THE HUMAN RIFF
 



 

(N)obody really understands about the effect that certain rhythms have on people, but our bodies beat. We're only alive because the heart beat keeps going on all the time. And also certain sounds can kill. It's a specialty of the French for some reason. The French are working with huge great speakers which blow down houses and kill laboratory technicians with one solitary blast. I mean, the trumpets of Jericho and all that. I've seen people physically throw up from feedback in the studio. It's so loud it started their stomach walls flapping. That's the most obvious aspect of it. But on another level, if you go on to Africa or Jamaica, you see people living to that rhythm. They eat, talk, walk, fuck, sleep, do everything to that rhythm.

                                             - Keith Richards, 1978


With Keith I think (playing guitar) was a gift. Keith said he could play straight away and didn't need tuition. He'd tell me, If you're taught it inhibits you and you play like you're taught and I want to play as I FEEL.

                                             - Doris Richards, Keith's mother


Keith is not a great guitar player by any... imagination, but he is a great RHYTHM guitar player because he always gets on the right feel.

- Giorgio Gomelsky, Stones' first manager


(Rhythm)'s always fascinated me, man, yeah. Mainly because I realized after quite a few years that the thing that really intrigued me, that turned me on to playing, was precisely that - SUGGESTED rhythms going on, or a certain tension. Especially in early rock and roll, there's a tension between the 4/4 beat and the eighths going on with the guitars. That was probably because the rhythm section was still playing pretty much like a swing band. There was still a regular JAZZ beat, 4/4 to the bar, a swing/shuffle, which is a lovely light rhythm, very African, with a lovely bounce to it. It suddenly changed in '58, '59, '60, until it was all over by the early '60s... (M)OST music has (turned its back on that kind of rhythmic ambiguity), in actual fact, because there's not many people who can do it, so there's not that much of an opportunity to actually hear it these days. You don't get a lot of shuffles or swings, but I think it's something that's innate in me. I grew up on that beat, even before they added the eights. That swing/shuffle gives it quite a little lift. To me, the eights are the rock, and that lift is the roll.

- Keith Richards, 1989


During that long recording lay-off after Between the Buttons, I got rather bored with what I was playing on guitar - maybe because we weren't working, and it was part of that frustration of stopping after all those years, and suddenly having nothing to do. So my playing sort of stopped, along with me. Then I started looking into some '20s and '30s blues records. Slowly I began to realize that a lot of them were in very strange tunings. These
guys would pick up a guitar, and a lot of times it would be tuned a certain way, and that's how they'd learn to play it. It might be some amazing sort of a mode, some strange thing. And that's why for years you could have been trying to figure out how some guy does this lick, and then you realize that he has this one string that is supposed to be up high, and he has it turned down an octave lower. Anyway I eventually got into open-D tuning, which I used on Beggars Banquet. Street Fighting Man is all that, and Jumpin Jack Flash.

    - Keith Richards, 1977, on discovering open tunings in 1968


In the 60s, I knew these (old blues) guys were using other tunings. Obviously. Up until about '68, we were just on the road so much, I had not time to experiment: Oh, when I get some time off, I'm gonna figure this out. Up until then, the Stones were out like 315 nights a year. It doesn't give you a lot of room to maneuver and check out new things. Around 1967, I was just starting to hang out with Taj Mahal and Gram Parsons, who are all students too. I mean, Taj, as beautiful as he is, is a student who basically approaches the blues from a white man's angle. He's got it all together, and always did have. But at the same time, he came from that angle. He's very academic about it. He showed me a couple of things. And then Ry Cooder popped in, who had the tunings down. He had the open G. By then I was working on open E and open D tunings. I was trying to figure out Fred McDowell shit, Blind Willie McTell stuff. So in that year I started to get into that, and the Nashville tuning the country boys use - the high stringing - and all the other things you can do. When I was locked into regular, I thought, The guitar is capable of more than this - or is it? Let's find out...

    - Keith Richards, 1992


The advantage (of the open-G tuning) is that you can get certain drone notes going. It's an

open-G tuning, with the low E-string removed and there's really only three notes you use. My favorite phrase about this style of playing is that all you need to play it is five strings, two notes, two fingers and one asshole.
   - Keith Richards

 
 

You can either look upon that as highly individualistic or as, Goddamn it, he can only play three things (laughs). I'm still not sure what it is.

    - Keith Richards, talking about his trademark
open-G riff  (Brown Sugar, Start Me Up, etc.)


Keith can stake his reputation as one of rock's great guitarists on Let It Bleed alone. Here's Richards at an awesome peak, stacking pealing, viscerally compelling guitar riffs like so much kindling wood.

    - Robert Palmer, rock critic


Keith would be downstairs at 5:00 AM playin' a riff all on his own. You'd wander in and say hello, but his arm would still keep going round that guitar. I mean he looks so good when he plays. And he would just sit in his chair and play. He'd only get up for a piss. Everybody else would be running into the truck listening to playbacks, but Keith would still be sittin' in that fuckin' chair, playing the riff. Everyone is saying what they think about the track, no one knew what to make of it; Mick would ask Jimmy (Miller) his opinion. And then Keith would saunter in and say, It's all right, man, but let's do another take.

    - Andy Johns, engineer, on the Exile on Main Street sessions
at Keith's villa in the south of France, summer 1971


The band is built around a two-guitar sound, itself an extension of Richards' own uniqueness. He helped blur forever the line between lead and rhythm guitar, substituting a riffing technique in which melodic embellishments are grafted onto a rigorous rhythmic treatment of chords, partial chords and low-register lines. Keith's most obvious influence is Chuck Berry. The original Carol is a textbook of Berry's double-string licks and was
covered on The Rolling Stones, the debut album. Keith has had a taste for Berry flavoring ever since... Chuck Berry adapted boogie-woogie piano techniques for the guitar's lower register, and this distinctive two-string rhythm pattern became another Stones staple. Richards made his mark on its development by sometimes slowing it down, piledriving the downbeat, and stoking up the tone to a grand raunch: a-ronk, a-ronk, a-ronk.

    - Tom Wheeler, music critic, Guitar Player Magazine


Keith doesn't flaunt anything. The great thing with Keith is that he never flaunted his ability to play guitar. Keith doesn't go in for razzle-dazzle solos, HE plays rhythm. He doesn't need ego. He doesn't need his ego fed. Keith knows who he is exactly. He knows his capabilities better than anyone and recognizes his limitations. All the great guitarists take a bow to Keith. He's the first guy who combined rhythm. Keith doesn't get himself into situations which he can't handle. That shows incredible strength.

    - Peter Rudge, Stones' tour manager (1972-1978)


I learned an awful lot from the Stones, particularly Keith. I didn't learn so much as a guitar player but more as a personality and a musician. Keith projects himself through music rather than simply being a musican.

    - Mick Taylor


I still never try to get too far away from acoustic guitar. I figure that one day, when they run out of electricity, I won't have to rely on feedback to keep the lick going (laughs). Usually I don't TOUCH an electric guitar at home; I work basically on acoustic. For me it really pays off, especially with chords; the acoustic's much truer, and you can't rely on electronic tricks like sustain to make yourself sound flash. You've got to PLAY it DEAD right, so I find it keeps me precise. I think every guitar player should take time out to play the acoustic, ESPECIALLY flamboyant guitar players. (laughs)

   - Keith Richards, 1985


(Laughs) (Keith) can be really loud. If you're passing in that path, it will perk your ears up, so to speak. In fact, Charley Drayton once described it as that deer in the headlights kind of syndrome. (Laughs) It's something like that. Yeah, Keith plays at a very POWERFUL level.

   - Darryl Jones, 1994, bassplayer for the Stones since 1993


To me, Keith is the paradigm, the connection between emotion and art. He's a musician that all musicians should aspire to emulate. He's a guy who understands how to just play in the moment and not be self-conscious. He knows how to get in touch with the feeling of a song and to translate that into music in a very spontaneous way... He's like a great jazz musician, really.

   - Don Was, 1997, Stones' co-producer (1993-present)


As a guitar player I know what I can do. It doesn't matter about the B.B. Kings, Eric Claptons and Mick Taylors, 'cause they do what they do - but I know they can't do what I do. They can play as many notes under the sun but they just can't hold that rhythm down, BABY. I know what I can do and what I can't. Everything I do is strongly based on rhythm 'cause that's what I'm best at. I've tried being a great guitar player and, like Chuck Berry, I have failed.

    - Keith Richards


When Richards and Mack (see pic below) started trading blues licks... there was no doubt about who all eyes were focused on. Whenever guitarists get up in public to jam together, there's anelement of the cutting contest. At the Lone Star Mack was, for all his smiles, laying into Keith Richards with every lick he had. In front of his own band, he tore off runs that - on a technical level - Keith couldn't hope to match. The remarkable quality about Keith Richards, though, was that he obviously didn't care. The faster Mack soloed the more Keith smiled and nodded - and when it was Keith's turn to burn he just choked that guitar in the signature primitive Berry/Exile/Richards style. By virtue of being so at ease with himself and his instrument, he sounded just great. Lonnie Mack, for all his moves, didn't win that cutting session. Keith Richards took it by virtue of being not a man playing a guitar, but a man who was part of a guitar. It was way past right or wrong. It was just KEITH. The way Keith played was the way Keith walked and thought and breathed.

    - Bill Flanagan, Rolling Stone Magazine, reporting
on a night, July 9, 1985, when Keith got up onstage to jam
with Lonnie Mack at the Lone Star Café in New York City

 
 
 

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