Keith Richards Talks Tone, Playing Live and the Stones' Longevity in His 1983 Guitar Player Cover Story

(Image credit: Graham Wiltshire / Contributor)

This interview originally appeared in the April 1983 issue of Guitar Player.

Back in 1964, when Lennon and McCartney wanted to hold your hand, Jagger and Richards were walkin’ the dog. Constantly compared to the Beatles - and often to the Who - the Rolling Stones staked out their original turf with gritty music and a don’t-mess-with-me stance. The Beatles disintegrated a dozen years ago, and the Who say they’ve unpacked their road cases for the last time. The Stones are in the studio, and they’re not about to bid farewell to anyone. And, of course, Keith Richards stands in the eye of the hurricane. 

Around him swirls a rock and roll empire with 20 years of history and mystery, success and excess, acclaim and controversy. He and his mates have been called many things by discerning critics and impassioned fans. One description recurs: The World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Band.

Chuck Berry was a major influence on your guitar style.

That’s quite a left hand he’s got there [laughs].

Are the reports true that he punched you in the face?

Yeah, a little while back he did. I came up behind him to say hello. He didn’t know it was me, and he didn’t want to be bothered, but I got a nice note from him a little later, actually.

The “Bitch” solo is in a Chuck Berry style.

Which I do every night.

And the beat turns around several times. Was that completely spontaneous, or semi-planned?

Maybe listeners knew a year or six months later that the beat turned around, but, at the moment, I wasn’t conscious of that. It comes so naturally, as it’s always happened, and it’s always given that extra kick when the right moment comes back down again. That’s what rock and roll records are all about. I mean, nowadays, it’s “rock” music. But rock and roll records should be two minutes, 35 seconds long, and it doesn’t matter if you ramble on longer after that. It should be, you know - wang - concise, right there. 

Rambling on and on, blah blah blah, repeating things for no point - I mean, rock and roll is in one way a highly structured music played in a very unstructured way, and it’s those things like turning the beat around that we’d get hung up on when we were starting out. “Did you hear what we just did? We just totally turned the beat around [laughs]!” If it’s done with conviction, if nothing is forced, if it just flows in, then it gives quite an extra kick to it.

You turn the beat around often. There’s the intro to “Start Me Up,” where it turns around twice in the first ten seconds, “Little Queenie,” where Charlie turns around the intro, and the end of the bass part on “Street Fighting Man,” which you played yourself.

Right. You can do that in a band that’s got enough confidence not to collapse when it happens. It can make things much more interesting, and it sounds great as long as nobody’s fazed by it. You have to be able to keep it straight, thinking about what you’re doing at the moment, and also about where you’re going to take it. I guess that just comes from 20 years, same location.

So many of the things you play, if you were to put them on paper and analyze them musically…

What a mess [laughs]!

For example, the opening of “Start Me Up” is a simple chord change, and yet it’s recognizable as the Rolling Stones. The sound is so specific. Would altering anything about it - the echo, tone setting, string gauge - change the impact?

I just can’t get the things to sound any different [laughs]. They always come out just about the same when it comes to recording, because without really thinking about it I shift slowly as I go. And no matter where I start, sooner or later I’ll get to where the rest of the band is going. I eventually get back to the one kind of thing. 

It’s sort of a trademark sound, but it’s more than that because of the way I go about getting it, working it through with what’s going on, rather than getting the sound first and then pushing it on the band. A lot of it is adjusting to Ronnie, and Ronnie to me, which brings a certain continuity as well as a certain flexibility.

You’ve often mentioned the two-guitar sound as a cornerstone of the band. On Still Life there’s a different kind of interplay - probably tighter than ever.

Well, Ron’s getting better [laughs]. I think that’s due to the fact that Ron and I have been working together now since ’75, and the more we play together the tighter we get it.

It sounds like you and he are two sides of the same coin, like you could almost change places.

We do. If he drops a cigarette I’ll play his bit, and we’ll realize later that I’ve covered for him and he’s covered for me. And you think at the time, “Oh, my God, what a gap,” but when you listen to the tape, you find that it’s been fixed right there at the moment, in a very un-thought-about way. We pick it up and cover each other so that sometimes you can’t really tell who’s playing.

When Ron joined in 1975, did the band have to make a change in the way you interact or rehearse?

No, that was the beauty of it. He was already so familiar with our stuff. After Mick Taylor left, we rehearsed for about six months with a lot of good guitar players from all over the world. And we could work with them, you know, and they could work with us. But when Ronnie became available and suddenly walked in, that was it. There was no doubt. It was easy.

With Mick Taylor’s style so well defined as a lead guitarist, there seemed to be a clear distinction between the two of you.

It was much harder to get a Rolling Stones sound with Mick Taylor. It was much more lead and rhythm, one way or the other. As fabulous as he is as a lead guitarist, he wasn’t as great as a rhythm player, so we ended up taking roles. 

When Brian and I started, it was never like that. It’s much easier than with Brian, personally. But also with Ron, the basic way we play is much more similar, and this isn’t in any way to knock Mick. I mean, he’s a fantastic guitar player. But even if he couldn’t play shit, I’d love the guy. But chemically we didn’t have that flexibility in the band. It was, “You do this, and I’ll do that, and never the twain shall meet.” With Ron, if he drops his pick, then I can play his lick until he picks it up, and you can’t even tell the difference.

Had you and Ron worked together very much before he joined the group?

Yes, for about 18 months. And I did a lot of work on Ronnie’s first and second solo albums. He’s never been the same since.

Have you found that your styles affected each other, now that you’ve been working together for several years?

Yeah, that’s what’s great about it. I neglect something, and he makes up for it. That’s the great thing about two guitar players, because if you get it right, you know when to lift one of his licks, and vice versa, without thinking about it. He lifts more of mine than I do of his [laughs].

When the two of you are onstage, how much of your interaction is subject to change?

It depends on the sound system. If you’re going to make a change, you need to hear what you’re doing in the first place, so a lot of that gets down to the technicalities of the stage monitoring. On our last tour in ’81, we had those long ramps out to the sides of the stage. The idea of having that stage is to get out where most performers don’t get with audiences of that size. Well, if the monitors aren’t working out there, and you’re just making signs at the sound guys instead of concentrating on your playing, then you forget it, just leave it. But if the sound’s good and you can hear everything, then you tend to give it a bit more, adjust more to what’s going on, change as you go.

Do you have much trouble communicating onstage at that volume?

It’s all done by semaphore and eye signals. It’s the only way you can really do it. But the thing is, there isn’t that much need for communication or looking at each other, except when things go wrong. Otherwise the communication is just through the music. But if things are going wrong, then everybody’s looking at me. “How’s he going to get out of this?”

Your records have sort of an indoor sound, the effect of enclosed space. Are you happy with your outdoor concert sound?

Never totally satisfied with live things, no. If you were, you wouldn’t keep trying to make it better. But I’m not disappointed with it. You just look forward to being able to do it better. You’re always wondering about the people way at the back, what they’re hearing. There are so many people and they’re so far away - you have no idea what’s being heard out there. 

You’re hoping for the best and taking it for granted that the sound crew are doing the job for you and giving out the sound onstage as much as possible to everywhere in the place. But there’s the one problem, always that nagging doubt there - they’re not all getting it the way they should.

Your live versions of songs are often faster than their studio counterparts. For example, “Shattered” on Still Life. Is that intentional, to make it more exciting for the audience, or is it the adrenaline of performing?

It’s the tempo of the whole gig, the adrenaline - especially the huge gigs. The show just takes its own speed from the start, and you go with it. It might be great or it might be terrible, but the tempos one night may be almost twice as fast as the night after. And you can always learn when you listen back, you see? You may find, “Wow, that should’ve been that tempo all along - we made the record too slow [laughs]!”

On the live version of “Just My Imagination,” in the second half the guitar figure changes some notes and sustains others for a country feel, almost like a pedal steel feeling.

That’s Ron and me doing the parts together, and you get the sustaining thing like that. We aren’t using a pull-string or a lot of slide now, but Ron plays pedal steel, a bit on “Shattered” and “Faraway Eyes.” Country music’s a part of the way we do that kind of thing, and it comes through even if it’s done with straight guitars sort of pulling up against each other.

On recent tours you’ve taken occasional breaks from the outdoor arenas, getting into clubs. Do you miss the smaller venues?

Yeah, always. You hate to do the same thing all the time. I love playing the ballparks and the domes, you know. For the satisfaction of the band it gives you a terrific buzz - so many people. But by doing just one thing all the time you forget how to do anything else. You just become good at playing the domes and never learn anything else again. And I’ve always found that if you put in a few 3,000-seaters on the tour, and even 300, it gives the band itself a confidence quite apart from anything else. 

Then you can deal with 300 people or 90,000 and know how to play it. And probably the band feels that working in one of the nice old places like the Fox Theater in Atlanta is kind of more satisfying most of the time.

Because of the immediacy?

Yeah. The sound isn’t dissipated totally, and you don’t have to worry about the wind factor and things like that. It’s much simpler and easier to get - it’s just [snaps fingers] turn it up, get to it.

In the last few years there’s been a new aspect of your tone - more distinct, with a slight click, almost like a slap bass in rockabilly. “Hang Fire” and “She’s So Cold” are examples, and especially the last section of “Little T&A.”

It’s our equivalent of that rockabilly thing. I think you’ll find that comes from using a lot of analog delay on Ron’s guitar or my guitar or both of them, and I dampen it. That’ll give you that ticka-tacka-ticka. I always use that green MXR analog delay. I’m told it’s quite out of date now and old fashioned, but I got it free and I forgot that time marches on and they make better ones, or so they say. I don’t know. I’ve worked very well with those MXR things, and they’ve been very reliable.

Can you judge the sound of an electric guitar before you plug it in?

Maybe to a certain extent. If the neck and the action feel right, you’re more than halfway home, even before hearing the electronics. Things like weight and the density of the wood indicate certain things, but you simply need to play it to really tell. And it doesn’t take long.

On record you’ve used several very different types of guitars - Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335s, Fender Telecasters and others. And yet a listener can tell right away that it’s you, from stylistic clues, but also from the sound alone.

I use a whole load of different guitars, that’s true, but they’re not all that dissimilar in type. I mean, 90 percent are probably Telecasters, old ones, but more than that, you can’t really separate style and sound, you see. People do separate them when they’re talking about music, but all of that often misses the whole point.

You’re suggesting that the style is the sound?

Yes, part of it, more than any particular tone setting or pickup or anything like that. I’ll just adjust to the sound of the track as we go - the sound of the bass drum and especially Ronnie’s guitar. The style is adjusting along with the sound. There’s never a conscious effort to get that “Honky Tonk Woman” tone or a thing like that. You may get it or you may not. But that’s not what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about the track.

Some people were amazed to read in your first Guitar Player cover story that on “Street Fighting Man” there are no electric guitars.

Two acoustics, one of them put through the first Philips cassette player they made. It was overloaded, recorded on that, and then hooked up through a little extension speaker, and then onto the studio tape through a microphone.

You’ve paid quite a bit of attention to acoustic guitars in rock music.

Well, I started on acoustic guitar, and you have to recognize what it’s got to offer. But also you can’t say it’s an acoustic guitar sound, actually, because with the cassette player and then a microphone and then the tape, really it’s just a different process of electrifying it. You see, I couldn’t have done that song or that record in that way with a straight electric, or the sustain would have been too much. It would have flooded too much. 

The reason I did that one like that was because I already had the sound right there on the guitar before we recorded. I just loved it, and when I wrote the thing I thought, “I’m not going to get a better sound than this.” And “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is the same, too. That’s acoustic guitar.

In the choruses of “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Start Me Up,” the bass leaves huge holes for the guitars to fill. Does Bill Wyman get a lot of direction from you in that regard, or is that something he’s always done on his own?

I would say in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, Bill would be given more direction - not always the right direction [laughs] - but Mick and I would be more inclined to say, “Do this and that.” Sometimes he comes and asks, but less and less. You know, relationships change. But Bill, he’s kind of like Charlie. He just keeps [long pause] amazing me. He just keeps getting better. 

He’s not always what I’m expecting. I know he’s good, and he’s always there. But I kind of take his playing for granted. And then when I listen to what he’s doing, I realize he’s not always playing the same thing. He’s much better than we think. You see, we’re the world’s worst Rolling Stones critics [laughs].

You and Pete Townshend seem to have much in common, at least on the surface - the components of your styles, your use of the guitar, the way your bands are compared in the press. Do you feel any particular kinship with him?

You mean Trousers? Now let me see - one reason for that is probably that we started playing the same clubs almost at the same time. I never took credit for this, but apparently he said that he lifted that arm swing he does from seeing me. I don’t recall doing it, but I guess if he says so, he did. It’s something I’ve never been aware of. In certain respects, yeah, we’re both coming out in the same place at the same time, more than anything else.

He was quoted as saying that there comes a time for a band to retire, to pass on the torch, so to speak, to younger bands.

I love Peter, but the time to stop is when you can’t do it anymore, or when you’re fed up. There’s no passing on of the goddamn torches. Other people will pick them up anyway, and besides, that’s not the point. I don’t know if he was accurately quoted, but other people have said it anyway when they can’t think of anything else to say. You see, if rock and roll is what you do, then that’s what you do, and that’s all. You don’t sort of say, “Oh, now I give up and I’ll hand it on to this band who I think is quite good.” You don’t hand it on in that way. 

Pete already handed it on, the same as we did, to some of the young guys that are playing now, the way we played Chuck Berry. It’s not, “Here, I’ve got to hand you a document.” It’s the records that you’ve done that the younger players have listened to and grown up with and sat around learning.

People have been predicting the end of the Stones…

…From the beginning [laughs]!

With the kind of life you seem to lead, longevity might appear to be the last thing you’d be able to gain. What’s the secret?

The secret is, there is no secret. It’s finding people that not only play well with you, but that you can get along with. There’s no constant battle about who’s Mister Big, none of those problems. When I see Charlie and Bill - I ain’t seen ‘em for a few weeks - it’s like a pleasure. Ron says we’re his closest friends. I guess that’s the only secret.

Is that what it means to play in a band?

Most people don’t know what a band is. People have heroes, and they copy them - I mean, we copied things very carefully when we started. But you don’t get this picture and then do everything to fit it. You do what you do. 

The musicians are there to contribute to the band sound. The band isn’t there for showing off solos or egos. A lick on a record - it doesn’t matter who played it. All that matters is how it fits. The chemistry to work together like that has to be there. You have to work on it, always - figure out what to do with it. But basically it’s not an intellectual thing you can think up and just put there. It has to be there. You have to find it.

Guitar Player Staff

Guitar Player is the world’s most comprehensive, trusted and insightful guitar publication for passionate guitarists and active musicians of all ages. Guitar Player magazine is published 13 times a year in print and digital formats. The magazine was established in 1967 and is the world's oldest guitar magazine.

When "Guitar Player Staff" is credited as the author, it's usually because more than one author on the team has created the story.