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The Confines of Creativity: How Keith Richards Made Rock and Roll History with Five Strings

There are players that get by, those that go above and beyond, and some who find creative ways to work around issues on the fretboard. Keith Richards definitely falls in the latter category. He’s at once famous and infamous for literally engineering rock and roll with five strings and a tuning borrowed from a banjo. He’s a player who found a way of getting so much more by playing less.

As the Rolling Stones wrote the soundtrack of modern rock and roll, Richards stumbled upon the convenience and creative potential of an open G tuning (D-G-D-G-D-B). In an exclusive interview on his own YouTube channel, Richards recently commented on his long love affair with open and non-traditional tunings. “[Alternate] tunings are a strange thing—they take you into musical areas that are not supposed to exist.” Looking back over the Stones most iconic hits, it’s clear that the terrain Richards encountered with an open tuning already opened up different styles and playing approaches. For example, open tunings are exceptional for slide playing, developing riffs with underlying drones, and discovering alternate voicings or unexpected positions for chord variations. As Richards reflected further on the creative potential of open-tunings he noted part of their spark is “the constricted number of notes that there are to play because a lot of the [strings] are repeats.”

If you’re a Stones fan, however, you’ll know that Richards took this constricted creativity approach a step further. Unless you’re a bassist rocking the four strings or in a metal head grinding it out on a seven string, the gold standard for modern guitar designs is six strings. Yet Richards decided to split the difference and forego the low E. In interviews with Richards, he recollects first researching players who snipped a string in the late 1960s. Apparently, Ry Cooder, an American slide player, was one such five-stringer that caught Richards’ interests. As he studied the habits of Cooder and others, Richards was captivated by the concept yet wanted to redeploy it. Rather than use it for slide, he wanted to go all in for rhythm playing. The switch to five strings, then, was also a way of building out of a creative rut. In his songwriting, Richards was starting to feel the ever-pressing parameters of the standard tuning plus six string approach. By distilling the design of the instrument down, Richards indeed found new ground.

While Richards blazed this trail forward with a Fender Telecaster in his grip, his tuning style and string reduction approach resulted in at least one gear collaboration. In the early 1970s, Ted Newman collaborated with Richards on a customized five string instrument that made its way on stage and across the continent in the 1972 Rolling Stones American tour for Exile on Main St. Newman stayed close at hand with Richards until 1978 after which he went solo and founded the boutique brand of Newman Guitars out of Austin, Texas.

So what’s the lesson from this player who played differently? No matter where you are in your playing journey, there’s no right or wrong way to play. There might not even be better or worse. Simply put, all that matters is what works for you. Push the bounds, go off the beaten path, try something unusual and you just might become a player who moves things forward.

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