From the Archive: The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Looks Back on 40 Years of Making Music
From 2002: Keith Richards looks back on 40 years of revolutionary music making.
Was the high-strung guitar on "Jumping Jack Flash" an electric?
No. That was an acoustic, too. Both acoustics were put through a Phillips cassette recorder. Just jam the mic right in the guitar and play it back through an extension speaker. [In effect, Richards used an inexpensive portable cassette recorder, then a relatively new invention, as a crude microphone preamp, also employing the inexpensive plastic mic generally furnished with such units. At this time, portable cassette recorders did not have any built-in limiting circuitry. With no limiting to inhibit overdrive, they were able to produce quite a raunchy distortion sound -- GW Ed. ]
People tend to associate the cassette recorder trick more with "Street Fighting Man."
I used it there too. The acoustic guitar is all about what comes off the fingers. That's what's important. Once you put a microphone in front of any guitar, it's automatically electric. Even if [classical guitarist Andres] Segovia's playing. For me, there was no way of miking up an acoustic guitar that would do. What I was after with all of those -- "Street Fighting Man," "Jumping Jack Flash" -- was to get the drive and dryness of an acoustic guitar but still distort it. They were all attempts at that.
Did you use the same open tunings for "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man"?
No, on "Street Fighting Man" there's one six-string open and one five-string open. They're both open tunings, but then there's a lot of capo work. There are lots of layers of guitars on "Street Fighting Man." There's lots of guitars you don't even hear. They're just shadowing. So it's difficult to say what you're hearing on there. 'Cause I tried eight different guitars. And which ones were used in the final version, I couldn't say.
According to Wyman's Stone Alone, once again, "Street Fighting Man" started on cassette, was transferred to four-track, and then from there it went to eight-track.
That seems right. 'Cause we just couldn't reproduce the sound of the original demo I did on cassette. So we played the cassette through an extension speaker so I could play on top of that -- shove a microphone into an acoustic and overdub to that. Then we put it on a four-track, played it back, and at the same time the guitar was going on, I had [session keyboard great] Nicky Hopkins playing a bit of piano, and Charlie just shuffling in the background. Then we put drums on it and added another guitar while he was doing that. And we just kept layering it.
People aren't always aware of your bass-playing contributions to the Stones. But you played bass on "Jumping Jack Flash"...
Yeah. "Sympathy for the Devil." "Live with Me." I do like playing bass. Still do.
Is it that Bill just wouldn't be around when it came time to record the bass?
Usually. Or sometimes I'd say, "Bill, it goes like this." And he'd say, "Why show me? You got it down. Let's make this simple. You do it." There were never any hassles in that respect. Just like there are some songs where Bill plays keyboards.
You're seen with a Telecaster, if memory serves, in Jean-Luc Godard's film One Plus One, which documents the sessions for "Sympathy for the Devil." Was that around the time the Tele first arrived in your life?
That's around when I started, yeah. Around '67 or '68. That's when I really started to get to grips with the Fenders. Before that I was using Gibsons, and any other guitars that came my way, through Fender amps. Then I realized that Leo Fender's genius was matching the amp to the guitar. If you really want a nice sound out of a Fender amp, you have to use a Fender guitar. It's a beautiful electronic marriage. It seems obvious, but it took me a while to figure that out. A matching pair. Oh dear me, well done, Leo. That's what really impressed me. And also the Telecaster, for all its distinctive sound, is capable of quite a lot more than you'd expect. If you play around with it and put a humbucker up on the top, it's really versatile. You can get some very rich sounds. Depending on what it's made out of: the maple. I've got two different Telecasters. One is like a feather. The other one, you sink into the ground when you pick it up.
Which is the one you call Micawber?
I think that's the heavy one.
Do you know what year that is?
Micawber is a '53." And I have a '54 Tele named Malcolm. They always start with "M."
Does the Telecaster lend itself especially well to the five-string, open G tuning that has become so integral to your sound? [In this tuning, the low E string is removed. The remaining strings are tuned, low to high: G D G B D. "Keef tuning" is the key to such Stones classics as "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Start Me Up," among others -- GW Ed.]
Exactly. Around the same time I was getting into Telecasters I was experimenting with open tunings. I don't know why. Maybe it was because around that time, '67, we started having time off that we didn't know what to do with. So I started to experiment with tunings. Most people used open tuning basically just for slide. Nobody used it for anything else. But I wanted to use it for rhythm guitar. And what I found was, of all the guitars, the Telecaster really lent itself well to a dry, rhythm, five-string drone thing. In a way that tuning kept me developing as a guitarist. "Okay, now figure out a diminished sixth on it!" You've got so little to work with. And that makes you reconsider six-string concert tuning. 'Cause if there's so much in that little space [i.e., five string] how much am I missing on the other? You can transfer some of that back to six-string concert tuning. You can swap knowledge between one tuning and another.
Whether it's a matter of tunings, arrangements or recording, you've always taken a very open-ended musical approach.
I think you have to. Probably the best example of that is "Sympathy for the Devil," which Mick brought in to the studio as a very Bob Dylan-ish kind of folk guitar song and ended up as a damned samba. 'Cause that's what the band did in the process of recording the song. The thing with a good band is not to put them in the studio and say, "It goes like this." Put them in there and see what they come up with. I've written rock and roll songs that have come out as ballads, and ballads that have come out as rock and roll songs. When we did "Midnight Rambler," nobody went in there with the idea of doing a blues opera, basically. Or a blues in four parts. That's just the way it turned out. I think that's the strength of the Stones or any good band. You can give them a song half raw and they'll cook it.
Speaking of "Midnight Rambler," how did you get that incredibly beefy yet crystalline guitar tone on there?
That was done on a full-bodied, Australian electric-acoustic, f-hole guitar. [The brand name was Maton -- GW Ed. ] It kind of looked like an Australian copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used. I played it on "Gimmie Shelter" too.
For the tremolo rhythm part that starts the song off?
Yeah. I used that guitar on all that. It had all been revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great. It made a great record. And on the very last note of "Gimmie Shelter" the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original take.
Wow. Where'd you get it?
From some guy who stayed at my pad. He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind. You know, "Take care of this for me." I certainly did! But it served me well through the album [Let It Bleed].
Let It Bleed was the last Stones album to include Brian Jones -- playing percussion on "Midnight Rambler" and autoharp on "You Got the Silver." After all you'd been through with Brian, was it difficult letting go?
Of course. I had a lot of good times with Brian. He was a great musician and a good guy to play with. Especially as guitarists go. Virtuosity is fine, but my thing has always been what two guitar players can get going together. Or three or four. If you get the right guy to play with, you can sound like an orchestra. When you've got that down with somebody, it's always a pain in the heart when they go somewhere else. But Brian had become impossible. Really over the top. And self-destructive. Not the ordinary, "Oh, he's drinking too much or doing too much of that drug." It was almost starting to feel like he was determined to kill himself in one way or another. I think he wanted to be Mick Jagger and he couldn't understand why he wasn't. That really got to him. Brian was just cantankerous -- even to himself. I don't think he liked being comfortable, really. He wanted to be uncomfortable, to the point of death. It had become so unbearable that Mick and I had to go down and actually fire him. What a rotten task to do. Especially with him not being in good condition. But at the same time, we had to keep the band together.
You brought Charlie down as well to Brian's house at Crotchford Farm to give him the news.
Charlie was the backup. We told Brian, "If you don't pull your weight, you're not in, man. If you're not there when we're working, and if you're totally fucked up when you are there…" It was the Beach Boys syndrome, you know? "If it's gonna be like that," we told him, "we can't work together." And he said, "Oh, I've got my own plans and projects, you know." Nobody expected that in a few months he'd be dead.
Did you achieve that two-guitar symbiosis with Mick Taylor right away? Did you lock it up quickly?
That's when I learned that everybody's different. But yes, Mick Taylor and I worked really well together. He was very different to work with than Brian. I really had to refocus things. But Mick Taylor is a brilliant guitar player. Some lovely energy. Sweetly sophisticated playing, way beyond his years. Lovely sense of melody. I never understood why he left the Stones. Nor does he, I think. I spoke to him several times and said, "Why did you do it?" I think he felt that he had more to say and could do it more freely outside the Stones. He wanted to be a producer, a writer, more of an all-rounder. Have more say. He wanted to grow up and be his own man. I just think it was an ill-considered decision. It's kind of difficult to step off the Rolling Stones and go somewhere else. I had no desire to see him go. We were lucky after losing Brian to get another guy. Mick and I were working real tight and then it was, "Oh no. Not again."
Did you guys really bond during the making of Exile on Main Street in France?
Mick's a really shy guy. I wouldn't say that you ever get to know him. I don't think he lets anybody get to know him. Probably the closest I got to Mick was playing guitar. I mean, I knew him well. He was a good mate. But he was always reticent.
What's your favorite track from the Mick Taylor period?
I love "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." And "Love in Vain" -- the live version. Most of my favorite stuff with Mick is probably onstage. Mick is a great guitar player. But he found out the hard way that that's all he is.
Was the jam in the end of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" inspired by Carlos Santana?
Not really. We didn't even know they were still taping. We thought we'd finished. We were just rambling and they kept the tape rolling. I figured we'd just fade it off. It was only when we heard the playback that we realized, "Oh, they kept it going." Basically we realized we had two bits of music. There's the song and there's the jam.
Did you ever use that clear plastic Dan Armstrong/Ampeg guitar in the studio? I know you used it live a lot, and it's pictured on the original album jacket for [the Stones' 1970 live album] Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!
The first guitar Dan Armstrong ever made me was a gem. It was one of the first prototypes or first preproduction models. And you could plug those pickups in. [The guitar design allowed for interchangeable pickups to be slid in and out of a slot cut in the body -- GW Ed.] I know I used it on sessions. But I don't know if anything I did on it ended up on a record. And then that guitar disappeared. They gave me two or three other ones, production models, but they were shadows of that particular one. And I gave up on them.
Wasn't there an endorsement deal with Ampeg for a while? The Stones used their amps onstage during that late Sixties/early Seventies period and Ampeg even gets a credit line on Ya-Ya's.
Yeah, there was. For a while Ampeg had some really good stuff. And they were delivering on time. But it was the same as with the Dan Armstrong guitar. As they got bigger and bigger, the quality of the material went down. It even happened to Gibson. The first Hummingbirds we got the first couple of years were really beautiful. Then they just became stiff.
And guitars, if they're really good, it doesn't matter how old they are. Like anything made of wood, they get better. It's kind of weird, but they haven't really improved the electric guitar since Les Paul and Leo Fender put their touch to it. Everything else is trying to sound like them, with maybe a few more extras -- split pickups, 10 different tones... Electronics have come a long way, but the original Telecaster pickup still picks up. With the electric guitar, perfection was made in the beginning. Everything else was then a variation on that. I wouldn't be playing a guitar made in the Fifties if I knew that I could pick one up now and it's just as good.
Here's another amazing fact: some of the Stones most celebrated work was done when you were in the depths of heroin addiction. And it wasn't like you were just hanging on for the ride. You had a real leadership role, particularly on Exile on Main Street.
Well, you see [lifting his glass], I can't even get drunk. I'm a party toxic. I can take anything and I'll never get sloppy drunk. The stuff I was writing and the music I was doing in the Seventies, which is basically when I was on smack, I couldn't have done better straight. And maybe I wouldn't have done as well straight. Music and drugs -- I don't really correlate one thing with the other. One is what you're putting out and the other is what you're putting in. I never felt any different about my music because of it. It was more of a separate thing. It was more to keep my own inner self in balance. I never really figured it out. It's just that once you're on smack, it's really difficult to kick it. But it ain't impossible. It's not like getting your leg blown off.
When you came off dope in the early Eighties, what was it like facing an audience completely straight for the first time in years?
Pretty damned good. I think it was the crowds backstage and the crowds in the rest of my life that I didn't want to face. Not the audience. I love them always. And when I was doing smack, it was actually very rarely on the road. I would clean up to go on the road. I just didn't want to have that hassle of looking for stuff in strange towns. Which kind of fooled me in a way, 'cause I thought, Oh, I can stop anytime I want. But of course the minute the tour ended, boom, I'd say, "Oh, it's time to relax." And I'd go straight back in; Mind you, I'm not really putting down dope. But it's something not to get into. And if you are, it's something to get out of.
The Stones kicked off the Eighties in fine form with "Start Me Up," which is another classic example of a Rolling Stones song radically changing form during the recording process.
Exactly. I was convinced it was a reggae song. Everybody else was convinced of that. "It's reggae, man." We did 45 takes like that.
Did it have that guitar hook when it was a reggae song?
No. It was very Marley-ish. It was sweet. We were all enjoying it. That's why we played it so many times. But then, on a break, I just played that riff, not even really thinking much about it. Which is why it took us five years to find it on the tape. We did a take rocking away and then went back to work and did another 15 reggae takes. So it was stuck in the middle there. A lot of great things can happen when you're focusing on something else. I pride myself on being able to spot those things. So the fact that I missed "Start Me Up" for five years is one of my disappointments. But you can't catch everything.
What songs did you want to put on 40 Licks to represent the Eighties?
Difficult period. Which is probably why you won't find a lot from the Eighties on there. There's a couple of good things on Dirty Work. Let me put it this way: "Undercover of the Night" is not going to be on there.
As you say, a difficult period for the Stones.
For me, particularly. I'd been on dope throughout most of the Seventies. And I had let Mick take over quite a lot of day-to-day stuff about the Stones. So he fell into that same syndrome as Brian, of thinking that he'd run the show. When I got off the dope I said to Mick, "I'm willing to take on some of this stuff again. Let me shoulder some of your burden." Mick took that to mean that I wanted to reassert power, or take power away from him, which wasn't really the case. He'd gotten used to running things and he didn't want to relinquish that. I went through a very tough thing in the early Eighties with Mick. So you get some songs like ''All About You," to name just one. There's more on some of the Winos records [Keith's side project, the X-pensive Winos -- GW Ed. ].
That whole period culminated in 1985, at the end of Dirty Work, which was our World War III. He'd become so high-handed with everybody that it was just unacceptable to me. So we said, "Okay, let's take a break and see what we can do on our own then." I think that everybody -- with the possible exception of Mick himself -- has learned the lesson that Mick Jagger's really good when he's with the Rolling Stones. But when he ain't, I don't think anybody gives a fuckin' toss. Whether he gets the message or not. Obviously he does. Otherwise he wouldn't be on this project.
What do you think of his latest solo album, Goddess in the Doorway?
What, Dog Shit in the Doorway? I listened to three tracks and gave up on it. Sometimes you wonder. With the Stones he's great. It's best to keep him on a short leash.
How do you rate Mick Jagger as a guitar player?
On acoustic, he's a damned good rhythm player. I'd never let him play electric if I could help it. He's like Bob Dylan, same thing. They thrash away at it. No sense of electric at all. Usually I turn him down.
"Sway" is Mick on electric.
Yeah... Well, like I say, acoustically he's got a nice touch. It doesn't translate electrically. It's not his thing. It's not everybody's cup of tea.
So if the Eighties were a difficult period for the Stones, how do you rate the Nineties?
The Nineties were interesting. There's almost five years between Dirty Work and Steel Wheels. Steel Wheels was a very tentative restart, in a way. It was almost another chapter. Certainly there was a lot of energy in there. And Voodoo Lounge I really enjoyed making. It's a good record.
The sound toughened up appreciably on that.
Yeah. Steel Wheels was a good beginning and Voodoo Lounge came up from there. But things were changing in the Nineties. Our tours were just great. Basically we're a live band. We love making records, but playing live is what we're all about. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, suddenly we were in the new era of MTV and synthesizers -- where every record is judged by what it looks like, not what it sounds like. To me, this is all starting to lose touch with what we're all about. And really what any band is all about.
Speaking of playing live, is there any chance -- this being a 40th anniversary tour -- that there will be special guest stars from the Stones' past? Mick Taylor? Bill Wyman?
Well, who knows? Those things kind of happen along the way. We're certainly not ruling it out. Everybody's really up for it. When Mick, Charlie, Ronnie and I were in Paris, it was great to hear about tickets selling out in four minutes. But we also said, "There go our days off. 'Cause they'll want to add extra shows." After all these years, for me, it's great to get out there, do what I do, meet the folks and have a good time. There's enough trouble in this world. Let's take some time off, pals, and have a good time.
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