When it comes to The Rolling Stones’ signature riffs, Keith Richards has always been the band’s big daddy – especially during their golden era of the 1960s and ’70s, when various Gibson Les Pauls, ES models and Hummingbirds were often his instruments of choice. Here’s a rundown of the Stones’ coolest riffs. They’re all part of both the Richards canon and rock ’n’ roll history:
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
Richards says this song’s epic three-note riff came to him in his sleep. If that’s the case, maybe he should get more rest today, because the tune left an indelible mark on the psyches of America and Britain. Mick Jagger’s lyrics satirizing the rise of “Mad Men” and the consumer culture remain as relevant today, and nothing ignites a dance floor like “Satisfaction.”
“Get Off of My Cloud” (1965)
The song’s main riff is also a great little melody, deceptively bright and cheerful despite Jagger’s lyrics nailing the status quo. Faced with the daunting task of following up “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Richards turned his musical compass toward New Orleans. He’s explained that his goal was to do a slow, sexy R&B riff number like Lee Dorsey’s tunes, but then his bandmates and producer Andrew Loog Oldham mucked it up by rocking it up – and taking the song to the top of the charts.
“19th Nervous Breakdown” (1966)
Written by Richards and Jagger during a 1965 tour of the States, this jangly classic kicks off with a another three-note riff that also sets up the dirty, blurting guitar turnaround during the tune’s pauses. And then there’s Bill Wyman’s crashing bassline at the finish. It’s altogether a riff bonanza that shared its bristly attitude – spoiled rich girls, Dr. Feelgood pill culture and upper middle class mores all take a whippin’ – with “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud.” Those songs helped cement the Stones’ reputation as both clever pop craftsmen with a knack for chart topping and rock ’n’ roll bad boys. Who does that today?
“Mother’s Little Helper” (1966)
Jagger and Richards wrote this tune, another in the Stones’ early run of wiseass anthems, but it’s been documented that the riff was played on a 12-string mando-guitar with a slide by Brian Jones to get its distinctive sitar-like sound. That’s another reminder of how potent a contributor Jones was to the band before he went off the deep end. “Mother’s Little Helper” reached only #8 on the U.S. pop charts, likely because of its dark take on suburban pill popping (see “19th Nervous Breakdown”) and the Eastern modality implied by its brilliant core riffs.
“Paint It, Black” (1966)
This song is an inkling of what was to come for the Stones as the ’60s grew darker. While this number is another Jagger-Richards composition, it’s clear that Jones pitched in on the riff. Once again there’s a sitar-like sound, chiming the introduction. After that, however, all the electric and acoustic guitars in the mix were played by Richards, who also sings backing vocals on this dark-hearted contemplation.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1968)
This song about putting troubles behind features a bit of audio genius from Richards. The tune opens with its riff played on a Gibson Hummingbird in open D tuning with a capo to E, plus a second acoustic guitar playing the opening chord and lick in Nashville tuning – an octave higher. And both were recorded on a cassette recorder to get a smashed down AM-radio-like sound that was entirely unique and arresting at the time.
“Gimme Shelter” (1969)
It’s hard to call songs about drug addiction and cultural disaffection innocent, but until now the Stones’ most pointed hits, like those above, had a palpable current of humor, no matter how snide. “Gimme Shelter” is frighteningly adult. Richards’ driving, descending riff sucks the listener into a world of darkness at the song’s beginning, with the wailing vocal by Merry Clayton adding to the eeriness. In 4:37 the Stones captured the sound of a world in turmoil, caught up in the Vietnam War, protest and street violence.
“Honky Tonk Women” (1969)
Unlike most Stones hits of the 1960s and early ’70s, this song doesn’t open with a riff. A cowbell precedes the distinctive stuttering guitar lick. But then the six-string kicks in and the result is one of the most distinctive licks in Richards’ canon. Initially written as a Hank Williams-influenced country blues – and recorded as such under the title “Country Honk” – the song got supercharged by the arrival of Gibson Les Paul legend Mick Taylor in the group, on the heels of Brian Jones’ death.
“Brown Sugar” (1971)
One of the greatest riff-driven tunes from the band’s Mick Taylor era, “Brown Sugar” features both Taylor and Richards dishing out cool licks from start to finish. That’s Richards at the beginning, with the percussive chordal licks, and then he and Taylor dig in, tossing off a series of interwoven lines that amount to blues-rock nirvana. Jagger claims to have written the song on his own, but clearly the tune’s musical scope extends beyond his grasp as a player.
“Start Me Up” (1981)
Tattoo You and Some Girls in 1981 and 1978, respectively, provided the Stones with a final sunburst of creative relevancy, digging into rock’s terra firma after being distracted by disco and before getting too far into the world of sampling and the modern studio scene and losing their edge as a creative entity. The greatest riff-rocker of that era was “Start Me Up,” which echoed the golden days of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction.” No wonder, perhaps, that it was first recorded in 1975. But then the song was shelved in its initial incarnation as a reggae-based number. The band revisited the ditty for 1980’s Emotional Rescue, but it wasn’t until the next year – with more than 52 takes archived – that all the pieces fell into place.