. There's so much in there, and you know that you're missing a lot of it half the time, because you're just sort of blocking in what it is you do know. It never stops to amaze me, that open 5-string. When I first started with it, it was strictly blues stuff, and maybe all acoustic. To me the interesting experiment was whether that would amplify. It's so easy to get a groove going with it, especially if you're not Chuck Berry and don't have hands with a six-feet spread!

Chuck was my man. He was the one that made me say, "I want to play guitar, Jesus Christ!" And I'd listened to guitar players before that -- I was about 15 -- and I'd think, "He's very interesting, nice, ah, but..." With the difference between what I'd heard before 1956 or '57 and right after that with Little Richard and Elvis and Chuck Berry, suddenly I knew what it was I wanted to do. 

It was the hardest thing about that age, you know, when people say, "Well, what you gonna be when you grow up?" "I don't know. An engine driver?" [Laughs.] I had no idea, and suddenly that problem was taken care of for me by listening to that shit. Now I knew what to go for, whereas before my life was the usual teenage kid -- you know, like goin' to school, gettin' thrown out: "Doesn't seem to be going too well around here. Parents are pissed off with me; I've not turned out exactly what they thought." And there you are. And then suddenly I had a focal point, but not that I was naive enough, even at that age, to expect it to pan out. But at least I had something to go for, some way to channel the energies that you have at that age. And definitely with rock and roll, you have to start somewhere around then.

Right when your hormones are kicking in.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. That's it. If you don't get the juice then, you never will. And then it's a matter of sustaining the juice.

Like Muddy Waters, you approach rhythm guitar with the primal energy of a sex drive.
Well, that's a compliment. Thank you.

Do you feel that way?
Yeah! He's my man. He's the guy I listened to. Maybe I just picked it up off of him. I recognized it. It was just the same as my drive. I felt an immediate affinity when I heard Muddy go [picks up guitar and plays the opening lick from "Rollin' Stone"]. You can't be harder than that, man. He said it all right there. So all I want to do is be able to do that.

I have several memories of Muddy Waters. The weirdest one is when we first went into Chess Studios in '64, the first time we came here. Went to Chicago to record most of the second or third album at Chess, and we walked in. There's Phil Chess and there's Ron Malo, the engineer, and this guy in white overalls painting the ceiling. As we walked by into the studio, somebody said, "Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters," and he's painting the ceiling. He wasn't selling records at the time, and this is the way he got treated. My first meeting with Muddy Waters is over the paintbrush, dripping, covered in white paint. "This is Muddy Waters." I'm dying, right? I get to meet the Man -- he's my fucking god, right? -- and he's painting the ceiling! And I'm gonna work in his studio. Ouch! Oh, this is the record business, right?

Mmmmm. The highs with the lows! Ooh, boy. In that one little meeting, in those few seconds, Muddy taught me more. . . [Imitates Muddy speaking in a gentle voice] "It's a pleasure to meet you." And the look in his eye was saying, "Well, you can be painting the ceiling next year!" Because he had no idea that we revered him or anything. We were just another bunch of creeps.

But later on he always credited the Rolling Stones.
Ah, he did, yes. And bless him. When we started the Rolling Stones, we were just little kids, right? We felt we had some of the licks down, but our aim was to turn other people on to Muddy Waters. I mean, we were carrying flags, idealistic teenage sort of shit: "There's no way we think anybody is really going to seriously listen to us. As long as we can get a few people interested in listening to the shit we think they ought to listen to" -- which is very elitist and arrogant, to think you can tell other people what to listen to, but that was our aim, to turn people onto the blues. If we could turn them on to Muddy and Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, then our job was done. That was our aim. That's the way you start off.

What was it like meeting Howlin' Wolf?
It's like meeting a great big old bull elephant that knew it all. He would just sort of wisely nod his head: "Very good." To me, at that age, it was overpowering. And he was such a big guy, and gentle. The strong guys are gentle, always. It's only weak guys that come on strong. These guys were so kind to us, and this was no sucking-up sort of thing. It wasn't two or three years later when they'd all had hit records again, maybe thanks to the Beatles and us. Then we did our gig. But this was even before they had any real need to be that way. There was no payback involved. They were just gentle from the start, like Muddy on the ladder, Howlin' Wolf. They were always the sweetest.

Willie Dixon was another one -- encouragement from the start. And we were some snotty-nose little kids from London, taking over their turf, but that's what being a man is all about. Willie, man, what a guy. It was a pleasure for us to do his songs.

If you could transcend time, which historic musicians would you see?
Robert Johnson. [Big Bill] Broonzy. I'd love to see him live. I missed him just by a hair's breadth. There's a great film of him singing "When Did You Leave Heaven" in a little club in Belgium. It was a classic video before its time.

Why would you want to see Robert Johnson?
Just to see how he did it, man. Just one time. He was a flash. I spoke to Son House about him, and when he came back six months later, he was knocking everybody dead. 

[In 1931, 19-year-old Robert Johnson left Robinsonville, near where Son House lived, and journeyed south through the Mississippi Delta to Hazelhurst. During his months away, Johnson married, fathered a son and studied guitar with Ike Zinnerman, an Alabaman who claimed to have learned to play by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson returned to Robinsonville, his playing had improved so dramatically that witnesses speculated he'd met the devil at a deserted crossroads to swap his soul for ungodly talent. Robert himself encouraged such rumors.]

The legend shit that goes on, the crossroads, the selling of the soul – that's the only explanation. How can you go away being such a brat, and come back and knock everybody's socks off. He must have made a deal. [Laughs.]

Have you heard of Calvin Frazier?
Doesn't ring immediate.

He played with Robert Johnson. They met in Helena around '35, and Robert invited him to go to the Dallas session, but he couldn't go. Here's a tape of his song "I'm in the Highway Man."
Where was this done?

Detroit, October 1938.
[Listens to first bars.] I can tell Robert wasn't alone, right? Slide. Reminds me a bit of Blind Blake. He was hanging out with some guys. Same inflection, with the double-voice chat going on underneath. So that's where he was for six months, with Calvin, eh? [Laughs.] Now we know. I gotta get a copy of this shit, man. It's so similar. Who took from who? And where did both of them get it from? The style is incredibly similar. But it's interesting because when you listen to Blind Blake, you can almost hear the crossovers going on.

[Listens to Frazier's "Welfare Blues."] Not as precise as Robert, but he had the basic idea. It's so close. Robert must have hung with the guy. He just put more sting in it because he was more manic. I mean, that's why he died so young. The man was asking for trouble and didn't mind saying so. In all of his records, the man's asking for trouble all the way down the line. All his deals with the hellhounds and the bitches -- one of them will get you. Interesting connection. You're laying something on me I don't know. This is great. Forget about it. This is not an interview, this is like just hanging out.

Can I play you another one?
Please do. [Listens to Lightnin' Hopkins' 1952 recording of "Wild About You Baby."]

For a moment I thought you'd come up with the earliest Jimmy Reed singing I had ever heard, because he started recording in 1954, and this is similar. I've always heard a weird connection between Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, especially with that voice. Lightnin' sounds like Jimmy, but he's a little more articulate. Texas shit. You see, Lightnin', to me, had a lot of John Lee Hooker -- same age. Lightnin' was far more sophisticated at the time than John Lee, and he's tighter on his sequences. John Lee forgets sequences. "E? Where's E? Where my bottom string is." That's John Lee.

Have you ever heard a correlation between Latin styles and early rock and roll? The Cuban guitarist Arsineo Rodriguez, for instance, was the father of the clave rhythm figure, which is basically Bo Diddley.
I have no problem with that, because basically any beat that you've got on this continent come from Africa. Really. The climate and the people controlling your area -- Spanish, French or English -- would determine from there on which way it would go. But if you take a broad view of it, any music from the islands or Latin America is from Africa. It's the predominant tribal beat of that area.

This is why I always found the islands like Jamaica and reggae so fascinating. To me, it was just another manifestation of the movement of rhythm and harmony and melody over the face of the planet. That's what counts to me. I look upon things in a weird light. I can give you the history of the world – just give me their music. Give me a tribe's music, and I'll tell you how they live, what they smell like, almost. That would give me more information than talking to them or looking at 'em. I can get more information out of their music first-off than anything else,

There's no lying when you're playing music.
Exactly. This is why the Iron Curtain went down. It was jeans and rock and roll that took that wall down in the long run. It wasn't all those atomic weapons and that facing down and big bullshit. What finally crumbled it was the fuckin' music, man. You cannot stop it. It's the most subversive thing.

I was so surprised when we started getting busted. What have they got a hard-on against a rock and roll band for? And being perceived as some social threat to the world. Now I realize they were a little hipper than I was -- where they got unhip was in their way of dealing with it -- but they sussed it before I did: This shit could change the balance of the world. Meantime, I thought they were narrow-sighted. I mean, why hit on a rock and roll band? This is the British Empire! A 5-string fucking guitar and a couple of guys are gonna change that? And suddenly they're leaning on me?" And when all of this shit went down in Europe here the last few years [snaps fingers], that's when I realized it. No wonder they were a little uptight, because they saw more of the potential than I did at the time.

Ry Cooder says that when you play acoustic guitar, the truth of who you are is more evident.
Probably, because you've got nothing between you and the strings. Yeah, he's damn right. Every guitar player should play acoustic at home. No matter what else you do, if you don't keep up your acoustic work, you're never going to get the full potential out of an electric, because you lose that touch. You get sloppier. Electricity will give you some great effects and some great tone, but if you don't control it, it can easily take you over the edge into some supersonic nowhereland. If you're just on electric all the time, you don't keep the touch. I don't play electric guitars at home. I play acoustic.

What's your favorite acoustic?
Right now I've got that new replica of the L-1, the Gibson, which they gave to me and which I put on a lot of on this record. I overlayed some of that. They've done a lovely job on that. It's a great-sounding guitar, and I don't like new guitars, generally speaking. I like ten or 20 years on 'em. This L-1 is the same one Robert Johnson played. I have one that was made in 1934, but they do wear out. There's a possibility that in a couple of years it will sound just like the guitar that Johnson was playing, because it's new. His guitar was probably four or five years old when he played it. They're not sturdily built; they won't last forever. But within four or five years, these replicas, being as well made as they are, might have just the right amount of ring and bite on them.

I wonder what Johnson might have sounded like had he lived into the era of electric guitars.
He'd have killed us all! If Johnson had just been a little nicer to his chicks, knew how to play the ladies a little better, then he might have been there instead of Muddy. I have the feeling he would have gone into a band thing. I've heard rumors that he did have a band before he died. I don't know if that's wishful thinking, but at the same time I don't discount it.

With what he had together, this man was heading for a band -- an orchestra, in actual fact. When you listen to him, the cat's got Bach going on down low and Mozart going up high. The cat was counterpointing and using incredible shit. If he hadn't have died, the next natural progression would have been to put a band together with Calvin. But then the war would have got in the way. Nobody recorded from '41 to '46.

Do you subscribe to the theory that Robert Johnson recorded facing the studio wall to achieve a midrange boost?
He was after a sound. He was playing with rooms, which we all still do. I think that he was very, very aware of sound and a room and where the sound of his guitar would bounce off the corner. Ambience, he was into, which is one of my favorite things. All the stuff that I cut, whether it's with the Stones or the Winos, it's all room sounds. I've got ten microphones up in the sky -- [waves arms] here, there, bring this one in, that one. The room is the important thing. Robert probably knew. He'd probably be doing cutting-edge stuff if he had lived.

You've been described as being able to judge a room's sound just by the snap of your fingers.
Yeah, from echo.

What do you listen for?
The return off of the surface of the room. Where it ends and where it doesn't. It depends what shape the room is. You can't tell just by doing that [snaps fingers], but you walk around and say, "Well, this is where the drums should go, because we're going to play together in here." You get a bit of information from that, and you look at the size of it and the height. You kind of size it up in some weird way. You get a feel. It's almost instinctive; it's not something that you can guide technically and say for sure that this is going to work. But you can get a feel within five minutes of walking around a room: Is that a big enough space? Is the ceiling high enough? You give a couple slaps to hear where echo returns, where it returns from, and how quickly it returns. 

No room should defeat a band. You should be able to deal with any room, but some rooms are better than others. And it's always a fine call. The first sessions we did for this new album, we realized after five days we had the drums in the wrong place, and that was the only wrong thing. Once we shifted it, suddenly it all sounded fantastic. But we don't need to get into this other shit about the way they make records nowadays -- call down to the typewriter: "Give me a little more bass on that." I don't know how to record like that, and it would never interest me to record by machinery.

Keith Richards at his home in 1992 in Connecticut (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Keith Richards at his home in Connecticut, in 1992. (Image credit: Paul NatkinGetty Images)

Has your method for recording acoustic guitar changed significantly since "Satisfaction"?
No, not much. I started making records by saying, "Do I like it? Does this turn me on?" And I refuse to be budged from that criteria. Really. If I start to think about what do they want to hear, then I say I'm out of here. That's not the way I've ever done it. The only times people have liked my stuff is when I've done it because I like it. I'll reserve that for my criteria for anything I do. If I start trying to second-guess people, then I may as well be Liberace or Lawrence Welk. That means I want to be a star, instead of having to be forced to be one.

Why do you always play with another guitarist?
Because it's more fun. No one guitar player is that interesting. Not one -- I don't care if it's Segovia, Hendrix, anybody. Robert Johnson is the most interesting idea of a solo guitar player to me, and as we've already said, he was looking to go for a band. Listening to myself play is one thing, but I'm interested in what I can do with somebody else -- how we can interact and play things back and forth and pick up a dropped beat and fling things against the ceiling to see if they stick -- and they don't and they fall on your head and you still pick it up. To me, that's the fun of it -- playing with other people. And at the same time, you're learning because you're turning each other on. The solo guitar thing is a vacuum to me.

You've said that with the Rolling Stones, Woody could drop his pick and you'd intuitively cover his part. Do you have that similar relationship with Waddy Wachtel?
Yeah, yeah. Steve Jordan and I had done Aretha Franklin's "Jumping Jack Flash" video, and that's where we started to work together, although we had been looking at each other for several years. And Charlie Watts had said, "If you're gonna work with somebody else, work with Jordan." I had Charlie's blessing on that one, so that was a great boost. And then we did the Chuck Berry thing [the film Hail, Hail Rock And Roll]. After that, it became apparent that either I was going to do nothing or I was gonna have to do a solo album, because there was nothing else to do that I was interested in, but I wanted to work. And this split with Mick and the Stones had been going on for two or three years already. I mean, it's almost as long as World War II! In retrospect, it's not such a bad thing. At least we've patched it together again, and everybody's still there. It might have been a good thing.

So I started to put a band together, because I can't work without a band. Steve looks at me and says, "Who do you want to play with?" I said, "Guitar? Waddy Wachtel." And he goes to me, "My very words." I'd known Waddy since the middle '70s, and I've always liked his stuff. But I always recognized him as a man left alone out there running a chick's band. And I knew this man wants to rock more desperately than he's allowed to. [Laughs.] He's doing Linda Ronstadt, then he's doing Stevie Nicks, and I know my man wants to rock. 

Waddy and I have always had that empathy, and he understands my music. I don't have to explain anything to Waddy. I say, "It goes like this," and everybody else would say, "Well, that's weird." But Waddy goes, "Oh, that's interesting." That's what you look for, that ESP doesn't come hard. Because what you're looking for in a band is that you don't have to bother about thinking about something, that it's picked up automatically.

That's evident with Steve Jordan. He follows you to a T.
Yeah. I'll drop a beat, he'll pick it up and let it fly. We're playing with time, on this album particularly. But this is like life, right? What is life but playing with time? So on a musical level, that's what I'm doing. There's structures possible in this music, and if you just free yourself out of it and you've got the right guys with you, you can let it flow. Like, "Let's get a little daring here without being clever." You want to push the edges, especially when you've got time down with a band like this. You're almost tempted to play with it, because strict time becomes less and less important, since you can always find the one. 

That obvious structure just gets boring, and it gets unnecessary. You say, hey, this music can float a little more. I'm gonna use things I learned from Doc Pomus, from Leiber-Stoller, all of that Latin stuff and floating over the lines and leaving out lines and smacking the chorus in your teeth and then pulling back. Just playing with it is more fun, and that will make it sound more interesting to other people. That's what I'm hoping to do. God knows what I'll do when I get back with the Stones and it's strict time now!

A lot of people claim you turn the beat around.
See, this is what you get from musicians. You're always in this dangerous stall, especially when you've been in the game as long as I have: "What are you trying to do? Turn on the other musicians and give them a little jerk around? Ooh, that's clever." But that's not the name of the game. It's alright jerking around with the time, as long as it all falls in place for Joe Blow. This might contradict what I was saying about making records for what I like, but I'm very conscious that a lot of musicians get in this cliquey little thing of turning each other on, and it's all little in-jokes, because you've got nothing better to do except get clever with each other. And that's not the name of the game. It's almost an admission of failure to get into that. And I'm very wary of trying to please other musicians.

Your music is not about precision.
No, it's not. It's about chaos. I suppose it reflects my life and probably everybody else's. Nothing hits you quite where you expect it to. But you've got to hold it together, right? It's very hard to explain, but I try to do the same thing with the lyrics that I do to the music -- a juxtaposition that kind of slams you the wrong way here, and then suddenly it's in the right place. It's just like life. Nothing happens quite when you think it's supposed to or when you want it to, but when it does, you've got to roll with it. And you get over it and you learn and you get back up again and pick it up.

The music is bigger than all of us. What are we? We're just players, no matter how good. If you're a Mozart or fucking Beethoven or Bach, all you are is just one of the best. If you're an Irving Berlin or Gerswhin or Hoagy Carmichael -- or if you're Herbie Hancock, God forbid -- everybody's got their spot in this. I hate to see music being used as propaganda, which increasingly more it is. But then I think back and realize it always has been -- national anthems and signaling [imitates trumpet flourish]. Music started out as a signaling process. 

When it comes down to it, music evolved out of necessity, not out of pleasure. Somebody got lucky, whipped the other tribe's ass, and then they could use music for fun for a little while because there's no competition. So you get the rockin' down: [sings] "We won, we won." You know, so you start to get those songs coming in, apart from just the signaling. And after that, there's this progression. To me, music's meaning to people is one of the great mysteries.

Forget economics, forget democracy or dictatorships or monarchies. To me, the most fascinating relationship is between people and music and how it can do what it does with no apparent sweat. Who knows what it can do? It's a beautifully subversive language because it can get through anything. I don't care if it's porous or bomb-proof or has a Star Wars shield over it -- music will get through. That's my experience.

You've only got to look at the new Billboard -- who's on the front? Fuckin' Beethoven and Mozart. You can't ask for better than that, boys. Imagine what they'd have done if they'd had a little DAT recorder, instead of all of that imagining it: "Well, that looks good; it might sound great." Those guys had to carry it all up there [taps forehead].

Imagine if Mozart and Beethoven had a fucking Walkman! You know what I mean? You wouldn't have had 26 overtures, you'd have fifty-bleeding-nine. [Laughs.] It just helps you through the work. I mean, those guys would be green with envy, man. They would burn their wigs. "Off with it! Burn it! Give me that tape recorder!" [Laughs.] What they would have done! They'd have prostituted themselves for one of those things: "No problem! Yeah, give it to me up the ass! Just give me the tape recorder." Go to jail for that shit. And that's where we're lucky, and we can't abuse it.

Do you throw ideas on cassettes?
Oh, yeah. Hey, I started to blossom when cassettes got invented. "Street Fighting Man," "Jumping Jack Flash" -- I cut those things on cassettes.

Do your songs typically begin when you find a riff?
Mm hmm. First I find a riff and a chord sequence. And if that's any good, then I start to play it with some other guys and pump it up. If that's great, then I check the attitude and the atmosphere of the track: What the hell is this putting out? There's no point in writing songs on a sheet of paper, going verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and regarding this as a song. No, it ain't. A song is music, and I'd rather start with the music and then get into the attitude of the track and put something on top of it. What are you going to put on top of it, because you could have spent months writing? I can't divorce lyrics from the music. Songwriting is a marrying of them both. To me, the easiest way is to get the track. I mean, the odd brilliant and rare occasions where a song actually presents itself to you in totality from the beginning to the end, with the bridge and the hook, is very rare.

Was "Gimme Shelter" one of those?
Yeah, "Satisfaction" was one of those, "Make No Mistake" was one of those. Those three -- and that's about it -- actually presented themselves in totality.

It must have been a stunning experience.
It is, but at the same time it's humbling, because you realize, "Hey, I didn't write this. I just happened to be around when it came by." People today run themselves into a corner thinking they actually created these things. I'd rather look upon myself as an antenna or some go-between. I'm just around. Songs are running around – they're all there, ready to grab. You play an instrument and pick it up. What I generally do is like, "Fingers are getting a bit soft right now. I'll go through the Buddy Holly songbook– because I love Buddy's songs. Then I start playing 'em for half an hour. [Sings "Maybe Baby."

"Let's try Eddie Cochrane or the Everly Brothers or a little Chuck." And after about an hour, I get fed up with other people's songs, and there's something that I'm playing of theirs that suggests something else to me, and I'll start to follow that. It'll either end up as a song or it'll end up as a disaster, and I'll get bored with it. It doesn't bother me. I never sit down and say, "Time to write a song. Now I'm going to write." To me, that would be fatal. I know other guys work in other ways. There's no one system to this. It's what's right for you. But me, I always like to sit down and play the guitar a couple of hours a day, and something will come. If something interests me, then I think, "Hey, there it is," and then I hang on to the end and follow the motherfucker. To me, the important thing is recognizing something when it comes by.

The idea that you create it, again, is alien and can also fuck you up, because then it's all on your back, whether you've written something or not there. Treat it in a lighter way and say, "This is what I do." If you can write one song, you can write 900. They're there. Your method of going about that -- you can either try and regiment it, make it a task, or you can make it part of your everyday life and just sit around and play and not think about writing. Play anything you want.

There's only one song in the world, and Adam and Eve wrote it. And the rest of them's variations. I'm the antenna. You just stick your finger in the air and you grab a bit of it and you go off. And that's the way to avoid writer's block, because that's what happens to people that think they actually create things. Nobody creates anything. It's there, and you just fucking grab a hold of it.

Everybody has a talent. But how many get to find what their talent is before they're sucked into the system? I mean, it usually ends up as their hobby, which is probably what they're really good at. I mean, why do people have hobbies? They're working their guts out doing something they don't really like to do, but they just happen to have caught a job and do it, and at night they go home and on the weekends they have a hobby. They are working to get those few hours to spend on their hobby, when that's the area they should really be working in. My one problem with people is that it's a miracle if you get to find out what your talent is before you're sucked into doing something you don't want to do, and that's the big fuckup. If people were doing things they really wanted to do, they'd do it ten times better.

Do you have a hobby that you could turn into a profession?
Yeah, I been doing it! [Laughs.] That was a hobby. Didn't expect it to become a living or to become a star. I mean, that's the other thing -- fame. That can screw you. People come up and ask me about this and that, and I say, "You're talking to a madman." I mean, my view of the world is totally distorted. Since 18, I've had chicks throwing themselves at me, and I turned the little teenage dream into reality like that [snaps fingers] by a miracle, God knows how. And therefore my view is gonna be distorted, at the very least.

What's the most dangerous aspect of fame?
Believing it. Very, very dangerous. It's not very good for people around you, and even worse for yourself. That's my experience of it. It's one of the reasons I don't regret zooming into the dope thing for so long. It was an experiment that went on too long, but in a way that kept my feet on the street when I could have just become some brat-ass, rich rock and roll superstar bullshit, and done myself in in another way. 

In a way, I see it as I almost forced myself into that in order to counterbalance this superstar shit that was going on around us. I said, "No, I want to put my foot in a deep puddle because I don't want to go up in that stratosphere and hang out up there with the Maharishi and Mick and Paul McCartney." It was almost a deliberate sort of attempt to get out of it. Like letting the broken tooth hang for five years -- deliberate anti! I was doing an anti gig, but it still stuck. In retrospect, it shouldn't have worked, but that's what I had to do. When I look at it now, that was one of my rationalizations for it. And the other is, hell, I was just sort of into De Quincey's Opium Eaters a century too late. [Laughs.] I just saw myself as a laboratory: "Well, let's see what this does."

Which substances worked best for producing music?
Well, a speedball doesn't go down too bad! [Laughs uproariously.] Those were the days. Oh, fuck. You've got the answer there. [In a loud voice] A clear mind, a cold shower, and a ten-mile walk after breakfast -- those are the ingredients that make good records, not dope.

There's been a progression in your playing...
I'm growing up. Or trying.

A stripping down to the essentials.
I'm not only stripping down, I'm trying to find my own. Throughout the '60s, it all happened so fast. Suddenly you've got to make a new single every eight weeks, and each one has got to be better than the next, and you're on the road. There wasn't a lot of time to do much more than make the gig and come up with a hit song every two months, which is enough of a task. I mean, songwriting is something I got thrown into out of necessity. It would never have occurred to me to be a songwriter. I wanted to be a guitar player. And then suddenly you're successful with your first record, which is cover jobs, but luckily of great songs which nobody had ever heard or can't remember. Or we just picked great material. That was all we did: We covered other people's shit. There was no idea of going beyond that, except suddenly the first album is outselling the Beatles. And they're going, "Next!" And you're thinking, "How many other great songs are there out there?" And Andrew Oldham, in his beautiful, arrogant, naive way: "Well, you better start writing your own."

Describe your first songwriting experience.
"As Tears Go By," which we had a #1 hit with with Marianne Faithfull. So suddenly, "Oh, we're songwriters," with the most totally anti-Stones sort of song you could think of at the time, while we're trying to make a good version of [Muddy Waters'] "Still A Fool." When you start writing, it doesn't matter where the first one comes from. You've got to start somewhere, right? So Andrew locked Mick and myself into a kitchen in this horrible little apartment we had. He said, "You ain't comin' out," and there was no way out. We were in the kitchen with some food and a couple of guitars, but we couldn't get to the john, so we had to come out with a song. In his own little way, that's where Andrew made his great contribution to the Stones. That was such a flatulent idea, a fart of an idea, that suddenly you're gonna lock two guys in a room, and they're going to become songwriters. Forget about it.

He picked the right two guys.
I guess so. And that's why I take my hat off to Andrew. He had no idea, but it was worth a try, and it worked. In that little kitchen Mick and I got hung up about writing songs, and it still took us another six months before we had another hit with Gene Pitney, "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday." We were writing these terrible pop songs that were becoming Top-10 hits. I thought, "What are we doing here playing the fucking blues, and writing these horrible pop songs and getting very successful?" They had nothing to do with us, except we wrote 'em. And it took us a while to come up with "The Last Time." That was the first one we came up with where Mick and I said, "This is one we can lay on the guys." 

At the time we were already borrowing songs from the Beatles -- "I Wanna Be Your Man" -- because we were really hard up for singles. So they gave us a hand. [Sings "I wanna be your man"] "Very good, John. Very good, Paul. Like that, like that. We'll do it." [Laughs.] In retrospect, during the '60s the Stones and the Beatles were almost the same band, because we were the only ones in that position. And we would dodge: "When is your record coming out?" We would work with each other instead of against each other, which is very interesting, because for the most part people were either a Beatles or a Stones man, where ten years earlier you'd have been an Elvis or a Buddy man. That split.

Did you learn to read music?
Written music has always intrigued me, and I once taught myself to do it, and realized that this is no path for me to travel. I immediately forgot it, and I deliberately -- for better or for worse -- decided I ain't gonna be able to work within these parameters.

Do any new guitars impress you?
Those new Music Mans I've been using -- they impress the shit out of me. They made me a 5-string one and a 6-string bass. But just the basic guitar itself is the most impressive guitar since the Tele or the Strat. I really don't know what the model is I use, but you can change that configuration of pickups in a few minutes. I've got a couple of them set up. I mean, I'm not one to go very much beyond the Teles. I have the odd Guild, and Gibson and Gretsch shit that I use for extra color here and there, semi-acoustic shit. I love guitars. But the Music Mans impress me. As an all-around working unit, that thing surprised the shit out of me. Sometimes in the studio, I can make this thing sound like a Strat or a Gibson.

Do you like high action?
It depends on what tuning and what I'm going for. I've got no set thing for anything. I've got three or four 5-strings there -- one with high action, one with low, and one with medium. The combination of the guitar with the amp, to me, is more important than which guitar I play. No one guitar is going to sound great for everything, unless you're one of those guys that only has one sound [laughs], and if you don't deliver that, you're fucked. 

I just keep shopping around. I say, "Well, there, he sounded good through that. Let's try him through the Bassmaster. Or the Bandmaster." So the combination of amp and guitar is a far more important choice than just the guitar. I mean, you're talking electric guitar. What have you got? You got a guitar, you've got your own asshole, and you've got an amplifier. Somehow these three things have to come to be where you want 'em all to be at once. A Strat might sound good through that Bandmaster, but would the Telecaster sound better through that Champ? It depends on what sound you're going for. Basically, I'm talking recording here, because that's what I've been into for the last year.

For live work, I put the Twin up, and give me Teles and the odd Strat here and there. It's a different criteria. But when you're recording, you can afford to say, "Well, maybe that Strat sounds better through that Kay than the Gibson through the Champ." You just keep trying. You never know quite what you're gonna get.

The great thing about music is its unpredictability. It never ceases to amaze me. I can be bored stiff -- "Oh, man, I wish I had a night off" -- and then a little problem like that'll come up, and suddenly I'm in. I say, "How fascinating! Why should that.... What's the difference between those sounds," and then you see faces light up in the control room. Suddenly you find the right combination, and you're on the track. You've got to carry everybody with you.

You can't fight against the tide when you're working with bands. There's no hiring and firing shit -- I'm talking about guys you live with and work with and that are as dedicated as you are to this stuff. And that's hard to find. Forging a band is another thing. Playing guitar is one thing, playing the other guys is another. I realize that more and more as I go ahead. Hey, I've become a psychologist over the years. I spend more of my time explaining to Mick: "Well, what kind of mood is he in? Who's gonna be good for this... " I do it almost automatically. 

The first thing is to choose the right guys in the first place. Then you don't have a major problem. But the idea of making a record like, "Okay, who's the best bass player? Okay, you're fired. Next." It's like some fucking employment bureau. It sounds very boring to me, and I could never start off the idea of playing with people from that attitude, from that aspect. "Hired. You're fired. Hired. You're fired." The idea of making a record in that way would already put me off. I gotta know who I'm playing with before I even consider the idea of actually doing it.

Have you written any songs during your solo period that you've held back from recording because they seem better suited for the Rolling Stones?
That's a good question, because this leads me to my very point with Mick. In 1985 we started getting into solo shit, and it's a whole new can of worms. I told him I didn't want to be put into that position after all these years, because I knew it would be a conflict of interests. I was very aware of that, which is one of the reasons I fought him like a dog not to do that. I knew then that I'm gonna write songs and I'm gonna, "That's mine. Stones can't have that. Oh, the Stones can have this." What do I do? Give 'em the best I got? The second best? To put yourself in that position is what I feared. 

In retrospect now, I say I was right to fear that, but at the same time, Mick and I and the rest of the Stones had been in that pressure cooker too long. The fight, whatever it was about, was almost inconsequential. We'd just been in that thing too long. If you're working with the Stones [points to a world map dotted with dozens of locations of Stones shows] -- well, that's a year. And then it stops and then you do nothing. And that's what the Stones had to live with from the middle early '70s until the middle '80s: Constant work for a year and a half, and then nothing for two years.

That stopping and starting was fraying. That was the underlying force of what all of that shit was about. It could have been about women or solo records or quitting smoking or any other thing, but it had to happen. The important thing to me was will we get back together again, and the Steel Wheels thing proved, yeah, we could make this thing work for us. So the big battle has to be fought on that front, and probably quite a necessary battle. It's never pleasant. It's like a family -- it's Mick and me have a row, except it's on the front pages. It's like you have an argument with your old lady, and the next day you read about it. And then the press are winding you up -- guys going, "Well, he said that," so you're like conducting this fight publicly, and it should be a private little matter. In any other circumstances it would be. It's just a family squabble, not soap opera shit. Forget about it. It's not really that important. It's bullshit, except that we have to do it in the full glare of publicity, which turns it into another thing. Because then you've got to take your stance because they've forced you into corners.

When it all came down to the point where Mick and I had to sit together in a room and write songs for Steel Wheels, we did it. And we made a Stones record in six months, which is pretty much against the odds in the record business. We'd never spent less than two-and-a-half years for the previous ten years, but that's what can be done. I'm now firmly on my other path as well, but I can see that it's better that I work, Mick works, Charlie and everybody, so that when we do get together, there's none of this taking the thing off the block and lube jobs and endless trying to get the band back together. We'd been too long in that vacuum, in that bubble. You can't live in there forever.

The Stones got too big, really, for what the Stones wanted to be. I mean, what the fuck's the deal about? And what you want to do and that you would normally do every day, suddenly you can't do for two years. You can't just go, "Hey guys, let's go play down the bar," which is how the band started and the whole idea. Suddenly you're too big to do that -- business and the whole thing. It's a strange thing. I wish the Beatles were still around in a way, because they could have kept on doing what they always did first for us, which was open the doors and take the brunt. [Laughs.

Playing football stadiums, man, is not where it's at. It takes what you want to do into another realm where you don't really want to be. But if that amount of people want to be there, who's gonna say no? So you're, like, stiffed. Give me a 3,000-4,000 seater any time -- with a roof on it, no wind, no rain. A good sound system in a controlled environment. Hey, we're rock and roll. What's it need? A basement, a garage. Start from there. But football stadiums are a little bit way out there, but at the same time, that's where it's at.

Bill Wyman once claimed that the Rolling Stones are the only major rock band where everyone follows the rhythm guitarist.
Well, that's the best thing he's ever said about me! [Laughs.] He never told me that. Bill, bless your heart. I just hope he's there to follow me the next time around. Which leads us to that question, right? Whether or not he's in the band is up to him. As far as I'm concerned, there's no way I want to change that lineup, unless he's absolutely adamant. I have my spies out. I talk to his ex old ladies, who can see him. Some people tell me he means it, and then I speak to some of his older friends who know him better: "Yeah, he's saying that, but I have a feeling he'll be there." So I'm getting these two messages. And Bill is not the guy... We don't talk on the phone, because he's too guarded and I'm too pointed. I have to see his eyes, in other words, to know. 

It was a spin on my head when I discovered he just doesn't like flying anymore. I realized that in the European tour he was driving to gigs in five, six hours, where you could get on a plane and be there in 45 minutes. I thought, "Geez, I'd never thought of that." Hell, you can't think of everything. There's all kinds of angles and possibilities on this thing with Bill, but I don't want to change this lineup unless I really got to. And he's the only one that can make me have to.

Many people have mimicked your image or their perception of your musical stance. What would you have musicians learn from you?
Forget about the clothes and the haircut and the moves, and then concentrate on the guitar playing. First, you've got to have that. I see a lot of guys out there -- and it's like weird for me -- and they've got it all down except the playing! [Laughs.] I mean, hell, they look more like me than me! It's like fashion. It's all got to do with video and shit. Once you start to get the eyes involved with music, music will take the backseat, and that's what the video thing is. Why can't video find its own niche in life and get off music's back? This is not going to endear me to VH-1 or MTV, but they know how I feel about it. 

It's a confliction of the senses. You're gonna judge a record by a TV screen and some images with some shitty little sound coming out of those boxy little speakers? I mean, how many people really have them hooked up to stereos? The way they deliver a record is with some semi-nude chicks, which I have no problem with, but not to sell my music. The music becomes like elevator background music, relegated.

And of course, then you've encouraged people to become posers and not composers. Andy Warhol's little dream's come true: Everybody's a star for 15 minutes. Music, to me, is the joy, right? I love my kids most of the time, and I love my wife most of the time. Music I love all the time. It's the only constant thing in my life. It's the one thing you can count on.

Hackney Diamonds by the Rolling Stones is out now and available to buy or stream

Jas Obrecht was a staff editor for Guitar Player, 1978-1998. The author of several books, he runs the Talking Guitar YouTube channel and online magazine at jasobrecht.substack.com.