Keith Richards: Rhythm of a Rolling Stone – Part 1

Keith Richards: Rhythm of a Rolling Stone – Part 1

by Joe Deloro

Blazing a gold and platinum trail through the pop jungles of the world for 32 years and counting the Rolling Stones long ago carved their claim to the title of “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” And, through more than 35 albums and a seemingly endless list of hit singles, one thing has remained a constant: their multi-styled, guitar driven sound. This time out, let’s focus on the style of its chief engineer and designated driver, Keith Richards.

This is how Bill Wyman once described Keith’s role: “Our band does not follow the drummer; our drummer follows the rhythm guitarist.” (Guitar Player, Dec. ‘78.) Charlie Watts put it this way: “I play the drums for Keith and Mick. I don’t play them for me.”

The best way to understand Keith’s role is to listen to the music. Notice how the riffs, chords, and solos draw on a wide variety of intluences (blues, R&B, R&R, C&W, reggae) and are blended with great feel, interplay, and texture.

Here’s what Keith himself said about the bands sound: “What’s interesting about rock and roll for me, and particularly for guitarists, is that if there are two guitarists, and they’re playing well together and really jell, there seem to be infinite possibilities open. It comes to the point where you’re not conscious anymore of who’s doing what. It’s not at all a split thing. It’s like two instruments becoming one sound.”

More often than not, the Stones’ soundstays on course by avoiding the standard back-to-front rhythm and lead guitar approach typical of so much pop music. With that in mind, this guitar lesson looks at some of the techniques Keith Richards uses to create such memorable electric guitar parts. (Part 2 of this guitar lesson will look at Richards’ acoustic work.)

Guitar Lesson

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Stone Groove

Ex. 1 starts us up with a riff reminiscent of the intro to the Stones’ second U.S. single, “It’s All Over Now.” The song was recorded in Chicago at Chess Records (the studio home of their heroes, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf) at the end of their first U.S. tour in 1964.

Notice that the first two chords are inverted (no root in the bass), while the second two are in root position. This creates a streamlined sound. By using these fingerings and keeping the same number of strings for each pair of chords, you get a nice melodic voice leading between chords. Also important here is the broken-chord strumming in theme and variation phrasing.

Of course, without an electric 12-string lead–played by Brian Jones in the recording–the overall effect would be lost. In this example, by starting its figures on beat two, the lead guitar alternates taking the sonic spotlight with the rhythm guitar. It’s a great example of effective simplicity. The final D chord creates a nice tonal ambiguity by suggesting a key change from C to G.

“Get Off Of My Cloud,” the follow-up to “Satisfaction” was the second number one U.S. single in a row for the band. Ex. 2 is based on the main rhythm groove–again, the rhythm part is on guitar1 , the 12 string part on guitar 2. With a faster tempo than Ex. 1 and a more melodic line from guitar 2, this part shows some of the versatility of this arranging style. Notice how the rhythm guitar heaviess up the backbeat, R&B-style, by emphasizing beats two and four with damped chords.

The idea behind Ex. 3 is “It’s Not Easy,” a track from the Stones’ seventh album, Aftermath. By combining ultra-laid-back, almost shuffling blues lines on guitar 1 with a Chuck Berry rhythm in straight eighths on guitar 2, a great groove is born. Be patient with the rhythm guitar part if you’re new to the style. Work towards clarity and balance between palm muting and left hand damping.

In July ‘69, “Honky Tonk Woman” checked in at number one on the singles charts and stayed there for a month. It featured a new addition to the Stones’ guitar sound, open-G tuning. It was also the first single to include Mick Taylor, Brian Jones’ replacement. Taylor contributed some of the lead parts after Richards and the band had laid down the initial backing tracks. Ex. 4a will give you an idea of how Keith created his intro part. Try it with hybrid picking, using your pick and middle fingers to pluck the string pairs.

Richards’ approach to the first verse is profiled in Ex. 4b. Like his earlier work with Jones, he phrases against Jagger’s vocals with powerful simplicity. In this song he let Watts and Wyman carry the rhythm while he focused on creating tension and release with brief pickups to chord changes that lead in and
out of suspensions.

Ex. 5 offers a very creative approach to the shuffle rhythm. with a cape at the 7th fret and an A-to-Asus2chord change at beat three, this routine rhythm is given a fresh twist along the lines of one of the best known titles from Let It Bleed, “Midnight Rambler.” Be sure to damp the A chord on beat three before going to Asus2.

Melodic Rhythm

Examples 6a and 6b are based on the two intro progressions of “Brown Sugar,” the 1969 number one single from Sticky Fingers. Another great example of Keith’s artistry with open-G tuning, the rhythm part stays melodic at all times by using chord positions that access different notes along the second string. Ex. 6b also illustrates the way Keith keeps things harmonically fresh during the second progression by shifting the tonal center up a minor third to Eb.

The intro to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” is the basis of Ex. 7a. You start off playing rhythm, move to a lead motif in measure 2, go back to rhythm for two bars, then finish with three lead motifs in a row. The lead ilgures are similar melodically, but each starts in a different part of the measure. All these elements, plus the sixteenth-note syncopations that run throughout the part, build tension and propel the music.

Ex. 7b looks in on the verse. Here the guitar 1 part alternates between a melody line and some more signature lead/rhythm fills. Guitar 2 is similar to Mick Taylor’s rhythm part. Notice how both parts complement each other by using similar accents, scratching, and rests.

Ex. 8a will remind you of the Intro to “Tumblin’ Dice” from the Stones’ 1972 album, Exile On Main Street. In open-Gtuning and capoed at the 4th fret, the part begins with a classic harmonized B&B-style lick before settling into a soulful rhythm groove. Be sure to observe the damping instructions to keep the part crisp.

Examples 8b and 8c are based on verses 1 and 3. The main difference between the two examples is in their final measures. Ex. 8b features the main progression, while Ex. 8c introduces a music hook that works in harmony with the vocals.

Keith’s approach to the intro rhythm to “Beast Of Burden” from 1978’s Some Girls is highlighted in Ex. 9. It’s pretty straightforward except for the first figure, a hammer-on from B to E/B. It may take a little practice to get the second chord to ring fully. This is one more illustration of the way Keith’s syncopated style drives a rhythm part with great feel.

Ex. 10 covers the iirst four measures of the intro to “Start Me Up” from the 1981 album, Tattoo You. Again in open-G tuning, the first two measures harmonize the songs title melody; the second two measures switch over to a Chuck Berry rhythm with lots of sauce. This progression also acts as the foundation for the verses.

Set on an R&B/calypso groove alongside jazz great Sonny Rollins’ tenor saxsolos, “Waiting On A Friend” rides in style as the final track on Tattoo You. Keith’s harmonic ideas for the intro/chorus rhythm are featured in Ex. 11. Notice how the added 9th and 6th extensions make this part happen with just the right amount of tension.

Ex. 12 bids farewell with moves featured in “You Got Me Rocking” from the Stones’ 1994 release, Voodoo Lounge. Alternating between 05 and Dsus4 in open-G tuning, it makes its case with pull-offs.

That ends our brief look at a few of Keith’s best known electric guitar techniques. Check in here on The Punch-In for Part 2 with some more of the best from his Keith Richards’ love, the acoustic guitar.