Keith Richards on the Rolling Stones Shift from R&B to Rock and Roll

“Suddenly chicks screamed at you and you’re how the hell you’re going to get off this stage before you get ripped to shreds!”

‘Play It Loud!’ is a book for guitar aficionados; in it, authors Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna bring the history of this iconic instrument to roaring life. In this excerpt, the authors look at the guitars that Keith Richards and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used in the band’s early days. 

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Of all these new rock and roll groups, it was of course the Rolling Stones who had claimed a place right alongside the Beatles at the top of the heap. The Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham shrewdly saw the efficacy of marketing the Stones as a kind of anti-Beatles. To young rock and roll audience at the time, the Rolling Stones offered a kind of primal, dark, Dionysiac alternative to the Beatles’ more sunny, well groomed Apollonian appeal.

While a lot of this was just media hype, there was nonetheless an essential difference between the Beatles and Stones. It was—and remains—immediately discernible in their music. Unlike the Beatles, the Stones started out as blues and r&b purists. While they’d been profoundly affected by the birth of rock and roll in the mid-fifties, they’d focused their attention on the music’s African American antecedents in a way that the Beatles hadn’t. A big part of it was being from London, where a small but enthusiastic blues/r&b scene had grown up.

It had originated in an enthusiasm for “trad,” or traditional African American jazz—what we might now call Dixieland or New Orleans Jazz—that had taken hold of England in the fifties. Trad was part of a larger appreciation in Britain at the time for the many genres that make up what is now called Americana, or American roots music. A key figure on the trad scene was trombone player and bandleader Chris Barber. He’d touched off the skiffle craze by fostering the career of guitarist, banjo player, and vocalist Lonnie Donegan.

And—perhaps more significantly, given the direction guitar-based rock music would take over the next three decades—Barber also brought African-American blues into the U.K. by promoting concert appearances and tours by seminal bluesmen such as Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and the harmonica/guitar duet of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. In the audience for many of these early blues dates, assiduously taking in every detail, were future British rock stars such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and, of course the Rolling Stones.

One of the bluesiest elements in many of the early Stones recordings is electric slide guitar, often played by one of the group’s founding members, Brian Jones. A heavy hitter on the London r&b scene—arguably heavier, at that time, than the Stones’ co-founders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—Jones is often credited as the first musician in England to play slide guitar. Performing at early London venues such as the Marquee and Ealing Jazz Club, he had even billed himself as Elmo Lewis—a tribute to American bluesman and slide guitar pioneer Elmore James, combined with the first part of the young guitarist’s given name, Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones.

It was also Jones who gave the Rolling Stones their name, appropriating a song title, “Rollin’ Stone,” from pioneering bluesman Muddy Waters. Even more so than Elmore James, Waters’s music would have a tremendous influence on the Stones. Sharing a squalid London flat with Jagger and another friend, Jones and Richards would spend hours listening to records.

“When we started playing together,” Richards said, “we were listening to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters—the two guitar thing, the weaving. We did it so much, which is the way you have to do it. So we both knew both guitar parts. So then you get to the point where you get it really flash and you suddenly switch—the other one picks up the rhythm and the other one picks up the lead part.”

“I hope they don’t think we’re a rock and roll outfit,” Mick Jagger told London music rag Jazz News in ’62. This quote was often cited ironically in later years, when the Stones became known as The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. But it was an important distinction to make in London of 1962.

“British r&b bands, we called them at the time,” recollected Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed both the Stones and the Yardbirds early on, and ran London’s “most blueswailing” nightclub, the Crawdaddy. “Because rock and roll was not that. It was considered white, surfing, teenybopper music—the corporate rock of that time. All these people like Fabian, these sort of pseudo Elvis Presleys.”

Even in ‘62, though, there was a note of hypocrisy—or perhaps just plain hype—in Jagger’s claim that his band was not “a rock and roll outfit.” The early Rolling Stones would cover Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly songs, just as the Beatles would do. But aligning oneself with more traditional African American styles was a badge of authenticity on the tiny London scene that fostered the early Stones. Two early Stones members, Geoff Bradford and Brian Knight, had actually quit the band because they took exception to Richards’ fondness for Chuck Berry.

“The very little budding blues scene in England—all 400 of us—were split into two camps,” according to Gomelsky. “‘That version of Chuck Berry is not blues.’ ‘Yeah, but that version of so-and-so is not rhythm and blues.’ Blues Unlimited, one of the big fanzines at the time, were distributing pamphlets. All these disputes were going on and at the same time bands were playing and the scene came about. And [the disputes] didn’t make any difference afterward.”

In this context, it’s significant that the Rolling Stones’ first single was a Chuck Berry cover, “Come On,” released in June of 1963. It was rock and roll enough to launch the Stones out of the insular London r&b scene and into the same wide world of hysterical teenage fan adulation that the Beatles had both generated and attracted.

“We were a blues band,” Richards commented years later, “[but] we made just one little pop record and it became a hit. Or semi-pop. And suddenly chicks screamed at you and you’re not playing for anybody anymore. You’re just wondering how the hell you’re going to get off this stage and safely get out of this town before you get ripped to shreds . . . Weird, manic. And you’re thinking, ‘But I’m a blues player!’”

“The Stones weren’t really a girls’ band, man,” Gomelsky reflected. “None of the r&b bands were. Ninety percent males used to come to the shows, among them the Pete Townshends, Eric Claptons, and Jimmy Pages . . . all those people. The Beatles were more a girls’ band. But, in the end, you can’t resist the sexual economics.”

Which is to say that the Stones were a gateway to the blues for many young musicians and listeners both American and English. By covering so many blues classics by artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the Rolling Stones aroused a powerful curiosity about the originals in the minds of adventurous young guitarists seeking new sounds and inspirations. With a dearth of written information about these artists available at the time, Stones fans traced down the names in the songwriting credits on the group’s albums and singles. (“Who is McKinley Morganfield? Ah, it’s this guy they call Muddy Waters. Who the hell is Chester Arthur Burnett? Oh, that’s Howlin’ Wolf.”)

It was an act of cultural appropriation, certainly. But the Rolling Stones in particular were eager to share the limelight with their blues heroes, exposing them to an enthusiastic new audience that, in years to come, would provide African-American bluesmen with a significant new source of income in record sales and song royalties. One of the Stones’ greatest coups was to arrange for Howlin’ Wolf to perform on America’s premier pop music television program Shindig! in 1965. The sight of a large, black man in his mid-fifties shakin’ his thang before an audience of somewhat bemused, white American teenagers and a spellbound Brian Jones remains one of the strangest and most evocative video artifacts of the mid-sixties.

Much like the bluesmen of old, Keith Richards and Brian Jones started out playing fairly modest electric guitars made by Harmony, the American company that specialized in affordable instruments, selling many through retail outlets such as Sears in the States. Jones played a Stratotone and Richards a Meteor. But they gradually worked their way up to better guitars as the Stones’ popularity grew, Jones gravitating toward a Gretsch Anniversary model and Richards an Epiphone Casino, both hollowbody instruments. High quality electric guitars were still hard to come by in the U.K., as indicated by the fact that Lennon and Harrison had bought their Rickenbacker electrics in Germany (where distribution was a bit more reliable) and the United States, respectively.

Fame brought the Stones their own endorsement deal with Vox. An early Vox promo shot captures the brief period when the Rolling Stones wore matching band outfits, featuring leather vests. Many of the early Stones recordings, not to mention live shows, were done on Vox amps, principally AC-30s. Jones also became closely associated with the teardrop shaped Vox Mark III electric guitar. The idea for the instrument came from Vox chief Tom Jennings, as part of his ongoing quest to position Vox as makers of not just amps but the absolutely coolest-looking instruments on the scene. To that end, Jennings instructed Vox chief design engineer Mick Bennett to craft an electric guitar with a body shape resembling that of a lute. The prototype was given to Brian Jones.

It was an obvious choice. The visual reference to the Renaissance lute suited Jones’s romantic public image. His fluffy mane of blond hair had always set him apart, giving him an air of almost feminine vulnerability that appealed to young girls in a powerful way. Jones was always the most flamboyant dresser among the Stones, and the uniquely shaped white guitar seemed an extension of his image and persona, much in the same way that Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 was part and parcel of his identity as a performer. Vox also made a 12-string version of the Mk III for Jones. They created a teardrop shaped bass guitar for the Stones’ bassist as well, marketed as the Vox Bill Wyman model. Production models of all these teardrop instruments, as well as the more angular Vox Phantom models, became highly sought-after items among up-and-coming guitarists and aspiring future rock stars during the mid-sixties.

Instrumentally, Brian Jones was the Stones’ most “outside the box” thinker. It was he, for instance, who took a metal slide to a Rickenbacker electric 12-string to create the signature riff on the band’s 1966 hit “Mother’s Little Helper.” This was far from standard procedure. The guitar, moreover, was just one of many instrument choices for Jones. He played harmonica predominantly on a lot of the early Rolling Stones recordings. And as the group developed stylistically, he branched out into a kaleidoscopic array of instrumental colors—Indian sitar, Appalachian dulcimer, recorder (the wooden flute heard on “Ruby Tuesday”), marimba, organ, piano, saxophone, and pretty much anything else that came to hand in the recording studio. This became a key role for him as Jagger and Richards’ ascendency as the Stones’ songwriters thrust them into a leadership position that Jones once saw as his own.

“Brian was always searching for another sound,” Richards recalled. “As a musician he was very versatile. He’d be just as happy playing marimba or bells as he would guitar. Sometimes it was, ‘Oh make up your mind what sound you’re going to have, Brian!’ Cause he’d keep changing guitars. He wasn’t one of those guys who said, ‘Right, here’s my axe.’

Jones’s multi-instrumental tendencies, combined with his drug-fueled personal decline, would lead Richards to assume a more prominent guitar role as the Sixties progressed. In August of 1964, Richards acquired what would become an iconic instrument for him—a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard equipped with a Bigsby tailpiece that been installed by the instrument’s previous, and original, owner, British guitarist John Bowen. It became Richards’ main guitar between ’64 and ’67, seen by many Americans for the first time when he played on it the Rolling Stones’ debut Ed Sullivan Show performance on October 25th, 1964.

“It was my first touch with a real great, classic rock and roll electric guitar,” Richards said in 1997. “And so I fell in love with [Les Pauls] for a while.”

Richards’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard has become the stuff of rock and roll legend. Stories circulated that it is the same guitar later owned by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. (It’s not.) In 1967, Richards sold the guitar to Mick Taylor, who within two years would become Brian Jones’s replacement in the Rolling Stones. But as the existence of the myths themselves attest, Richards’ 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard has come to be regarded with awe. It’s seen as a gateway instrument—a harbinger of the late sixties age of the guitar hero. Shortly after Richards took up the Les Paul Standard, guitar icons like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Mike Bloomfield all did the same, playing that instrument on some of their most significant recordings. So just as the Stones turned a generation of guitarists onto the blues through their covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other American bluesmen, “Keef” is seen as forging the path that made the Les Paul Standard one of the most important instruments in rock history.

From PLAY IT LOUD! by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Copyright © 2016 by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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