When it comes to rhythm and guitar riffs, Keith Richards is the backbone of the Rolling Stones and one of the all-time great rhythm players. The hard-living, easy-going death dodger has crafted hundreds of mind-blowing riffs over the decades, so picking five is a huge challenge. But when you look at the body of work from the Stones, these riffs have special qualities, are instantly recognizable and timeless.
Start Me Up
One of the Stones most popular songs, “Start Me Up” was released in 1981, but the riff was crafted back in 1978 while writing for the Some Girls sessions. And it was originally written with a reggae vibe and called “Never Stop”, but the Stones couldn’t get it right, so they shelved it until engineer Chris Kimsey discovered it, and the band re-worked it for the Tattoo You record. That intro riff is instantly recognizable and the song is played at just about every live sports venue, every single day of the year.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Although played to death on classic rock radio, the three-note “Satisfaction” riff is where it all started for Richards and the Stones. It’s the song that put them into the rock and roll stratosphere back in 1965. A maestro fuzzbox gives the riff that distinctive sound. Interestingly, Richards and Mick Jagger had to be talked into releasing it as a single. It became the first Stones No. 1 hit in the United States, turning them into mega rock stars.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
For the epic Jumpin’ Jack Flash riff, Richards showcased his open D tuning using a capo to E on an acoustic. The recording has a second acoustic guitar playing the opening chord and lick in Nashville tuning, but an octave higher. And both were recorded on a Phillips cassette recorder. As Richards said of the track in Rolling Stone: “When you get a riff like ‘Flash,’ you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee. 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. Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel.” Bill Wyman has stated he actually came up with the riff on the piano.
One Hit to the Body
The opening track on 1986’s Dirty Work is one of the finest examples of the Stones’ post-glory-days tracks. The opening riff is like a sledgehammer hitting you right between the ears, augmented by Ronnie Wood’s acoustic playing (he got writing credit!!). This song is figuratively about Richards and Jagger’s feud, which was at its peak in 1986. The riff certainly has an angry feel and that’s certainly not by accident on Richards’ part.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
One of the shining examples of Keith Richards’ open G tuning is on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, off the amazing Sticky Fingers album. Richards said he “loves the chopping, staccato bursts of chords”. According to Richards, this was one of the quicker songs to put together: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” came out flying – I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove.” Indeed. It’s one of the best Stones tracks, bar none.