“When I'm like, 'I can't quite do that any more,' the guitar will show me there's another way”: Keith Richards discusses how arthritis has changed his playing

Keith Richards
(Image credit: INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

Though they first formed back in 1962, The Rolling Stones are still going as strong as ever, with the group gearing up to release Hackney Diamonds – their 24th British and 26th American studio album later this month.

That 61-year career has notably played host to Keith Richards’ evergreen affection for the electric guitar – an instrument that he’s been forced to approach in different ways across the years as a result of his arthritis.

Speaking to the BBC, Richards – whose guitar collection totals into the thousands – reflected on the current state of his relationship with the instrument, and discussed how his severe arthritis (a condition that inflames and affects the joints) has altered his playing.

However, while he admits the condition has indeed impacted his playing, its overall effect hasn’t been as detrimental as you might first think.

"Funnily enough, I've no doubt it has, but I don't have any pain, it's a sort of benign version," he said when asked if arthritis has changed his guitar playing. “I think if I've slowed down a little bit it's probably due more to age.”

Naturally, losing the ability to move one’s fingers as nimbly as before does throw up some hurdles, but Richards has taken them in his stride. In fact, he views the need to reconfigure his hand positions as an opportunity to explore new ways of playing.

“I found that interesting, when I'm like, 'I can't quite do that any more,' the guitar will show me there's another way of doing it,” he went on. “Some finger will go one space different and a whole new door opens. And so you're always learning. You never finish school, man.”

Richards went on to explore the “always learning” aspect further, taking a far more philosophical stance to the guitar by commenting “the more you play it, the less you know”.

“It provides you with endless questions,” Richards mused. “You can never know the whole thing. It's impossible.”

Richards’ mitts are clearly in fine working order despite his arthritis, as evidenced by AngryHackney Diamond’s first single, which arrived back in September.

As mentioned above, Richards’ love affair with the guitar is well-documented, and though his passion for six-strings (or five-strings, in his case) has stood the test of time, his opinions towards what constitutes the 'best' instruments is firmly rooted in tradition.

“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,” Richards once told Guitar World. “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,” he went on. “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.”

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.