Is Keith Richards a 'technically good guitarist'? (And does it matter?)

Let's look at the things that make Keith Richards stand out as a guitarist.
The Rolling Stones Surprise Set in Celebration of "Hackney Diamonds"
The Rolling Stones Surprise Set in Celebration of "Hackney Diamonds" / Kevin Mazur/GettyImages

The internet is full of music fans who love to bash famous musicians, to take them down a peg and feel better about themselves and whatever artists they prefer. Keith Richards, the legendary guitarist of The Rolling Stones, is no different. You'll find them sometimes belittling Kurt Cobain or even Jimi Hendrix, and they'll be saying: "Bah! They're overrated!" So here's an examination of why people shrug their shoulders and respect Keith Richards anyway.

Yes, Keith (or "Keef," as some people jokingly call him) is often celebrated more for his unique style, creativity, and iconic riffs rather than his technical prowess. However, one thing is undeniable: In terms of influence on his band, Richards' guitar playing has been a driving force behind The Rolling Stones' sound for over half a century, and the Stones are obviously a huge band. So, really, shouldn't detractors already have a lingering sensation of "If everyone else is right, I must be wrong"?

While he might not be considered a virtuoso in the same vein as some other guitarists known for their technical skills, such as Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai, Richards is undoubtedly a master of his craft. And, of course, a genuine "feel" can be harder to duplicate sometimes than flashy, hundred-miles-per-hour guitar parts (or anything where someone might say "Wow! That must have taken forever to learn!"). So, what sets Keith Richards apart guitar-wise?

Keith Richards and Open G

Richards' playing style is characterized by his distinctive rhythm guitar work, gritty tone, and memorable songwriting contributions. Like any guitarist worth anything, it's fair to say he has a signature and iconic sound, developed through a combination of factors, including simply having a unique playing style, choice of equipment, and musical influences. There are things he does that are more about loving music than winning some "Guitar Olympics" contest. Keith Richards' love affair with the guitar is legendary and central to his identity as a musician.

From his early days with The Rolling Stones to his solo work, Richards' approach to the guitar has been characterized by raw passion, innovation, and a deep connection to the blues. Of course, there are some specific choices he makes. Richards has often used open tunings, such as Open G (DGDGBD), which allowed him to achieve rich, resonant chords with a minimum of finger movement (the "standard" tuning of EADGBE would make certain Stones songs much harder to play, if not impossible on one guitar). This tuning is prominent in many Stones classics like "Start Me Up" and "Brown Sugar" (yes, I know that song is controversial, but we're skipping over that for our purposes here today).

Rhythm is king/simplicity and catchiness/blues and hybrid picking

Keith Richards is renowned for his rhythm guitar playing, characterized by his use of syncopated, riff-based patterns. When described with words, that probably doesn't sound like anything particularly distinctive, but the music sure is. He often emphasizes rhythm over flashy solos, anchoring The Rolling Stones' songs with driving, infectious grooves. Having pop sensibilities, his playing often revolves around simple, yet incredibly catchy, riffs and chord progressions. This simplicity is part of what makes The Rolling Stones' music so accessible and memorable.

Richards' style is also (typically) deeply rooted in the blues. He incorporates bluesy elements such as bending notes, sliding between chords, and using pentatonic scales to add grit and emotion to his playing. Richards often employs a hybrid picking technique, using both a pick and his fingers to pluck the strings. This technique gives him greater control over dynamics and allows for a more nuanced and expressive playing style.

Loose and raw feel / the Telecaster sound

Keith's playing normally has a loose, raw feel to it, characterized by a laid-back swagger and a "less is more" approach. He prioritizes feel and groove over technical perfection, which contributes to the raw energy of The Rolling Stones' music. His choice of "ax" is important, too. He is closely associated with the Fender Telecaster, particularly his iconic butterscotch blonde 1953 Telecaster nicknamed "Micawber." The twangy, bright sound of the Telecaster contributes to his distinctive tone.

Interlocking guitars

While discussing Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, it would be silly to totally overlook that the band has another guitarist. In many Rolling Stones songs, Richards' guitar parts interlock with those of fellow guitarist Ronnie Wood, creating a rich and textured sonic landscape. This interplay between guitars is a hallmark of their sound. That being said, as often happens in musical groups, people tend to acknowledge some members more than others (sorry, Ronnie!).

All fuzzed up! / All amped up!

As stated already, Keith's rhythm parts often provide the driving force behind The Rolling Stones' songs, giving them a distinctive groove and energy. Much of his often unmistakable tone comes from his own fingers, which have cemented his status as one of rock music's greatest guitarists. However, let's not overlook key moments where he frequently employed fuzz and distortion effects to add grit and sustain to his guitar tone. This contributed to the raw, edgy quality of his sound, especially in the context of the blues and rock 'n' roll.

Also, Richards often used classic tube amplifiers, such as Fender and Marshall models, which provided warm, rich tones and natural overdrive when pushed hard. He experimented with different amp settings and speaker configurations to achieve his desired sound.

Influences and authenticity

Richards drew inspiration from a wide range of musical styles and artists, including blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, as well as rock 'n' roll pioneers like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. By blending these influences with his own musical instincts, he developed a style that was both rooted in tradition and distinctly his own. A lot of these influences have one thing in common: The feel of authenticity, or like they weren't just phoning it in, or were only successful due to a lot of practice.

Such influences, and his love of music and feel, shaped his ability to seamlessly blend chords and lead lines. His laid-back approach to guitar playing, combined with his intuitive sense of timing and phrasing, contributes to the relaxed yet powerful feel of his performances. He's known for creating some of the most iconic guitar riffs in rock history, such as the opening riff of "Satisfaction" and the timeless energetic-yet-laid-back groove of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The guitar work in those songs doesn't have the feel of "showing off" (even though "Jumpin' Jack Flash" has the word "flash" in its title).

There's also a diversity element. His playing often combines elements of blues, rock, country, psychedelia, and beyond, reflecting his eclectic musical influences. Again, his playing is imbued with a sense of soulfulness and authenticity that comes from a lifetime of dedication to his craft. Whether he's playing a blistering solo or laying down a gritty rhythm, Richards' guitar work practically always feels deeply personal and heartfelt.

While some downplay him for his lack of a "gunslinger" mentality, he has a knack for crafting timeless rock and roll tunes that resonate with audiences around the world. His influence on rock music is undeniable, and his contributions to The Rolling Stones' catalog have left a permanent mark on music history. So, while he may not be known for technical proficiency in the traditional sense, Keith Richards is undoubtedly a great guitarist whose impact on music goes far beyond technical skill alone.

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