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.