How to Play Guitar Like Keith Richards

When you think of someone who is a through and through rock star, a few people probably come to mind. One of those people should be Keith Richards. Keith pretty much wrote the rule book on living loud and fast.

Any of your favourite guitar heroes will all owe some form of gratitude to Keith as an inspiration.

If you are unfamiliar with Keith Richards,  you may know him better at the guitarist from the Rolling Stones. Playing amazing riff after amazing riff on his low slung Fender Telecaster with 5 strings (Yup, he doesn’t need all 6!), this man is rock and roll personified.

They even based the character of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Disney franchise Pirates of the Carribean on Keith’s larger than life characteristics.

For the majority of his career, Keith plays his 5 string Telecaster, named Micawber, which is in Open G tuning (Low to high, D G D G B D). Open G is a tuning that tunes all the open strings to a G major chord (G B D being the Major chord triad for G). Keith (Or Keef as he’s otherwise known) doesn’t use the Low D string, so all his open G guitars don’t even have it on there.

Keith took a lot of inspiration from 1950’s rock and roll and regularly name checks Chuck Berry as a huge influence on his playing. He is also fascinated by reggae. You’ll notice when learning to play in Keith’s style that he’s often very loose rhythmically, which he gets from his love of reggae, but also very driving which comes from rock and roll.

When playing like Keith, forget the idea of playing speedy guitar runs and focus more on capturing the vibe. Keith is a total feel player and does not ever entertain the speedier end of the guitar playing spectrum. It’s all about creating that rock and roll feeling with every lick and riff.

Sling your Telecaster nice and low, get rid of your low E string and lets dive into the world of Keef.

All the examples in this lesson are in Open G tuning unless otherwise stated.

Open G Tuning

Open G tuning is a type of “open tuning”. An open tuning is when you tune the guitar strings to the notes of an open chord. The chord can be a major or minor chord, or any other variant that you need. Open G tuning takes the notes of a G Major chord:

I = G


V = D

This makes up a G Major triad. We then apply this tuning across the strings. From low to high we do the following:

E = Tune down to a D

A = Tune down to a G

D = Stays the same

G = Stays the same

B = Stays the same

E = Tune down to D

This gives us, D G D G B D (Low to high), which makes up a G Major chord across all six strings when played open.

Keith Richards often plays in this tuning with without the use of the Low D string.

Example 1

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning lick with a droning string using notes from the G Major Scale.

This bluesy lick is reminiscent of the main riff from the Stones hit Honky Tonk Women. It’s a great way to use a droning open string along with some choice notes from the G Major scale to creating some swagger.

You would mostly expect to play a lick like this with your fingers rather than a pick due to its string skipping nature. I’d recommend using your thumb for the notes on the G string but experiment between your index finger and middle finger for the droning open high D string.

Example 2

Guitar Tab showing an Open G chord riff using major and 6sus4 chords.

This chord based riff is a mainstay in Keef’s style. If you search through the guitar transcriptions of all the classic Stones hits, this type of riff will crop up time and time again.

The riff involves two chords, both played with just the first finger barring across the 5 strings used. The chord at the 5th fret is a C Major and the chord at the 12th fret is a G Major. Keith uses these major chords to extend by hammering onto the 7th fret of the D string and 6th fret of the B, turning the C Major into a C6sus4. While the name of the chord might sound complex, it’s much easier to play than its title suggests.

This is then replicated at the 12th fret with the G Major chord being turned into a G6sus4 bu hammering onto the 14th fret of the D and 13th fret of the B strings.

These style of chord extensions aren’t too difficult to perform. The first finger will be handing the barring of the major chord so I would suggest the hammer ons take place with the third finger covering the D string and the middle finger covering the B. The chord extensions will be different in standard tuning due to the new layout of the fretboard based on the tuning.

The rhythm of this example can be imagined as straight eighth notes with a rest on the third beat for half a beat. The hammer ons aren’t re-picked but they also take up the place of an eighth note in the bar. So the initial strum on the first beat is the major chord, the hammer ons sound the additional notes for the other half of that beat. This is true each time you see that chord extension happen.

Example 3

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning riff made up of double stops with a sus4 chord added.

This riff has a lead guitar feel to it and is mostly built around a double stop pattern. In the first bar this sticks to straight eighth notes with a rest on the “&” of the fourth beat. Starting with a sliding double stop on the first beat from the 8th to the 7th frets on the D and G strings. When the double stop moves to the G (Formerly the A) string and the D, notice there is the addition of the 7th fret note in a blues shuffle style movement.

The second bar starts with a C Major chord which adds the Sus4 note on the “&” of the first beat and the initial eighth note on the second beat before rounding off with a double stop bend.

This riff was inspired by the track Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and should be played with lots of swagger and attitude. Don’t worry about the timings being metronome tight, this is rock and roll, a bit of looseness adds to the overall vibe.

Example 4

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning shuffle riff using a blues style shuffle between 5th and 6th chords.

This riff based around a C power chord is inspired by the hit Midnight Rambler. The riff is based around a shuffle style feel with eighth note triplets containing a rest on the middle beat of each triplet. Each bar is made of four triplets, each triplet is one chord, with the change happening at the start of each beat.

The first change is the C chord to the C6 chord, by adding the 7th fret note on the D string. The next change is a change to a G5 chord starting on the 5th fret of the D string before landing back on the C6 on the final beat.

You can count the triplets as follows:

“1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 &a”

When it comes to applying the notes from the example to that rhythm, you are playing on the beat and on the “a” of each triplet.

Example 5

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning riff using moving 6sus4 and major chords in various positions on the neck.

This example revisits the idea of major chords that move around which get extended to the 6sus4 variation, except in this example we start with the 6sus4 of each chord before  dropping to the major chord version.

The first bar is straight eighth notes on the first and second beats using the G6sus4 and G chords with a rest on beats three and four. This is then replicated in each other bar.

Bar two being F6sus4 and F, bar three returning to G6sus4 and G and the final bar dropping down to C6sus4 and C major.

This is a 70s style riff like you’d expect to hear on hits like Brown Sugar.

Example 6

Guitar Tab showing a blues lick using the 4th position of the E Minor Pentatonic Scale.

While this lick is technically in Open G tuning as everything else up to this point has been, this can be played in standard tuning as the G and B strings used here are not tuned any different. This lick is a blues style like using the fourth shape of the E Minor Pentatonic scale, but it could also be viewed as the second shape of the A Minor Pentatonic.

This draws inspiration from one of Keiths lead lines from Sympathy for the Devil so to capture the same sound, this should be visualised in E Minor using the fourth shape.

Keith was a disciple of the blues and borrowed a lot of licks from all the great blues heroes. This pentatonic lick is simple but delivers its intended message well.

Start with a slide up to the 9th fret on the G before playing the 8th and 10th frets on the B string. The initial 9th fret note on the G is an eighth note before hitting a 16th note on the 8 and eighth note on the 10th fret.

This is followed by a full step bend on the 10th fret which lasts for a quarter note. The lick ends with two eighth fret notes on the B string, the first being an eighth note and the second being a sixteenth. The eighth fret note that is a sixteenth note is them hammerer onto the 10th fret and pull off back on the 8th again as eighth notes.

Example 7

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning chord phrase with added lead licks to flow around the chords.

In some of the Stones less rock and roll moments, Keith can create wonderful ballad backings with some unique chord phrasing. Here we have a phrase built around a G Major chord with some lead lines that frame the chord.

The lick starts with some moving double stops (played on the 1st fret of the B and 2nd fret of the G) which are slid up two frets and back. There is also a double stop made of the open D and G strings with a hammer on and pull off using the 2nd fret of the D. We also see a return of the 6sus4 chord as a hammer on from the major chord.

While this looks like a lot of different things in one bar, the rhythm is fairly straight, being eighth notes all the way through except for the major to 6sus4 chord at the end that is played as a pair of sixteenth notes.

Example 8

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning riff that contains short lead phrases to walk between chord changes.

Aside from just playing the chord progressions in the songs, Keith Richards often fills in the gaps with these fantastic “walking” lines that link up chord changes. This Honky Tonk Women inspired example shows off that skill set.

The first bar is based around the G major chord but it’s broken up into sub groups to add a different rhythmic feel. The chord is played as a three note chord on the first beat for a dotted quarter note (This means a quarter note plus an additional eighth note in length) before the chord is then broken up into the root note (G) plus the D and G strings together. This broken up variation falls on the “& 3 & 4&” part of the bar with the open root note on the “&” of 2 and the 4th beat.

The second bar has a little walk up to the next chord which is a C. The walk up is a simple open G note, a slide from the 3rd to the 4th fret and then an open D note.

The third bard follows the same rhythmic feel as the first but using a C chord. Just for a little variation, I’ve added the 7th fret on the D string in the first part of the broken up section of the chord, but you can just as easily leave this out.

The final bar is a similar walk as the second bar but you slide up, play the open D, slide back from the 4th to the 3rd and land back on the open G.

Example 9

Guitar Tab showing an Open G tuning riff using major and 6sus4 chords with a lead line walking between chords.

Here is another example of linking chords with some lead phrases. Keith Richards was the master of space, and the important truth of knowing when not to play something being just as important as when you do play something. This example has lots of space.

The two chord bars use both the major chord and the 6sus4 extensions. The first bar being based off the G to G6sus4 chord and the third being made from C and C6sus4. The rhythm for each of these bars involve playing on the 1 and the “& 4 &”.

Before each of the lead phrases in bars two and four, there is a two beat rest. The second bar lead phrase is a simple sliding double stop on the 3rd fret of the B and 4th fret of the G. Slide into the first of each pair and pick twice.

The final bar is a full step bend and release on the 2nd fret of the G followed by an open string. Then over the last beat, sliding up to the 4th fret of the G and ending on the 3rd fret of the B.

Example 10

Guitar Tab showing a standard tuning riff using bar chords..

This example is back in standard tuning and is a driving bar chord based example. Keith often wrote a lot of Stones hits like Street Fighting Man and Jumping Jack Flash with a very primitive, aggressive chord style.

Starting with the B major bar chord in the first bar as straight eighth notes with accents on the first beat, the “&” of the second beat and the start of the fourth beat will put you firmly in that vibe of Keith’s classic riffs. The second bar is straight eight notes made up of an open E chord and an A and Bb bar chord.

The open E chord takes up the “1 & 2”, the A chord fills up “& 3 & 4” and the Bb takes over the final “&” before you land back at the B chord.

Example 11

Guitar Tab showing a standard tuning Chuck Berry inspired lick in A Minor using the first shape of the pentatonic scale.

I mentioned earlier Keith was very influenced by Chuck Berry and other rock and roll guitar heroes. Here is a rock and roll style pentatonic minor lick. This is in standard tuning in the key of A Minor but this is a transposable lick so it can be moved around as needed to any other position of the fretboard.

The first bar is a combination of a full step bend on the 7th fret of the G and a double stop on the 5th fret of the B and E strings. The rhythm of this lick is straight eighth notes with the bends falling on the 1, the “&” of 2 and 4.

The second bar is a descending lick from the 8th note of the E string down to the 7th fret of the D. The is a double stop bend here which is something that you will see a lot if you study Keith’s playing. Remember, once again, timing isn’t everything here. Play it with some swagger.

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