In October 2002, the Rolling Stones were celebrating their 40th anniversary and preparing the release of career retrospective, Forty Licks. Guitar World writer Alan di Perna was granted the rare chance to sit down with Keith Richards for a free-ranging discussion of his wild career, his electric guitars and his development as a player across 40 years on the frontline.
Keith Richards moves like a shadow along a cobblestone West Village backstreet. It's a hot summer day in New York City and Keef is in earth tone – a sandy brown bomber jacket, reddish brown headband, moccasins. For some strange reason, each passing year seems to make this quintessential English rock star look more and more like a shaman, with his creased visage and prominent nose.
Out here in the open, on a public street, he has an uncanny ability to blend in with his surroundings – to tread lightly and stay close to the ground. Ex-junkie street smarts combine with the self-preservation instincts of a man who's spent his entire adult life dodging hysterical rock fans.
The guitarist seems to grow taller and more confident as he leads the way into the cool, quiet safety of a chic, sparsely furnished office. Here, for the next two hours, Richards will reminisce about the life and times of the Rolling Stones – sometimes called the 'World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band' – who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.
"We've decided not to make too big a deal of this, knowing that everyone else will," he says, his entire loose-limbed body undulating with infectious laughter.
Not that the event will go entirely unmarked. The Stones are doing a massive tour and they're releasing Forty Licks (Virgin), a double-CD set of greatest hits that also features a few new tracks, including the ballad Losing My Touch, sung by Keith.
"But honestly," Richards insists, "the last thing we thought of was all this coinciding with the 40th anniversary. It just so happened that it did. And we realized, with some shock, 'Oh God, they're gonna rub it in, man.' We could just see someone designing a stage for us with a big Four-O as a backdrop."
Richards indicates that a sizeable box set of Rolling Stones rarities and outtakes is in the works, but it's still down the road apiece. For now we'll have to content ourselves with Forty Licks. And with killer Stones tracks like Satisfaction, Sympathy For the Devil, Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar, Happy, and Tumbling Dice all included, there are plenty of reasons for contentment.
Old fans can remember just what made the Rolling Stones one of the most important groups of the entire rock era, while new ones can discover the gutsy howl and crossfire hurricane of the Stones in their prime.
The Rolling Stones sprang up in the early Sixties as the dark, Dionysian antithesis to the Beatles’ sunny exuberance. Scruffy yet dandified, unabashedly raw, they seemed determined to shatter every taboo they could find.
Long before the birth of heavy metal, they were cozying up to the Evil One with album titles like Their Satanic Majesties Request and songs like Sympathy For the Devil. They predated goth by several decades, putting death in Top 40 with Paint It Black.
Years before the glam era, they became the first rock band to pose in drag, on the picture sleeve for their 1966 single Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In the Shadows? They repeatedly antagonized the politically correct with works like Brown Sugar, Some Girls and Black and Blue.
The Stones were busted for everything from urinating in public to drug charges both trumped up and well substantiated. They've known the inside of jails and the salons of high society.
Musically, the Rolling Stones awakened young, white baby boomers to America's rich blues heritage. Richards made his mark as a resourceful and fiercely original guitar stylist, whose capoed, varisped, open-tuned riffs seemed to spring from some ancient Delta source. They continue to elude guitar transcriptionists and other upholders of rational analysis.
The Stones' deep blues roots have enabled them to weather many a storm. At their inception in 1962, they were a sextet. But pianist Ian Stewart was deemed to possess insufficient visual appeal by an early manager, so he graciously assumed the reduced role of road manager and session keyboard man.
That left Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and the mercurial guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones – a gifted yet troubled blues fanatic whose initial leadership of the band eroded as Jagger and Richards emerged as one of rock's greatest songwriting teams. Jones left the Rolling Stones in 1969 and was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool shortly thereafter – a sad and mysterious death that still draws speculation as to what really occurred.
Jones was succeeded by Mick Taylor, a technically more accomplished, although less versatile, guitarist and an alumnus of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. With Taylor on board, the Stones scaled the heights of album rock glory with classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. But by 1974, Taylor had jumped ship.
His successor was affable Faces vet Ronnie Wood. While less of a virtuoso than Taylor, Wood has meshed with Richards more closely than any other Stones guitarist, in a style that Keef has often called "an ancient form of weaving."
Ian Stewart died in 1985. And in 1993, Bill Wyman relinquished his long-standing role as the Stones' bassist, leaving Jagger, Richards and Watts to soldier on. This grizzled triumvirate of original Stones, supported by a well-chosen cast of musicians and singers, has become one of rock and roll's most venerable institutions.
Given the life he's led, it's a miracle that Keith Richards is alive to ring in the Rolling Stones' 40th year together. Heroin addiction claimed much of the ’70s for him, although it didn't seem to prevent him from turning in some of his most brilliant work as a guitarist, songwriter, and de facto musical director of the Rolling Stones.
There has been a succession of women in his life, including the dangerous Swinging London beauty Anita Pallenberg, whose long liaison with the guitarist was particularly tempestuous. But all that is in the past now, and Richards seems content with his wife of 19 years, ex-model Patti Hansen, his kids, and one other ever-present companion – a small yet spirited white poodle named Delilah.
"Quite honestly, when I reached 50 I didn't feel any differently than I did when I reached 40," says Richards. ''And I think the Stones are approaching this anniversary thing the same way anybody approaches turning 40. Except we're doing it en masse."
As he speaks, Richards fidgets with a few small, metal, Maltese crosses affixed to his graying locks. He can't seem to figure out whether these ornaments should go over the top of his headband or stick out underneath. An assistant brings him a large Absolut vodka with orange soda – the first in a long series, punctuated by even more Marlboros. Relaxed and utterly at home in his lank body, Keith Richards is in a talkative mood.
You've never been one to live by the clock or calendar.
“Not exactly, no.”
So does a milestone like the 40th anniversary of the Rolling Stones mean all that much to you?
“When a band has stayed together this long, there is a certain secret professional pride in that. But I don't think any of us would go around saying that – certainly not to each other, or even to ourselves. I guess there's just a thing in our society about decades – numbers that end in zero. I don't know why.”
What prompted your decision to include some brand-new Rolling Stones tracks on Forty Licks?
“The only difference between us and the Beatles is that we're still going. So, unlike the Beatles' greatest-hits set, we felt we had to put on two or three new tracks in a 'to be continued' kind of spirit. I didn't want it to be all just nostalgia.
“Also, I didn't want to turn up for rehearsals for this tour without having played together with everybody since the end of the last tour. That would have been a little too much – straight into Start Me Up all over again. I love to play those songs. But I already know how to play them. I don't need to rehearse them. So I wanted to get the band to play together on some new stuff.
“Playing new music really tightens the band up. Getting everybody together for a month in Paris, I didn't mind if we came out with no tracks at all. But as it turned out, we came out with 30 tracks! On our very first night in Paris we got three tracks down. Everybody went, ‘Yeah.’ Out of the 30 songs we recorded, we mixed four or five.
“We're still dickering between them right now, figuring out what will go on the album. But my strategy worked, I think. Everyone's got their chops together and they're really looking forward to this tour. It's not just a regurgitation. It's still a working band.”
Is it safe to say that it paid off for the Stones to abandon blues purism and start playing the pop game circa 1963?
“We did that because we wanted to make records. To get into a recording studio was almost like getting into heaven. Even harder, maybe. So the inducement of a recording contract made us willing to play that game. We all agonized about it, of course. ‘Should we put these jackets on and go on TV?’ But once we did, there was no turning back.
“Within a week or so we were suddenly London's answer to the Beatles. We were in the pop game. At the same time, we learned the music business. And we realized we'd stepped into a sea of piranhas. The question was, did you spend your energy on the music or dealing with these piranhas? Well, you've got to learn to do both at the same time. Once you're in, you really can't get out.
“There you are with Melody Maker and 16 magazine. And you're going, ‘What the hell am I doing talking to this chick about what's my favorite color?’ And they say, ‘Oh, we're going to do a group photo. You can't sit on the bed together.’ Well, where else should we sit? There's no chairs in the room.”
Why couldn't you sit on the bed together? Would that have had homosexual connotations back then?
“Yeah. Just the fact that it's the bed and two guys are on it. If it was a chick, it would be even worse, I guess. There were all these weird rules you had to learn. But we found it pretty easy, I must say, to play the pop game. Especially when the chicks started throwing themselves at us. That was an added inducement.”
Bill Wyman, in his autobiography, Stone Alone (Viking, 1990), said that the groupie scene started quite early for the Stones – around the time of your first or second single in England. Is that the way you remember it?
“Well, yeah. Wyman was quite accurate in that. But the fact is anytime musicians are passing through a town and they're up onstage… It didn't start with the Stones, believe me. Some of the chicks Bill had had been through half the rock and rollers of the previous generation before they got to him. It may have started for him then. But from time immemorial, that's why guys become musicians and go on the road. ‘Hello darlin', how ya doin'?’ Then, ‘Thank you very much. I'm outta here. See ya next time around.’ I'm sure there's been groupies for 2,000 years at least, if not longer.”
Can you recall when it first turned kind of "professional"? More than just the local schoolgirls backstage in drab little coats?
“Oh yeah, that was '66 or '67. The Butter Queens and the Caster Plasters [sic]. These little teams of chicks that would set themselves up as professional groupies.”
The Butter Queens?
“The Butter Queens, yeah. They did loads of wonderful things with butter, apparently. I used to see them around all the time, but they never buttered me up. I used to avoid them like the plague. Anything that smacked of professionalism. ‘We've got a plaster cast of Robert Plant's cock. Would you like to add yours to the collection?’ No, I never wanted to be part of anybody's collection. But mind you, there were some great individual operators out there.”
I remember Steven Tyler telling me that as he got deeper into drugs he'd be much more interested in copping some good dope on the road than availing himself of any of the female companionship on offer.
“Yeah, that was basically part of my thing as well. But there are always wonderful ladies out there. At the end of the day, that’s the other payback. Except very early on, when Ian Stewart used to decide where we would stay. Stu loved to play golf and he'd book these hotels miles from the venue, way out of the way, so as to be near a golf course.
“The rest of us had trouble persuading girls to ride all the way out there in the van. Stu probably got us out of a lot of trouble, in one way or another. But we were grateful once the organization got too big for Stu to pick out the hotels anymore.”
In stage photos and TV stills from that early period, you're often seen with an Epiphone semi-acoustic. Was that just a stage guitar or did it make it onto the early singles?
“I'm pretty sure that Epiphone was on It's All Over Now and probably some of the earlier ones from England. I used it for a good while, mainly because I had it. It was a nice guitar, because Epiphone was a branch of Gibson at the time. It was a great guitar for studio work and in clubs. But once we got into theaters and bigger gigs, I found the feedback and howl of those Epiphones was uncontrollable and I started to go for solid bodies, like the Les Paul.”
[Richards has played numerous Les Paul models over the years but is perhaps most closely associated with Black Beauties, i.e., three-pickup, black Les Paul Customs, particularly a late-Fifties Custom decorated with a moon-and-star motif painted by the guitarist himself—GW Ed.]
Can we make a case for the Stones' pioneering riff-oriented rock with songs like Satisfaction and The Last Time? Those were some of the earliest songs where the guitar riff is the statement – the main hook.
“I don't know. Sometimes it's easy for me to get carried away by other people's theories of what we've done. When I wrote Satisfaction I wasn't thinking in terms of that particular riff being the big guitar riff.
“That all fell into place at RCA [recording studios in Hollywood], when Gibson dumped on me one of those first footpedal boxes – the Fuzz-Tone. It was just a new toy that somebody had given us from the local dealership or something.
“Actually, I thought of that riff in Satisfaction more as a horn riff. The way Otis Redding ended up doing it is probably closer to my original conception for the song. It's an obvious horn riff. So when I got this Fuzz-Tone I said, ‘Oh, this is good, because I can use it to sketch out the horn line.’ So we left the track unfinished, to my mind, and went back out on the road.
“Two weeks later I hear it on the radio. I said, ‘No, that was just a dub [a demo].’ No, I was told, that is a hit! But at least Otis got it right. Our recording of Satisfaction was a demo for Otis!”
The Stones did a lot of recording at RCA in the early days. Along with Satisfaction, hits like The Last Time and Mother's Little Helper were also cut there. What did you like about the place?
“It was a lovely big room, which meant you could work for hours and hours without getting tired. Good equipment. Great address [on Hollywood Boulevard]. Also Dave Hassinger was there, who was a great engineer.
“In those days, for two or three years, we were basically working 350 days a year. You'd have 10 days off the tour to go to L.A. and record. RCA was the first room we recorded in in L.A. So we knew that when we got there we weren't in for strange surroundings. There was no time to check out a bunch of studios in those days. You'd just set up and go.
“That first year we came to America we discovered RCA and Chess Recording: 2120 [South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago. Immortalized in the title of a Stones instrumental from that era, the Chess studio had been the site of historic recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other of the Stones' blues heroes – GW Ed. ] After what we'd been used to in England we said, ‘Wow, these are what we call studios.’”
Listening carefully to Get Off My Cloud, you realize how beautifully the rhythm guitar works with the piano. The piano is subtle, but it's important.
“I think that was just a matter of saying, ‘Stu, this sounds a bit thin. Can you just play a little piano under it?’ 'Cause for me, and for Charlie, I think – I don't know if Mick would agree – this is basically Stu's band. We're working for a dead man. When we recently had that week of recording in Paris, a couple of times we'd be playing and Charlie would look up at me: ‘Stu?’ ‘Yeah, he's here.’
“But yeah, that was just one of those things you could do in those days – shadow a guitar with a piano. As long as you didn't make it obvious, it would add some different air to a track. 'Cause that was all four-track time. Basically, you had to get it in the room. There was no, ‘What if we overdubbed added violins?’ The only choice was to decide whether you'd got it or if you had to do another take.
“All that changed very quickly, of course, going to eight, 16, then 24 tracks in a matter of just a couple of years. Everyone was reveling in all these tracks, and at the same time their records weren't sounding too good and they were taking longer to make.”
What did you use to create that curiously aquatic guitar sound for the melodic riffs on Mother's Little Helper?
“That's a 12-string with a slide on it. It's played slightly Oriental-ish. The track just needed something to make it twang. Otherwise, the song was quite vaudeville in a way. I wanted to add some nice bite to it. And it was just one of those things where someone walked in and, ‘Look, it's an electric 12- string.’
“It was some gashed-up job. No name on it. God knows where it came from. Or where it went. But I put it together with a bottleneck. Then we had a riff that tied the whole thing together. And I think we overdubbed onto that. Because I played an acoustic guitar as well.
The Stones had an endorsement deal with Vox around this time. Were those the amps you were using in the studio?
“I have no doubt they were. The AC30's a damn good amp. But you don't want two guitar players in a band playing out of the same make and model amplifier. It's too much the same sound. So as soon as I got to America I got myself a Fender amp. There was something about that little herringbone box. I fell in love with Fender amps real quick.
“But Ronnie Wood still uses AC30s today in the Stones. And Brian used them. Basically it was a Brian deal with Vox. 'Cause they made him his teardrop guitar. [Jones played a rare two-pickup version of the Vox Mk VI—GW Ed. ] But the AC30 was probably the best all-around British amp at the time, without a doubt. Of all time.”
In addition to the teardrop guitar, Brian was often seen playing a Gibson Firebird. Did he use that in the studio or just for concerts and TV appearances?
“He definitely used it in the studio. I can see him right now with that Firebird. The thing with Brian was he would hop from instrument to instrument. He was always searching for another sound. As a musician he was very versatile. He'd be just as happy playing the marimbas or bells as he was guitar.
“Sometimes I'd be saying, ‘Oh, make up your mind what sound you're going to have, Brian.’ 'Cause he'd keep changing guitars. So it's difficult to say which guitar he was using on which track. He wasn't one of those guys who said, ‘Right, here's my ax.’ Brian had so many. Sometimes he'd walk in with a guitar someone had given him and he'd insist on using it, even if it wasn't the right one for the job.”
Did you ever fool around with sitars or other instruments Brian left lying around?
“No. Something about the strings on a sitar – they were too thin. Brian got into playing it, and I did find the instrument interesting – the idea of the sympathetic strings underneath that resonate to one of the strings on top. So it was good for drones. Arrangement-wise, I used it as I thought it should be used – as an interesting extra sound on one or two things, like Paint It Black.”
Who thought up the coda to Mother's Little Helper, where it modulates to the relative major and ends with that ‘Hey!’?
“I think I had that song pretty well set up, arrangement-wise, when I brought it into the studio. I had the main riff. It might have been Bill Wyman who came up with that ending. He was also instrumental on Paint It Black, adding organ pedals to the bottom end. Mother's Little Helper and Paint It Black are these semigypsy melodies. I don't know where they came from. Must be in the blood somewhere.”
Speaking of things being in the blood, what was it like coming from a middle-class background...
“Actually, I'm not; Mick could be classified as middle class. I come from the projects.”
Okay, what was it like to come from that kind of background and suddenly be part of the Swinging London scene circa '66 or '67 – rubbing shoulders with aristocrats and people from the fine arts world?
“Well, it happens very easily when they want to know you. [laughs] England was really shrugging off WWII, at last, by the end of the ’50s and early ’60s. Everybody was quite willing to change the playing field.
“I certainly had no aspirations in that particular area at all – society or anything like that. But I have a feeling that there was a certain percentage of the higher strata of English society who felt they were being left behind. And suddenly they wanted to go slumming. Or at least their kids did. So it was more a matter of them wanting to get into our society, rather than us wanting to get into theirs.
“When you're on the road as a musician, you learn to take people as they come. It doesn't matter where they come from or anything like that. There's always a barrage of people, and you're here today and gone tomorrow – always traveling. So you learn to size up people really quickly. Without even realizing it, you fall into the knack of doing that. If you don't, you get into trouble.
“The rest of it doesn't matter. You don't have time to go into people's backgrounds. And then two weeks later someone says, ‘Oh, when you spent the night with Princess So and So...’ And I'd say, ‘Who? What do you mean?’ ‘You know, that chick Lucy.’ ‘Oh, is she a princess? She didn't act like it.’”
Do early songs like Play with Fire, or catty songs on Between the Buttons like Complicated and Miss Amanda Jones, come out of that kind of experience –observations of debutante life?
“Yeah, they probably do. They all come out of our first year of fame and being on the road – expanding our horizons and at the same time seriously getting down to work writing songs. Inevitably you draw on your own experiences. It's all a bit of a lark, really.”
In retrospect, do you think Between the Buttons is an underrated album?
“Between the Buttons was the first record we made when we hadn't been on the road and weren't shit-hot from playing gigs every night. Plus, everyone was stoned out of their brains. And it was the Summer of Love over there in America as well.
“Between the Buttons was the first time we took a breath and distanced ourselves a little from the madness of touring and all. So in a way, to us it felt like a bit of a new beginning. But not everybody was in great shape. Brian was starting to be wonky at the time.”
When did you first have an inkling that Brian wasn't going to make it?
“I guess toward the end of ’66 I started to get this impression that Brian thought it was his band. He started to get ideas. Given the pressure of work at the time, nobody had time to think about it. They just said, ‘Oh Brian, piss off.’ Which I think he took more personally than was probably meant. Alienation started to set in.
“That grew more intense in the period of Between the Buttons, when we had this time off and everybody suddenly wasn't on everybody else's back. At the time, with Brian, we all figured, ‘It's just pressure. He'll get over it.’ But instead he kind of separated himself from the band in a way. It was only a slight nuance at the time. We just carried on and said, ‘Oh, big deal.’ But it grew more intense over the next couple of years.
“And then of course the thing with Anita happened – then it became personal. [There were violent scenes between Jones and his then-girlfriend, Italian-German actress-model Anita Pallenberg, during a road trip to Morocco that the couple made with Richards in March 1967. Pallenberg transferred her affections to Richards. She would later bear Richards' sons Marlon and Tara Jo Jo Gunne and daughter Dandelion— GW Ed. ]
“I suppose that was the irrevocable break. But shit happens, you know? Yeah, I stole his girlfriend. But only because he was trying to beat her up. I tried to stop it because he was coming off worse.
“Brian had two broken ribs and a broken wrist, and Anita just had a black eye. Anita and I fell in with each other. By then Brian had become pretty unbearable to live with. Which is probably why I ended up with Anita.”
Many people say that your place in Cheyne Walk in London, which you shared with Anita for a while, was haunted. Do you think it was?
“No. It's an old house and it creaks a lot. Old houses do that. A lot of people were really stoned there. No doubt they had heightened imaginations. But quite honestly, in the time I lived there, that never occurred to me. If it was haunted, it was haunted by the cops!”
Have you ever seen a ghost?
“Only my own, pal.”
For all the Stones' problems in the late Sixties, with Brian and harassment by the police over drugs, that period is also one of the band's most brilliant. Jumping Jack Flash, for instance. Do you remember which guitar you used for that?
“A Gibson Hummingbird [acoustic] tuned to open D, six string [low to high: D A D F# A D]. Open D or open E [low to high: E B E G# B E], which is the same thing – same intervals – but it would be slackened down some for D. Then there was a capo on it, to get that really tight sound.
[As the recording sounds in the key of E flat, Keith's guitar was most likely tuned to open D, with a capo placed at the first fret. Although tape varispeeding may also have affected the key – Ed]
In Nashville tuning – also called ‘high-strung tuning’ – the guitar is tuned E A D G B E, but the bottom four strings are replaced with thinner strings tuned one octave higher than normal, such as the extra strings on a 12-string guitar.
“There was another guitar over the top of that, but tuned to Nashville tuning. I learned that from somebody in [country star] George Jones' band in San Antonio in '63. We happened to be playing the World Teen Fair, and San Antonio in 1963 was just a cow town.
“George Jones and his band practically had tumbleweeds around their Stetsons and boots. One of his band had a high-strung guitar. We had a couple of hours to kick around. So he showed me how to do it, with the different strings, to get that high ring. I was picking up tips.”
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.”
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.”
On recordings like Jumping Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man, Richards essentially 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.
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 (AKA Sympathy For The Devil) , 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?
“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.
‘Keef tuning’ or open G tuning is a huge part of Richards’ playing style. In this tuning, the low E string is removed and the remaining strings are tuned, low to high: G D G B D.
It 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.
“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 Gimme 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 Gimme 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 ’60s/early ’70s 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 ’50s 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 ’70s, 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 ’80s, 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 ’80s 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 ’80s?
“Difficult period. Which is probably why you won't find a lot from the ’80s 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 ’70s. 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 ’80s 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 ’80s were a difficult period for the Stones, how do you rate the ’90s?
“The ’90s 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 ’90s. 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 ’80s and ’90s, 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.”
If you want to learn more about Keef’s gear, check out Keith Richards: A Life In Guitars.