How to choose the greatest guitar licks on record by the man they call the Human Riff? Keith Richards, born on 18 December 1943, has been playing his instrument of choice in earnest since his mother Doris bought him his first guitar — a Rosetti, costing about £10 — when he was 15. He has given us a rich palette to paint with, as we present 20 of the best Keith Richards riffs.
Our playlist of some of Keith’s most outstanding riffs, both inside and outside the Rolling Stones, focuses on those short, powerful, often repetitive phrases that form most people’s interpretation of this emotive word. There are countless other tracks on which Richards plays quite brilliantly, but in a more textured way, often melding with other instruments or voices, or indeed other guitarists, notably Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is a prime example, a track with a shimmering lead guitar line that sulks and broods throughout the track, interacting with the harmony vocals and the rest of the band on an undeniable classic. But we’ve been seeking out the punchy motifs that single-handedly dictate where a song will go.
Apart from anything else, that’s because Keith has never considered himself an archetypal lead guitarist. Not for him the angst-ridden grimace front of stage, as he attempts to extract some tortured, clichéd solo from his instrument. But he’s happy to be the man associated with that killer turn of phrase that changes a song.
“I’m the riff master,” wrote Richards in his autobiography Life. “The only one I missed and that Mick Jagger got was ‘Brown Sugar,’ and I’ll tip my hat there. There he got me. I mean, I did tidy it up a bit, but that was his, words and music.” Later in the same volume, he enthuses about “these crucial, wonderful riffs that just came, I don’t know where from,” especially during the band’s incredible run of work from the late 1960s to the early ’70s.
“I’m blessed with them and I can never get to the bottom of them,” he continued. “When you get a riff like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee. ‘Flash’ is basically ‘Satisfaction’ in reverse. Nearly all of these riffs are closely related. But if someone said ‘You can play only one of your riffs ever again,’ I’d say ‘OK, give me ‘Flash.’
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ are, of course, all in our playlist, along with the other set texts from the Keith Richards school of riff. Feel free, as ever, to tell us your own favourites. We’ve made a point of including lesser-appreciated, later-period Stones tracks too, along with one song from each of Keith’s three solo studio albums, including 2015’s Crosseyed Heart. The lead song from that set, ‘Trouble,’ had him still riffing like a dream, about 57 years after he picked up that first guitar.
Follow the official Rolling Stones Best Of playlist.