Keith Richards Demonstrates His Famous 5‑String Technique (Used on Classic Stones Songs Like “Start Me Up,” “Honky Tonk Women” & More)

For the gui­tarist, alter­nate tun­ings expand the son­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties of the instru­ment. But where, say, a pro­gres­sive met­al play­er will add a sev­enth or eighth string, pitch every­thing down, and get tech­ni­cal, the oppo­site is the case with “open” tun­ings in folk and blues. They are an ide­al basis for slide gui­tar and three-chord, 12-bar vamps, and became the per­fect plat­form for Kei­th Richards, giv­ing him the room he need­ed to trans­late the music of his folk heroes into the grit­ty, dis­tort­ed rock and roll of the Stones.

Feel­ing like he had gone as far as he could in stan­dard tun­ing, Richards first turned to an open D on the band’s 1968 return to roots, Beg­gars Ban­quet and non-album sin­gle “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Life, he describes how he moved to open G from a desire to imi­tate the five-string ban­jo: “With the five-string it was just like turn­ing a page; there’s anoth­er sto­ry. And I’m still explor­ing. With five strings you can be sparse; that’s your frame, that’s what you work on. ‘Start Me Up,’ ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knock­ing,’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ all leave gaps between the chords.”

As Keef tells it, the great Ry Cood­er — who plays on Let it Bleed and Sticky Fin­gers — first intro­duced him to five-string open G tun­ing in the 60s, thir­ty years before curat­ing Cuban music for the world on Bue­na Vista Social Club. Cood­er “had the tun­ings down. He had the open G,” Richards writes:

The advan­tage (of the open‑G tun­ing) is that you can get cer­tain drone notes going. It’s an open‑G tun­ing, with the low E‑string removed and there’s real­ly only three notes you use. My favorite phrase about this style of play­ing is that all you need to play it is five strings, two notes, two fin­gers and one assh*le.

Doing an impres­sion of a mean Ike Turn­er, Richards demon­strates “that five-string sh*t” above on a beat-up Mar­tin acoustic at the top of the post. Gui­tarists who cov­er the Stones in stan­dard tun­ings “know something’s wrong, that an ele­ment is amiss,” writes George Raj­na at Huff­in­g­ton Post. “Alter­ing to Keith’s open ‘G’ tun­ing makes songs such as ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knock­ing’ sim­ple to play.”

Open G can also help play­ers break out of a six-string rut. As Kei­th says, when he “found the five-string, it was like dis­cov­er­ing a new instru­ment.” Cood­er, it seems wasn’t very hap­py about Richards tak­ing his licks, call­ing the Stones “blood­suck­ers” in a 70s Rolling Stone inter­view. But as far as Keef is con­cerned, it seems, everything’s fair game, and “if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones,” he writes.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Rolling Stones Jam with Mud­dy Waters for the First and Only Time at Chicago’s Leg­endary Checker­board Lounge (1981)

The Rolling Stones Release a Long Lost Track Fea­tur­ing Led Zeppelin’s Jim­my Page

Hunter S. Thomp­son Talks with Kei­th Richards in a Very Mem­o­rable and Mum­ble-Filled Inter­view (1993)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Rod says:

    Nation­al trea­sure. Long live Keef

  • Rick Rhodes says:

    amen. His book was awe­some (you got to admit, can you imag­ine him hear­ing, “lets go out next time, mate, as Mick Jag­ger and the Rolling Stones.” Keif about blew up, said Mick was so quick get­ting away, no way to get his hands around MJ’s neck. Some days, I think Mick was play­ing him, sure­ly he knew that had zero chance, a high­er chance for bod­i­ly harm), lots of insights into how he pro­gressed to the open tun­ing, but with­out 2 gui­tars, that is a b%^&# to do. Maybe I am miss­ing some­thing, and you adjust only a string or two, but know from a guy I watched long ago, that I got­ta go Open E to play a slide cor­rect­ly. Is a ped­al steel in an open set? Think it is, not sure the default tun­ing, is it open E, like I sur­mise? Can’t wor­ry about that when miles to go on a 6‑string, with stan­dard tun­ing. Get­ting bet­ter from more play­ing, but some things are just out of reach unless I want to play 4 hours a day. I’m 70, do not have many “4 hours a day” remain­ing in me! These sto­ries on these guys, espe­cial­ly the main two, are price­less, seems they liked to prank each oth­er more than most bands of the day. I get the idea both were bor­der­line ADD, with real­ly high IQ’s, and just bored eas­i­ly. Thence the drugs, crazy sto­ries with women, then the bike rides with Keys in France, for my man on Exile. I can see, pos­si­bly the Stones with no Jag­ger, take Richards away and you have the Dead with no Gar­cia. Total­ly impos­si­ble. Real­ly, no one wants to see the Stones with no MJ, plus he wrote a lot of good songs, to boot, so real­ly no way with­out either, was iron­ic that we nev­er got to know, the pass­ing of Char­lie set all that to rest.

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