by Joe Deloro

This time we look at his acoustic wizardry! Throughout Keith Richards’ recording career with the Rolling Stones, his work on the acoustic guitar has been an integral component of their sound. Whether up front, as it was on their first album with “Not Fade Away,” or shining ln the background on tunes lie “Brown Sugar” and “Love Is Strong,” it’s helped to set the band apart from the competition and keep things fresh.

As a child, Keith Richards’ first gigs were in a boys’ choir, singing parts probably similar to the intro to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” From that foundation he moved on to the acoustic guitar at age 12 or 13. Starting with standards like “Malaguefia,” Keith eventually got into folk-blues, and ’50s rock.

Later, tunes like “Talkin’ New York Blues,” “Stagolee,” and “That’s All Right Mama” from artists Woody Guthrie, Jessie Fuller, and Scatty Moore broadened his horizons at art school in the late ’50s: “In those days everybody learned to play guitar, for some reason. Everybody was doing it. So on top of wanting to learn to play guitar for a long time and not being able to afford it, suddenly I was thrown into this place were there were lots of guys in various stages of learning. And you could always borrow a guitar.” (Guitar Player, Nov. ‘77.)

Though Richards is better known as an electric guitarist, his work on the acoustic guitar is just as vital to hear and to learn from. So this time around let’s focus on Keith’s playing on acoustic 6- and 12-strings. Check out the full guitar lesson with notation and power tab after the break.

Guitar Lesson

Click here to download the power tab for this guitar lesson.

Early 12-String
Ex. 1 is based on the intro to “GoodTimes, Bad Times.” Essentially a folk-blues number, the 12-string is the only guitar on the track. Although the part is based on chords, notice how Keith keeps it interesting by rarely strumming static chord positions. Instead, he mixes shifting positions, arpeggios, and short melodic figures. Like most of the examples in this lesson, Ex. 1 is played with a pick. Recorded in Chicago during the same Chess Studios sessions as “It’s All Over Now,” the song was released in 1964 on the Stone’s second album, 12 X 5.

With the orchestrated folk ballad “As Tears Go By,” the Stones had one of their biggest singles of 1965. As in the previous example, the 12- string goes solo again, but this time from a different perspective-arpeggios. If there’s any trick here it’s the way Richards keeps the part melodic by varying his direction and pausing to support his phrasing. Ex. 2 shows us a pattern reminiscent of the intro.

Open Season
When “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released as a single in May of 1968, it signaled a distinct change in the sound of the band. Not only was Keith’s output on guitar eclipsing that of his partner Brian Jones, but he’d also found a new direction to take the instrument-open tunings. Although the sound had been well established earlier by such blues and rock artists as Robert Johnson and the Everly Brothers, it hadn’t been in the spotlight for quite a while.

“I went into the heavy overlaying of guitars, all of them in different open tunings, like ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ which is in open E, because there’s a certain ring that you need there. And what’s always fascinating about open stringing is you can get these other notes ringing sympathetically, almost like a sitar in a way. Unexpected notes ring out and you say, Ah, there’s a constant. That one can go all the way through this thing.” (Guitar Player, Dec. ‘92.)

To get to the open-E tuning of the riff-oriented “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” follow the legend at the left tab staff margin in Ex. 3.
If you’re new to open tunings, be sure to take it slow when raising the fifth, fourth, and third strings. Rx. 3 illustrates a 6-string part similar to the main riff of the song. Here Richards transforms just two chords and a single melodic motif into a signature phrase.

Down to D
“I started to use open tunings on Beggar’s Banquet, 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 the frustration of stopping after all those years and suddenly having nothing to do. Anyway, I eventually got into open-D tuning which I used on ‘Street Fightin’ Man.“’ (Guitar Player, Nov. ‘77.)

“Street Fightin’ Man” began as a home recording experiment. After Keith had come up with a great track by red-lining his acoustic on a cassette player, he brought it into the studio. Producer Jimmy Miller dubbed it onto a multi-track tape, and asked the rest of the band to develop it further. Ex. 4 shows a part lie the main rhythm in “Street Fighting Man.” A close cousin to “Jumpin Jack Flash,” it’s in open-D tuning. That is, it’s the same string intervals as open-E, just a whole-step lower. Notice that the part is primarily rhythmic and uses a great sounding I to IV chord change from D to G with a fingering similar to the G tuning examples from part one of this lesson.

“Parachute Woman” is a E-bar blues-oriented shuffle from Beggar’s Banquet. Combining open-E and standard tuning, Ex. 5 is based on the two parts Keith recorded for the intro. Pay attention to alternating the palm muting in the guitar 1 part to get the right effect; guitar 2 was recorded on an electric. “You Got The Silver” is from 1969’s Let It Bleed. This example introduces Keith’s slide guitar style in alternation with flatpicking. He generally wears the slide on his little finger and damps the strings with the one behind it. If you’re new to slide playing, be sure to keep a light touch, especially if your guitar has low action. Ex. 6a is similar to Richards’ intro part on this country blues. Ex. 6b is based on the verse. Notice that in both parts his slide targets are chord tones only.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is another classic rock track from Let It Bleed. Ex. 7, in open-E tuning with a cape at the 8th fret, is reminiscent of the mostly rhythmic intro. Here’s another great example of how to give a song a unique character by avoiding standard chord shapes and tuning. Even though this part uses fingerings seen in earlier examples, the embellishments Keith adds give the part its own identity.

Sticky Fingers
‘Angie,” the number one single from 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup, is a great example of Keith’s melodic fingerstyle abilities in standard tuning. Ex. 8 illustrates a variation on the intro of this A-minor ballad. Assign your thumb to the bass notes and fingers to the treble strings. The part should fall together once you’re comfortable with the rhythm, though the 4th-finger stretch in measure 2 may take some warming up to hit easily.

“The Worst,” from 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, profiles some of Richards’ more recent work. You can learn a lot if you study the way he varies his phrasing to keep things rolling as the song develops. Ex. 9a is close to what he played for the intro of this country ballad, and Ex. 9b is based on the verse.

In 1995 the Stones re-recorded “Wild Horses” (the country/R&B ballad from Sticky Fingers) on Stripped. For this 5-string part, Keith removed the sixth string from his Martin acoustic, just as he does on his open-G electrics. Ex. 10a is in the style of the intro while Ex. 10b follows the verse. Guitar 1 covers Keith’s rhythm track; guitar 2 is in standard tuning and similar to Ron Wood’s R&B-style fills.

Keep It Up
“No matter what else you do, if you don’t keep up your acoustic work, you’re never going to get the full potential out of an electric, because you lose that touch. You get sloppier. Electricity will give you some great effects and some great tone. But if you don’t control it, it can easily take you over the edge into some supersonic nowhere land. I don’t play electric guitars at home, I play acoustic.” (Guitar Player, Dec. ’92)

Studying the rhythm guitar styles of Keith Richards will give you some good musical insights–not only into what it takes to play rhythmically interesting parts, but also how they can help create an atmosphere and give each song its own identity.