Keith Richards at 80

Josh Marshall:

Richards often makes lists of the greatest guitar players of all time. But at a technical level he’s no particular standout. One-time Stones guitarist Mick Taylor was and is certainly superior by that measure. Even a casual rock fan could easily list a dozen guitarists who top him by that measure. Richards’ genius isn’t technical proficiency but knowing what to play, what not to play — both in the sense of the genius of composition but the role of silence in constructing an unshakeable riff. In interviews he has often spoken of silence as the composer’s canvass. For a man notorious for excess, his music is built on economy and restraint. His obsession with finding just the right sound, just the tonal palette he needs, leads him to start using a so-called “open G” tuning, a way to tune a guitar descended from banjo tuning. It literally involved removing one of the six strings. Most of the Stones’ most distinctive and indelible songs come after that switch. You can’t quite play most Stones songs on a conventionally tuned guitar. Very close. Almost the same, but not quite.

Richards was on The Tonight Show a few months ago, and played through a few songs on an acoustic guitar with Jimmy Fallon standing in for Mick Jagger. (He does a great Jagger.) It’s just amazing to me how he can get that Keith Richards sound out of seemingly any guitar. I think of it as a distinctly electric-guitar sound, but it’s not.

As Marshall (who’s about my age) points out, during the peak decades of the Stones’ run, Richards did not, shall we say, seem to be living a lifestyle amenable with a long lifespan. I grew up adoring The Rolling Stones (thanks, Mom), but expecting Keith not to be long for this world. But here we are, and he’s not just alive and well at the age of 80, he’s about to embark on a world tour behind the Stones’ best studio album since Tattoo You in 1981. Extraordinary. What a gift.

Update 4 January 2024: A handful of my favorite Keith quotes:

  • “Like I said many years ago, I never had a problem with drugs, only with cops.”

  • “I would rather be a legend than a dead legend.”

  • “There’s only one fatal disease, I’ve concluded. It’s called hypochondria. And it is deadly.”

  • “You know, I knew Muddy Waters up until the last months of his life. And the guy was never, ever just doing a gig. Never. He was always pushing, up until the last minute. That’s an inspiration to me — that’s the sort of analogy I go for.”

  • “The only thing Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music, and what we do.”

  • “The problem is that no one is used to a band being around this long. It’s very hard for me to think that half the audience we play to can’t remember a world without the Rolling Stones. We’ve become like the air you breathe. The sun comes up, the stars come out, and a new Stones album appears every couple of years.”

Tuesday, 19 December 2023