In the second part of our exclusive serialisation of Keith Richards’ memoir, the rock legend divulges the secrets of the Stones sound:
Looking for a sound If I’d had the choice of finding one diary of any three-month period of the Stones’ history, it would have been this one, the moment the band was hatching. And I did find one, covering January to March of 1963. The real surprise was that I kept any record of this period. It covers the crucial span when Bill Wyman arrived, or, more important, his Vox amplifier appeared and Bill came with it, and when we were trying to snare, to coin a phrase, Charlie Watts.
Inside the cover of the pocket diary are the heavily inked words “Chuck”, “Reed”, “Diddley”. There you have it. That was all we listened to at the time. Just American blues or rhythm and blues or country blues. Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how these blues were made. Chicago blues hit us right between the eyes. And as long as we were all together, we could pretend to be black men. We soaked up the music, but it didn’t change the colour of our skin. Some even went whiter. Brian Jones was a blond Elmore James from Cheltenham. And why not? You can come from anywhere and be any colour. We didn’t want to make money. We despised money, we despised cleanliness, we just wanted to be black motherf***ers. Fortunately we got plucked out of that. But that was the school; that’s where the band was born.
The early days of the magic art of guitar weaving started then. You realise what you can do playing guitar with another guy, and what the two of you can do is to the power of ten, and then you add other people. There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together. This wonderful little world that is unassailable. It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose, and there’s no flies in the ointment, for a while. And nobody conducting: it’s all up to you. It’s really jazz: that’s the big secret. Rock’n’roll ain’t nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat. So we sat there in the cold, dissecting tracks for as long as the meter held out. A new Bo Diddley record goes under the surgical knife. Have you got that wah-wah? What were the drums playing, how hard were they playing . . . what were the maracas doing? One of the first lessons I learnt with guitar playing was that none of these guys were actually playing straight chords. There’s a throw-in, a flick-back. Nothing’s ever a straight major. It’s an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing. There is no “properly”. There’s just how you feel about it. Feel your way around it. It’s a dirty world down here.
Mostly I’ve found, playing instruments, that I actually want to be playing something that should be played by another instrument. I find myself trying to play horn lines all the time on the guitar. When I was learning how to do these songs, I learnt there is often one note doing something that makes the whole thing work. It’s usually a suspended chord. It’s not a full chord, it’s a mixture of chords, which I love to use to this day. If you’re playing a straight chord, whatever comes next should have something else in it. If it’s an A chord, a hint of D. Or if it’s a song with a different feeling, if it’s an A chord, a hint of G should come in somewhere, which makes a 7th, which then can lead you on. Readers who wish to can skip Keef’s Guitar Workshop, but I’m passing on the simple secrets anyway, which led to the open-chord riffs of later years — the Jack Flash and Gimme Shelter ones.
There are some people looking to play guitar. There’s other people looking for a sound. I was looking for a sound when Brian and I were rehearsing in Edith Grove. Something easily done by three or four guys and you wouldn’t be missing any instruments or sound on it. I just followed the bosses. A lot of those blues players of the mid-Fifties — Albert King and B. B. King — were single-note players. T-Bone Walker was one of the first to use the double-string thing — to use two strings instead of one, and Chuck got a lot out of T-Bone.
Musically impossible, but it works. The notes clash, they jangle. You’re pulling two strings at once and you’re putting them in a position where actually their knickers are pulled up. You’ve always got something ringing against the note or the harmony. The reason that cats started to play like that was economics — to eliminate the need for a horn section.
Brian and I, we had the Jimmy Reed stuff down. When we were really hunkering down and working, working, Mick obviously felt a little bit out of it. Also he was away at the London School of Economics for much of the day to start with. He couldn’t play anything. That’s why he picked up on the harp and the maracas. Brian had picked up the harmonica very quickly at first, and I think Mick didn’t want to be left behind. I wouldn’t be surprised if from the beginning it wasn’t just from being in competition with Brian. And Mick turned out to be the most amazing harp player. I’d put him up there with the best in the world, on a good night. Everything else we know he can do — he’s a great showman — but, to a musician, Mick Jagger is a great harp player. I find it hard to listen to him without awe. His harp playing is the one place where you don’t hear any calculation.
I say: “Why don’t you sing like that?” He says they’re totally different things. But they’re not — they’re both blowing air out of your gob.
It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin. It was that kind of atmosphere, that kind of attitude that we lived with. The women around were really quite peripheral. The drive in the band was amazing among Mick, Brian and myself. It was incessant study. Not really in the academic sense of it: it was to get the feel of it.
And then I think we realised, like any young guys, that blues are not learnt in a monastery. You’ve got to go out there and get your heart broke and then come back and then you can sing the blues. Preferably several times. At that time, we were taking it on a purely musical level, forgetting that these guys were singing about shit. First you’ve got to get in the shit. And then you can maybe come back and sing it.
How to play Jumpin’ Jack Flash (“Basically Satisfaction in reverse”) “Flash! Shit, what a record! All my stuff came together and all done on a cassette player. With Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man I’d discovered a new sound I could get out of an acoustic guitar. That grinding, dirty sound came out of these crummy little motels where the only thing you had to record with was this new invention called the cassette recorder. And it didn’t disturb anybody.
Suddenly you had a very mini studio. Playing an acoustic, you’d overload the Philips cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back it was effectively an electric guitar. You were using the cassette player as a pickup and an amplifier at the same time. You were forcing acoustic guitars through a cassette player, and what came out the other end was electric as hell. An electric guitar will jump live in your hands. It’s like holding on to an electric eel. An acoustic guitar is very dry and you have to play it a different way. But if you can get that different sound electrified, you get this amazing tone and this amazing sound. I’ve always loved the acoustic guitar, loved playing it, and I thought: “If I can just power this up a bit without going to electric, I’ll have a unique sound. It’s got a little tingle on the top.” It’s unexplainable, but it’s something that fascinated me at the time.
In the studio, I plugged the cassette into a little extension speaker and put a microphone in front of the extension speaker so it had a bit more breadth and depth, and put that on tape. That was the basic track. There are no electric instruments on Street Fighting Man at all, apart from the bass, which I overdubbed later. All acoustic guitars.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash the same. I wish I could still do that, but they don’t build machines like that any more. They put a limiter on it soon after that so you couldn’t overload it. Just as you’re getting off on something, they put a lock on it. The band all thought I was mad, and they sort of indulged me. But I heard a sound that I could get out of there. []Street Fighting Man, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and half of Gimme Shelter were all made just like that, on a cassette machine. I used to layer guitar on guitar. Sometimes there are eight guitars on those tracks. You just mash ’em up. Charlie Watts’s drums on Street Fighting Man are from this little 1930s practice drummer’s kit, in a little suitcase that you popped up — one tiny cymbal, a half-size tambourine that served as a snare, and that’s really what it was made on, made on rubbish, made in hotel rooms with our little toys.
That was a magic discovery, but so were these riffs. These crucial, wonderful riffs that just came, I don’t know where from. I’m blessed with them and I can never get to the bottom of them. When you get a riff like Flash you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee. Of course, then comes the other thing of persuading people that it is as great as you actually know it is. You have to go through the poohpooh.
Flash is basically Satisfaction in reverse. Nearly all of these riffs are closely related. But if someone said: “You can play only one of your riffs ever again,” I’d say: “OK, give me Flash.” I love Satisfaction dearly and everything, but those chords are pretty much a de rigueur course as far as songwriting goes. But Flash is particularly interesting. “It’s al-l-l-l-l right now.” It’s almost Arabic or very old, archaic, classical, the chord setups you could only hear in Gregorian chants or something like that. And it’s that weird mixture of your actual rock’n’roll and at the same time this weird echo of very, very ancient music that you don’t even know. It’s much older than I am, and that’s unbelievable! It’s like a recall of something, and I don’t know where it came from.
But I know where the lyrics came from. They came from a grey dawn at Redlands. Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside and there was the sound of these heavy stomping rubber boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer, a real countryman from Sussex. It woke Mick up. He said: “What’s that?” I said: “Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.” I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase “jumping Jack”. Mick said, “Flash,” and suddenly we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it. So we got to work on it and wrote it.
I can hear the whole band take off behind me every time I play Flash — there’s this extra sort of turbo overdrive. You jump on the riff and it plays you. We have ignition? OK, let’s go. Darryl Jones will be right next to me, on bass: “What are we on now? Flash? OK, let’s go. One, two, three . . . ” And then you don’t look at each other again, because you know you’re in for the ride now. It’ll always make you play it different, depending what tempo you’re in.
Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel — whether it’s Jumpin’ Jack or Satisfaction or All Down the Line — when I realise I’ve hit the right tempo and the band’s behind me. It’s like taking off in a Learjet. I have no sense that my feet are touching the ground. I’m elevated to this other space.
People say: “Why don’t you give it up?” I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me.
The secret of the open G chord Ry Cooder was the first cat I actually saw play the open G chord. I have to say I tip my hat to Ry Cooder. He showed me the open G tuning. But he was using it strictly for slide playing and he still had the bottom string. That’s what most blues players use open tunings for: they use it for slide. And I decided that was too limiting. I found the bottom string got in the way. I figured out after a bit that I didn’t need it; it would never stay in tune and it was out of whack for what I wanted to do. So I took it off and used the fifth string, the A string, as the bottom note. You didn’t have to worry about bashing that bottom string and setting up harmonics and stuff that you didn’t need.
I started playing chords on the open tuning — which was new ground. You change one string and suddenly you’ve got a whole new universe under your fingers. Anything you thought you knew has gone out the window. Nobody thought about playing minor chords in an open major tuning, because you’ve got to really dodge about a bit.
You have to rethink your whole thing, as if your piano was turned upside down and the black notes were white and the white notes were black. So you had to retune your mind and your fingers as well as the guitar. The minute you’ve tuned a guitar or any other instrument to one chord, you’ve got to work your way around it. You’re out of the realms of normal music. You’re up the Limpopo with Yellow Jack.
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open-tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying: “F*** me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonises off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines — sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realise that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do. It’s the drone.
I just got fascinated by relearning the guitar. It really invigorated me. It was like a different instrument in a way, and literally too. I had to have the five-string guitars made for me. I’ve never wanted to play like anybody else, except when I was first starting, when I wanted to be Scotty Moore or Chuck Berry. After that, I wanted to find out what the guitar or the piano could teach me.
The five-string took me back to the tribesmen of West Africa. They had a very similar instrument, sort of a five-string, kind of like a banjo, but they would use the same drone, a thing to set up other voices and drums over the top. Always underneath it was this underlying one note that went through it. And you listen to some of that meticulous Mozart stuff and Vivaldi and you realise that they knew that too. They knew when to leave one note just hanging up there where it illegally belongs and let it dangle in the wind and turn a dead body into a living beauty. Just listen to that one note hanging there. All the other stuff that’s going on underneath is crap, but that one note makes it sublime.
There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of 72 beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross on to another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to Mystery Train by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock’n’roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and “that rock”. It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.
Five strings cleared out the clutter. It gave me the licks and laid on textures. You can almost play the melody through the chords, because of the notes you can throw in. And suddenly, instead of it being two guitars playing, it sounds like a goddamn orchestra. Or you can no longer tell who is playing what, and hopefully if it’s really good, no one will care. It’s just fantastic. It was like scales falling from your eyes and from your ears at the same time. It broke open the dam.
Ian Stewart used to refer to us affectionately as “my little three-chord wonders”. But it is an honourable title. OK, this song has got three chords, right? What can you do with those three chords? Tell it to John Lee Hooker; most of his songs are on one chord. Howlin’ Wolf stuff, one chord, and Bo Diddley. It was listening to them that made me realise that silence was the canvas. Filling it all in and speeding about all over the place was certainly not my game and it wasn’t what I enjoyed listening to. With five strings you can be sparse; that’s your frame, that’s what you work on. Start Me Up, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Honky Tonk Women, all leave those gaps between the chords. That’s what I think Heartbreak Hotel did to me. It was the first time I’d heard something so stark. I wasn’t thinking like that in those days, but that’s what hit me. It was the incredible depth, instead of everything being filled in with curlicues. To a kid of my age back then, it was startling. With the five-string it was just like turning a page; there’s another story. And I’m still exploring.
© Keith Richards 2010. Extracted from Life by Keith Richards with James Fox, to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on October 26 and available from The Times Bookshop priced £15 (RRP £20), free p&p, from 0845 2712134; thetimes.co.uk/bookshop