Butterscotch Telecaster in open G

Good music comes out of people playing together, knowing what they want to do and going for it. You have to sweat over it and bug it to death. You can’t do it by pushing buttons and watching a TV screen.
– Keith Richards

Here’s something I didn’t think I’d ever say. I’m a Keith Richards fan.

Not just a fan but a HUGE effing fan.

So what, you say? Everybody likes the Stones right?

Well, no. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not much of a Stones fan. The reason for this is as follows, not necessarily in this order:

  • Jagger.
  • “Some Girls”
  • Mick Jagger

1) Jagger for obvious reasons. Who wants a 90-pound budgie strutting around onstage in top hat and tails while clucking into the mic, nearly unintelligibly, something about “Oh little sister, Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girl, Pretty, pretty, Such a pretty, pretty, pretty girl, Come on baby please, please, please.”

2) “Some Girls,” because this was the first record they made with Ronnie Wood as a full-fledged member replacing Mick Taylor. And because, unless you were a pubescent, suburban schoolgirl, that album pretty much sucked. The hits from that record, ‘Miss You,’ ‘Beast of Burden’ and ‘Shattered,’ are a far cry from a ‘Street Fighting Man’ or a ‘Jumpin Jack Flash.’

3) Although in a recent interview on NPR, Richards calls Jagger a “phenomenal performer,” I’m not sure there are a lot of people who would refer to him a “good singer.” But I guess you don’t have to be a good singer to be successful in the music business even if your role in a band is that of singer. Just ask Bob Dylan.

It’s not so much that I don’t like Ronnie Wood. I loved him as a bass player in the Jeff Beck Group on ‘Beck-Ola’ and ‘Truth’ and I still liked him when he joined The Faces around 1969. He’s an amazingly versatile musician who, in addition to bass, plays slide, pedal and steel guitar and harmonica. He’s also a decent songwriter and fairly well-respected painter. I just don’t see his guitar style meshing well with Keith’s. I liked the lead /rhythm combination of Taylor/Richards. The Stones really need a lead player in my view but I’m obviously wrong about that because …

According to Wikipedia and regardless of VisualKaos’ personal opinion, the Stones seemed to have done fairly well.

“In a career that has spanned nearly half a century, the band has released over 90 singles, more than two dozen studio albums, and numerous compilation and live albums. Ten of their studio albums are among Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, with their 1972 double album Exile on Main St. placing seventh.”

It may be that Rolling Stone likes the Rolling Stones because they named their freaking magazine after them, sort of.

So, at the risk of sounding like one of those narcissistic know-it-alls who, when referring to bands, says pompous, self-important shit like, “Yeah, I liked their early stuff,” I liked (some of) their early stuff.

During the “British Invasion” of the 1960s (yes, I was around then) there was a bizarre and somewhat amusing competition going on between the Stones and the Beatles. You almost had to choose a side and I was, and still am, squarely in the Beatles camp. Toward the end of that tumultuous decade that all faded away and both bands were recording the best music of their careers.

The Stones’ two best records, 1968’s ‘Beggars Banquet’ and ‘Let It Bleed’ the following year definitely rank in the top 500 of all time in my book. Probably much higher than that, possibly the top 50. ‘Sticky Fingers,’ which came out in 1971 was also a pretty good record but it signaled the end of good songwriting and innovative guitar riffs and the beginning of a juvenile and sophomoric marketing plan that was directed at pubescent, suburban schoolgirls. The album cover, conceived by Andy Warhol, featured a photo of a man’s package in tight jeans and a functioning zipper that when pulled down opened to reveal his tidy whiteys. The album also featured the first use of the tongue and lips logo.

Clever? Hell yes. Artistic? Ok. Lame? Uh huh.

So it surprised me a little, when I heard Keith interviewed on Fresh Air, that I love this guy. Maybe what surprised me the most is that I realized that I have always loved this guy but I was only this week able to admit that to myself.

I immediately bought the autobiography he’s out there hawking called ‘Life’ and although I’ve only gotten through the first chapter, I’m so loving it.

What occurred to me almost instantly is that Keith Richards has over the years come up  with some of the most awesome and inventive guitar licks in all of rock music.

Because the song ‘Satisfaction’ is probably the single most played single in the history of radio, I pretty much hate it. That song came out in 1962 but if you put KLOS on your radio in Los Angeles, you’ll still hear that song in the rotation almost daily. To me, that says more about KLOS than it does about ‘Satisfaction’ but all that aside you have to admit that the guitar lick, as simple as it is, with that ancient fuzz box, was kind of a game changer.

Add to that, the aforementioned ‘Street Fighting Man,’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’ ‘Gimme Shelter,’ ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Midnight Rambler.’ All cool songs but I’m talking about just the guitar. Next time you listen to any of these, listen to the basic rhythm guitar. That’s all KR.

Then there is what may be my favorite Stones song, mostly because of the whole garage guitar sound, ‘Stray Cat Blues.’ And  just so many others. Keith even plays that awesome, thumping and melodic bassline on ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’

Ask any modern rock guitar player who they think are among the best and you may hear the usual and obligatory reply; Clapton, Satriani, Van Halen, Beck. You’ll probably even hear some say Robert Johnson or any of the Kings, BB, Freddy, Albert. You have to give the Delta its due. But once you get past those names nearly all will have KR on their list.

Perhaps the coolest thing about Keith Richards the guitar player is that most of his signature licks come from an old ’53 butterscotch Tele which he calls “Micawber,” set up for five-string open-G tuning (-GDGBD), and has only five bridge saddles. He’s actually pretty famous for this tuning and it’s well imitated.

As you can see in the photo it’s further modified with the neck pickup being replaced by a Gibson humbucker and the bridge pickup swapped for a Fender lap/steel pickup.

This is KR’s main stage guitar and he usually plays it through an 80-watt Fender Twin.

This is how multi-millionaire rock guitar gods with access to any guitar/amp combination imaginable get their sound. Not everybody uses a wall of Marshall stacks and a forest of Les Pauls.

Maybe in the end this is why I love Keith Richards.

Now go play ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and tell me you don’t agree.

Note: The amazing art at the top of this post was ‘borrowed’ from the great German painter Sebastian Krüger, a long-time Stones fan and fab portrait artist.