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Best Keith Richards Licks: 20 Essential Landmarks By The Human Riff

Keef’s finest work, including Rolling Stones hits, lesser-celebrated numbers, and solo album tracks.

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Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for LOVE ROCKS NYC/God's Love We Deliver

How to choose the greatest guitar licks on record by the man they call the Human Riff? Keith Richards, born on December 18, 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.

This 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 that 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 (Remastered 2019)

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“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 this selection seeks 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.

Jumpin' Jack Flash (Mono)

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“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.’”

Keith Richards - Trouble (Official Audio)

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“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Brown Sugar” are, of course, all in the playlist, along with the other set texts from the Keith Richards school of riff. Feel free, as ever, to tell us your own favorites. Respect is also due to later-period Stones tracks such as “You Got Me Rocking,” 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.

Listen to the best of the Rolling Stones on Apple Music and Spotify.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. mario navarro caceres

    December 18, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Tal como dijo alguna vez, Keith, nosotros -los humanos- evolucionamos. Y es lo justo.

  2. mario navarro caceres

    December 18, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    Al cumplir 74 años, y su “evolución” musical. Lo muestra en su real dimensión. Felicitaciones Keith.

  3. Chuck McKinnis

    December 24, 2021 at 9:58 pm

    Go, Keff! you influenced me well, form Last time and from Satisfaction, on throughout my lifetime and I am 66!!! How many can claim that!!!! You are a musical hero and genuine Icon!

  4. Philip Matsikoudis

    March 19, 2022 at 1:53 am

    No doubt, Keef is the ‘HUMAN RIFF’. You really feel his riffs live much more than on the records.

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