Keith Richards Shows Us How to Play the Blues, Inspired by Robert Johnson, on the Acoustic Guitar

To me Robert Johnson’s influ­ence — he was like a comet or a mete­or that came along and, BOOM, sud­den­ly he raised the ante, sud­den­ly you just had to aim that much high­er. 

As Kei­th Richards tells it, the first time he met Bri­an Jones, the two “went around to his apart­ment crash-pad,” where all Jones had was “a chair, a record play­er, and a few records, one of which was Robert John­son.” Jones put on the record, and the moment changed Richards’ life. He wasn’t so much inter­est­ed in the dev­il at the cross­roads. The first ques­tion he asked — “Who’s that?” — was fol­lowed by, “Yeah, but who’s the oth­er guy play­ing with him? That, too, was Robert John­son, play­ing rhythm with his thumb while bend­ing and slid­ing with his fin­gers, the fan­cy gui­tar work that earned him the envy of fel­low blues­men, and led to the rumor his skills came from hell.

“One of the sta­ples of Johnson’s style is his abil­i­ty to sound at times like two gui­tar play­ers,” writes Andy Ale­dort at Gui­tar World, “com­bin­ing dri­ving rhythms on the low­er strings with melod­ic fig­ures with the high­er strings.” Like every oth­er British gui­tarist of his gen­er­a­tion, Richards was enchant­ed. “I’ve nev­er heard any­body before or since use the form and bend it quite so much to make it work for him­self…. The gui­tar play­ing — it was almost like lis­ten­ing to Bach. You know, you think you’re get­ting a han­dle on play­ing the blues, and then you hear Robert John­son….”

The leg­endary blues­man became not only Richards’ hero, but also his teacher. “We all felt there was a cer­tain gap in our edu­ca­tion,” he tells The Guardian, “so we all scram­bled back to the 20s and 30s to fig­ure out how Char­lie Pat­ton did this, or Robert John­son, who, after all, was and still prob­a­bly is the supre­mo.”

Fig­ur­ing out what John­son did still con­sumes his biggest fans. Since his record­ings were inten­tion­al­ly sped up, inter­preters of his music must make their best guess­es about his tun­ings, which “can be bro­ken down into four cat­e­gories: stan­dard tun­ing, open G, open D and drop D,” Ale­dort notes. (There are oth­er argu­ments for alter­nate tun­ings.) Richards fre­quent­ly used open tun­ings like John­son’s before he learned 5‑string open G from Ry Cood­er, on songs, for exam­ple, like “Street Fight­ing Man.” At the top, he gives us his inter­pre­ta­tion of John­son’s “32–20 Blues,” in stan­dard tun­ing.

And just above, Keef offers a brief les­son on how to play the blues, mum­bling and growl­ing over a 12-bar vamp. The music took him over, he says, “it’s just some­thing you’ve got to do. You have no choice. I mean, we had oth­er things to do and every­thing, but once you got bit­ten by the bug, you had to find out how it’s done, and every three min­utes of sound­bite would be like an edu­ca­tion.”

What did their blues heroes think of the Stones? The band nev­er got to meet Robert John­son, of course, but he might have been appre­cia­tive. “I got the chance to sit around with Mud­dy Waters and Bob­by Wom­ack,” says Kei­th, “and they just want­ed to share ideas.” John­son didn’t leave much behind to learn from, but his keen­est stu­dents found exact­ly what they need­ed in his few haunt­ing record­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

Cov­er­ing Robert Johnson’s Blues Became a Rite of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pas­sage: Hear Cov­ers by The Rolling Stones, Eric Clap­ton, Howl­in’ Wolf, Lucin­da Williams & More

Robert John­son Final­ly Gets an Obit­u­ary in The New York Times 81 Years After His Death

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

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Comments (3)
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  • Michael Leddy says:

    It’s great to see these acoustic clips.

    But there’s no evi­dence for the claim that Robert Johnson’s record­ings were “inten­tion­al­ly sped up.” It shouldn’t be pre­sent­ed as fact. Here is Eli­jah Wald’s take on the mat­ter. And here’s mine.

    One point I’ll men­tion: the moment in The Search for Robert John­son (dir. Chris Hunt, 1992), when Willie Mae Pow­ell, the “Willie Mae” of Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” hears for the first time the 1937 record­ing of the song she inspired. Her face opens wide when she hears John­son sing her name. There’s no ques­tion that the voice she is hear­ing is a famil­iar one. And I know of no John­son asso­ciate ever com­ment­ing on a dif­fer­ence between the musi­cian on record and the musi­cian they heard in per­son.

  • Gregory Hughes says:

    R. I. P. At last Mr. Robert John­son.

  • Phil Gordon says:

    Yes his record­ings were sped up.most record­ings made with the same tech­nolo­gies were .but most peo­ple nev­er notice

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