Keith Richards has been the lead guitarist of The Rolling Stones since 1962. He co-wrote some of the best songs of all time with lead singer Mick Jagger, and “created, and immortalized on record, rock’s greatest single body of riffs” including ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’
Formerly hard-living, he’s (mostly) reformed. At 68, he’s still performing; and now he’s a writer of an utterly brilliant memoir, Life. In it, he says, “I’m not just here to make records and money. I’m here to say something and to touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: ‘Do you know this feeling?’” His must-read book is full of the wisdom of a true musical genius. In it, there are lessons for all creative people.
1. Know your influences.
What I found out about blues and music, tracing things back, is that nothing came from itself. As great as it is, this is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation of the theme. And so you suddenly realise that everybody’s connected here. This is not just he’s fantastic and the rest are crap; they’re all interconnected.
2. Learn the rules of your craft, then discard them.
One of the first lessons I learned with guitar playing was that none of these guys were actually playing straight chords. There’s a thrown-in, a flick-back. Nothing’s ever a straight major. It’s an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing. There is no ‘properly.’ There’s just how you feel about it.
3. Study (and live) hard.
The drive in the band was amazing among Mick [Jagger], Brian [Jones] and myself. It was incessant study. Not really in the academic sense of it. And then I think we realised like any young guys, that blues are not learned in a monastery. You’ve got to go out there and get your heart broke and then come back and then you can sing the blues. At that time, we were taking it on a purely musical level, forgetting that these guys were singing about shit. First you’ve got to get in the shit. And then maybe you can come back and sing it.
4. Have no fear of making a mistake.
… I’ve always felt very comfortable on stage, even if I screw up. It always felt like a dog, this is my turf, piss around it. While I’m here, nothing else can happen. All I can do is screw up. Otherwise, have a good time.
5. Disrupt disrupt disrupt.
There was no great universal ‘We want to change society’; we just knew that things were changing and that they should be changed. They were just too comfortable. It was all too satisfied. And we thought, ‘How can we run rampant?’
6. Ideas come from immersion.
…because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be ‘Oh! That’s the bridge!’ And there’s nothing you can do… It’s totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you like it or not.
7. Emotion touches people’s hearts.
What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people… Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without having a heart attack.
8. Don’t overthink it.
Great songs write themselves. You’re just being led by the nose, or by the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow where it takes you.
9. Don’t second guess the public.
When it comes down to it, Mick and I wrote our first song in a kitchen. That’s as big as the world is. If we’d been thinking how the public was going to react, we’d never had made a record.
10. Technology’s a fad; music is forever.
Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a great drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof? Everybody got carried away with technology and now they’re slowly swimming back.
Keith Richards’ incredible book ‘Life’ is highly recommended, and available from Amazon | Book Depository | real life retailers. If you like this article, you may enjoy “What matters is the work”: 25 lessons for creatives in Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids.’