"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 asshole."
- Keith Richards
In addition to being the poster child for rockers with attitude, Keith Richards is one of the greatest rhythm guitarists ever to strap on a 6-string. Or more accurately, a 5-string. Richards crafts many of his most memorable riffs using a modified open-G tuning, which involves removing his sixth string and tuning strings 5-1 to G, D, G, B, D.
“The whole idea of getting rid of the sixth string in the open tuning was having the root on the bottom,” he told GP’s Tom Wheeler in 1983. “You can get a drone going, so you have the effect of two chords playing against each other. One hangs on because you’ve just got to move one finger—or two at the most—to change the chord, so you’ve still got the other strings ringing. It’s a big sound.”
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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Keith's Guitars, But Were Afraid To Ask!
This page was created by Blue Lena with the help of Johnny Starbuck and Richard Henry from Richard Henry Guitars and originally published in Stones Planet Fanzine #24 November 2007.
All material copyright Stones Planet Fanzine, JS & Richard Henry 2007 and may not be copied without permission.
Do you spend your time during a Stones concert trying to figure out what year, make or model of guitar Keith Richards is playing during each tune? Do you wonder what tuning he’s playing in? Do you wish you could get up close and personal with some of Keith’s vintage axes? Well, have we got the low down for you! Thanks to Johnny Starbuck, one of the men behind the scenes on stage with the Stones each night, as well as Rich from Richard Henry Guitars in the UK we have put together some of the most current photos and information available on Keith’s bevy of beautiful instruments.
Let’s start with a run down of Keith’s most famous guitars that graced his road case on the Bigger Bang Tour:
• 'Micawber' is probably one of Keith’s most famous trademark guitars and is a 1953 Fender Telecaster Blonde. Micawber is named after a Charles Dickens character, no one is exactly sure why. Keith’s had this guitar since Exile On Main St. This guitar is kept in Open G tuning (G,D,G,B,D) low to high with no capo, and of course has the famous 5 strings with the 6th string removed (as do all his open G tuned guitars).
• 'Malcolm' is a 1954 Fender Telecaster with natural finish. Also kept in Open G tuning.
• 'Sonny' is a 1966 Fender Telecaster Sunburst. Johnny Starbuck says it’s called “Sonny” due to the Sunburst finish, and should probably be named “Sunny” instead, but it’s not. This guitar is in Open G.
• 'Dice' is a 1957 Gibson Les Paul TV Model Yellow. Starbuck says it’s a double cutaway and is always used on Midnight Rambler with a capo on the 7th fret. This guitar is kept in standard tuning.
• 'Dwight' is a White 1964 Gibson ES-345 Stereo. Starbuck said, “When we got DWIGHT we had already had the black ES-355 and the new ES-345 looked so much like it that Pierre (de Beauport, Keith’s guitar tech) started calling it "The White One" and that got sort of shortened to "Da White One" which finally became DWIGHT 1". This guitar is kept in standard tuning.
• A 1959 Black Gibson ES-355 Mono (some folks say it’s a ’60, but Pierre De Beauport, Keith’s guitar tech, says it’s a ’59, so we tend to believe him!). This guitar is kept in standard tuning.
• A 1975 Black Telecaster Custom. This guitar is kept in Open G tuning.
• 1957 Fender Stratocaster 'Mary Kay' Blonde with Gold Hardware. Kept in standard tuning.
• 1964 Martin acoustic. Kept in standard tuning.
• 2006 Guild Custom 10 String acoustic.
• Other Guitars of Note: A new Zemaitis with the skull & crossbones design (like the original one that was stolen in the late 70’s) was used this tour on Sway.
Keith also used a new Ampeg Dan Armstrong. Johnny Starbuck elaborates, “The new Ampeg Dan Armstrong was brought to us by our friend Ted Kornblum who is the Ampeg company representative and brought it to Barcelona this last summer. Keith used it that night on Midnight Rambler so Ted would dig it, but we went back to the '57 Les Paul TV Jr. after that and for a little while Pierre would insert it into different songs once in a while just for fun. Sometimes Keith doesn't know what guitar Pierre is going to hand him. Not very often, of course... but sometimes as a surprise Pierre will bring out the Dan Armstrong or something he acquired that day that KR hasn't even seen yet, and Keith will give it a workout and see what happens.
• 5-String - Ernie Ball Custom 5 String Set. The strings for those guitars are custom made by Ernie Ball to Keith’s exact specifications as far as gauge goes and are not for sale anywhere.
• Standard - Ernie Ball Power Slinky. The standard tuning 6-strings are 11's while Ronnie Wood uses 10's. (That's the gauge of the thinnest string... the high E.)
Johnny Starbuck told us, “Keith plays primarily through Fender Twin amplifiers. Sometimes Pierre does a little mix and match with other kinds of amps, but it doesn't usually last very long. One of the Twins that Keith uses has the serial number #00003. It's the earliest known Fender Twin since we've looked for numbers 1 and 2 and been unable to find them anywhere. We figure they got thrown away years ago when they got old and beat up and before the concept of Vintage Amps drove their value up.”
Which Guitars are Used for Which Songs?
• 'Micawber' is used on songs like Brown Sugar and Honky Tonk Women.
• The ES-355 Mono Black Keith uses on Satisfaction, Oh No Not You Again, She's So Cold, Nearness Of You and Little T&A.
• 'Malcolm' is used on You Got Me Rockin’.
• 'Sonny' is famous for Tumbling Dice, You Can't Always Get What You Want
• 'Dice' is used on Midnight Rambler with a capo on the 7th fret
• 'Dwight' is heard on Let’s Spend The Night Together and Get Off My Cloud
• Tele Custom is used on Jumping Jack Flash most of the time
• ‘57 Stratocaster is used on Miss You and Under My Thumb. Keith, Mick and Ronnie all play Stratocasters on Miss You.
• ’64 Martin Acoustic is used for Keith’s ballads like The Worst, as well as Ruby Tuesday, Angie, etc.
• 2006 Guild Custom 10 String Acoustic is used on Wild Horses, in place of the 12 string Keith used to use before.
Who is Johnny Starbuck?
I started working for the band in 1976 when I came with Billy Preston. I was his keyboard tech and the only guy on the Stones crew at the time was Chuch Magee so they told Billy to bring his own tech because the Stones didn't have enough of a crew to set up Billy's stuff.
Chuch and I became best friends and I remained with him on the crew ever since, even after they replaced Billy Preston with Ian McLagan and then Chuck Leavell. As keyboards became more complex what with synthesizers and sampling and the use of computers, I didn't keep up and Chuch hired hot-shit keyboard guys while I moved to other areas of responsibility.
I've changed my duties, or at least added to them, on every tour ever since. I'm in charge of the load-in at the beginning of the day and getting all the cases to the right spots on the stage -- and at the end of the night I'm at the truck making sure all the cases get back in the truck in the right order and that we haven't lost anything. I'm responsible for the security for all the instruments throughout the day while everything is on stage.
Chuch died of a heart attack during the rehearsals for the Licks Tour and Keith and Ronnie had me take Chuch's place as Ronnie's guitar tech. Not being a guitar player, it was quite a responsibilty for me, but I learned a lot and did the whole tour without getting myself or Ronnie into too much trouble.
For the beginning of The Bigger Bang Tour I bowed out of that position telling Ronnie that he deserved a real guitar tech that knew more about guitars and amps than I did, and Pierre thought it would be a good idea to have one guy just to do the re-stringing and tuning of all the guitars... Keith's, Ronnie's, Mick's and even Blondie's. So I took that on. It's a big job,since there are about 65 guitars on stage every day that have to be show ready.
Pierre de Beauport is Keith's main guitar tech and also the crew chief for the Backline. He's the one that does the guitar changes and stays on stage during the entire performance keeping an eye on the whole band. I ferry the guitars up and down the stairs to Pierre.
When the show starts, I have the first two guitars needed on guitar stands behind Keith's amps and as songs end, I bring the guitars back down the stairs and look at the song list and get the next guitars ready.
Who is Rich from Richard Henry Guitars?
Over the last few years I have worked on various Stones shows as a guitar technician for bands that have supported the Stones. Most of my photos were taken in the area under the stage where all the guitar and backline technicians have their workstations. Johnny Starbuck & Pierre were always great and let me hang out for hours checking out all the guitars.
Richard Henry has been in the business of buying and selling guitars for over twenty years beginning in the late eighties in Manchester England.
Over the years he has managed various successful specialist guitar stores and worked as senior vintage salesman for Europe's largest vintage guitar specialists.
Richard spent the last two years pioneering a successful specialist vintage guitar brokering business and in late 2008 decided to go solo, giving him the freedom to conduct business under his own name offering an unrivaled selection of high end vintage as well as generic new and used American guitars.
With a reputation for honesty and integrity, Richard's knowledge and expertise in the field of vintage American guitars is known worldwide and he is respected for his ethics and reliability.
Richard believes that a person's greatest asset is their name, so every client can be assured that every deal is always conducted with the preservation of that in mind.
As well as being a full time guitar dealer, Richard has toured the world for well over a decade as an experienced guitar technician, most notably with Buzzcocks, The Charlatans, Hard-Fi and The Alarm.
All photos courtesy of Richard Henry, JS and Blue Lena unless otherwise noted
To visit my first page I created on Keith's Guitars with info from 1996-2002CLICK HERE
Copyright Blue Lena January 2008
Excellent article Ted very interesting.
Though there are various versions of Keef's quote all over the interwebs, I believe the accurate version is "5 strings, three notes, two fingers, and one arsehole". In his autobiography, Life, he says he got the open G idea originally from Ry Cooder, who used it for slide work. (Before that, Richards says, early guitar players were often originally banjo players, who then tuned their first cheap guitars like 5 string banjos.)
Anyway, Richards eventually got rid of the low E string. "The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you've only got three notes - the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It's tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it's electric, they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring."
Later, he goes on to say," Ian Stewart used to refer to us as 'my little three-chord wonders.' But it is an honorable title. OK, this song has got three chords, right? What can you do with three chords? Tell it to John Lee Hooker; most of his songs are on one chord. Howlin' Wolf stuff, one chord, and Bo Diddley. It was listening to them that made me realize that silence was the canvas. Filling it all in and speeding about all over the place was certainly not my game and it wasn't what I enjoyed listening to. With five strings you can be sparse;"
It is funny, as a guitarist we have a tendency to get into habits and not even know where they come from, after watching a video on youtube about Keith, I realized he was more of an inspiration than what I thought, I have been playing with 5 and 4 strings almost since I started playing 34 years ago, I don't drop the low e though, I drop the very bottom and know I play with only three strings.
Very interesting!. I didn´t know that the great Keith sometimes use the guitar with the low E string removed. Very interesting. I´ll try it´tuning my six string GDGBD.
Happy 75th Birthday Keith!!!