Personalities | Keith Richards | Icon of Excess | Guitar Heroes

Veteran Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (b. 1943) was born in Dartford, Kent. After being expelled from technical school in 1958, Richards attended Sidcup Art College. The art-school environment was crucial to Richards’ development, as it was for many of his generation.

Here he was able to nurture his passion for rhythm and blues, finding many fellow enthusiasts and hearing Big Bill Broonzy and Little Walter for the first time there.

Richards acquired an acoustic guitar, and after some help from his grandfather who schooled him in the rudiments, Keith set about mastering the instrument by listening to records. Chuck Berry was a defining influence on the young Richards, who soon graduated to playing a cheap electric guitar. ‘To me, Chuck Berry’s style is one of the loosest and most exciting to play,’ said Richards. ‘When I started, I pinched virtually all of his riffs.’

A chance meeting with Mick Jagger revealed a shared interest in the blues. Jagger invited Richards to join the group in which he sang, Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys. In 1962, Richards successfully auditioned for a rhythm and blues outfit which Brian Jones, a blues fanatic from Cheltenham, was putting together in London and which would ultimately evolve into The Rolling Stones.

Richards took Jagger along, although the singer initially was also working with Blues Incorporated, led by British blues pioneer Alexis Korner. The foundations for The Rolling Stones were laid by Richards and Jones spending days together practising and trying to figure out how bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Muddy Waters achieved the sounds on their records. ‘The Rolling Stones are basically a two-guitar band. That’s how we started off. And the whole secret, if there is a secret behind the sound of The Rolling Stones, is the way we work two guitars together,’ said Richards. The interlocking lead and rhythm guitars can be heard to good effect on the first three Stones albums: Rolling Stones (1964), Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965) and Out Of Our Heads (1965).

The recruitment of Bill Wyman (bass) and Charlie Watts (drums) completed the Stones line-up. Astutely marketed by manager Andrew Loog Oldham as the polar opposites of the wholesome Beatles, The Stones were second only to their Merseyside rivals in the 1960s. Oldham’s insistence that Jagger and Richards provide original material for the band changed its dynamic, leading eventually to the marginalization of the increasingly dissolute and unreliable Jones. The first Jagger-Richards A-side, ‘The Last Time’, featured a menacing, repeated four-note phrase from Richards. Although Oldham was credited as producer on early Stones records, in practical terms, it was Richards who carried out the role.

With Jones too out of it to contribute, Richards was at his most creative on Beggars Banquet (1968), playing almost all the guitar parts on the album, which restored The Stones’ fortunes after an unconvincing flirtation with psychedelia. Jones left in 1969,...

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