Keith Richards: Rock guitarist or jazz pianist?

There’s no denying that guitarist Keith Richards has the “rock legend” thing down! His onstage swaggering has “rock star” written all over it and his body language accents his legendary guitar riffs perfectly. But have you ever really listened to him play? I mean the way Richards, as a rhythm guitarist, plays chords.

The thing is, he doesn’t play chords in a rock style. Surprising, right, that the world’s most famous rock and roll rhythm guitarist doesn’t play like you might think he does. He doesn’t play rhythm guitar in the way that 99.999999% of the world’s rock guitarists play rhythm guitar. But since he looks the part so completely, we can be forgiven for not noticing.

Well then, how does he play? If you listen closely, you’ll notice that he plays rock guitar like a jazz pianist! By this I mean that his entire approach to accompanying a singer is the same as your typical jazz pianist.

Let’s think about this for a second. Most rock and roll rhythm guitar is based around strumming patterns. Watch any rock performance from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to today’s contemporary groups, and you’ll see the rhythm guitarist strumming in steady tandem with the drumbeat. This provides a good rhythmic foundation for the rock groove and frees up the other players, including the lead guitarist if the group has one, to play melodic fills or whatever else they want.

Keith, however, doesn’t do this. Like a jazz pianist, he listens closely to the other musicians, including the vocalist, and plays chords sporadically, choosing his rhythms carefully. Anticipating the beat here, delaying it there, accenting the lyrics and other instrumental parts where he sees fit. In jazz, this is called “comping” (an abbreviation of the word “accompanying”).

Check out how Keith plays on the song Like a Rolling Stone. This is a great video! The song’s composer, Bob Dylan, is joining The Rolling Stones onstage and the band’s excitement is palpable. For our purposes, notice the difference in rhythmic approach between Dylan and Richards. They’re both playing rhythm guitar, but whereas Dylan is mostly strumming steadily, Richards is “comping.” (He even puts in a nice descending jazz chord substitution midway through each verse!) Keith doesn’t get much featured “airtime,” but you can briefly see him play the way I’m describing at these moments:
If you watch the entire clip, you’ll definitely notice the difference in approach between him and Dylan. It’s also a lot of fun seeing Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger sing together. (Jagger also takes a good harmonica solo – he’s very underrated on the instrument.)

Keith has described the Stones as a “jazz band” but I don’t think most people realize why he’s used those words. It’s because rhythmically, he thinks like a jazz musician. Even the fact that he loves riffs goes back partly to the Kansas City jazz/blues tradition of the 1930s (a la the Count Basie band).

This type of rhythmic flexibility and interplay is an essential part of the Rolling Stones “sound.”

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