Keith Richard’s Guitars
by Daniel Brooks
The Rolling Stones have created some of the most iconic music of the past fifty years, and from the very beginning, the creative soul of the Stones has been guitarist Keith Richards and singer Mick Jagger. Typically, Keith would come up with a riff or two and maybe a lyric line or a title, Mick would come back with lyrics and a melody. Together, they would work out a song from the elements, one of hundreds they would contribute to the rock and roll canon. Their decades in the studio and on stage represent an essential part of the history of rock, just as the tales of their rock and roll excess are now the stuff of legend. While others might not have been able to achieve, or endure, such a long and storied career, Keith Richards has thrived through his love of both the music, and the tools of his trade.
Keith Richards is said to have a collection of more than 3,000 guitars of every imaginable model, but he jokes “Give me five minutes and I’ll make ‘em all sound the same.” He admits that it is probably too many guitars, since he doesn’t have enough time to play all of them, and he announced in 2008 that he wanted to open a museum. Out of all of those guitars, there are several standouts in his collection that he does play regularly, and a few historical instruments that deserve special attention. Let’s take a few minutes to look at them.
image credit: Blue Lena
His favorite and most famous guitar is Micawber, a 1953 Fender Telecaster he picked up in1971 while working on Exile on Main St. Inexplicably named after a character in Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, Micawber is blonde with a black pickguard and a whole lot of battle scars. It has been set up for only five strings in an open G tuning (GDGBD), with the lowest string, and its saddle, removed. The neck pickup has been replaced by a Gibson PAF humbucker, and the bridge pickup has been replaced with a Fender lap steel pickup that has also been altered for five strings. Micawber appears in every show on songs like Brown Sugar and Honky Tonk Women.
Keith has a couple of other Telecasters set up for five-string, open G tuning. These work as backups or get swapped out, with capos in different positions, for specific songs. A 1954 Tele named Malcolm, or Number Two, also has a Gibson PAF humbucker in the neck position and a natural finish just as beautifully aged as Micawber. A third Tele, Sonny, is a ‘66 with a sunburst finish and a neck position PAF with the cover removed to reveal the coils. Whenever the Stones play Tumblin’ Dice or You Can’t Always Get What You Want on stage, Keith grabs Sonny to do the job.
image credit: The Keith Shrine
Keith owns several “newer” Telecasters. He bought a new Tele Custom in 1975 for the American tour and relied on it as his primary stage and studio guitar for the next decade. It is black with a black pickguard and a maple neck. It came standard with a humbucker in the neck position. He used a standard tuning for years until, finally, converting it to his favorite five-string open G tuning for stage performances of Jumping Jack Flash.
In addition to his collection of Telecasters, he regularly plays the 1958 Mary Kaye Signature Stratocaster given to him by fellow Rolling Stone Ron Wood during the 1982 tour. It has a transparent blonde finish with gold hardware. This one stays in standard tuning and appears on songs like Miss You and Under My Thumb.
Image credit: Bigsby Guitars
The man loves his Fender guitars, but, of course, not exclusively. When he bought his ‘59 Gibson Les Paul Standard in 1964, it was the first anyone had seen in Britain. He had this cherry sunburst Les Paul fitted with a Bigsby tailpiece and relied on it as one of his main guitars for several years. He used it to record Satisfaction, he played it on the Ed Sullivan show and took it to Altamont in 1969.
This wasn’t his only Les Paul, He bought a ’57 Les Paul Custom in 1966, and a second late-50s Custom in 1969, and played both, extensively, until they were stolen in 1971. He has also played several Les Paul Juniors since he discovered them in 1973, both single and double cutaway versions. His favorite of these is a TV yellow, double cutaway ’57 Les Paul Junior nicknamed Dice. He keeps it in standard tuning and capos it up to the 7th fret for Midnight Rambler.
Image Credit: Blue Lena
Gibson hollowbodies have been a part of his stable of guitars since the late 60s. His black ’59 ES-355 made its first appearance on the 1969 tour and was used extensively on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. He added a white 1964 Gibson ES-345 Stereo in the mid 90s. It looked so much like his ES-355 that he and his guitar tech began referring to it as "The White One" as a quick way to differentiate it from the black one. This was soon shortened to Dwight. Both feature a Bigsby tailpiece, and, like most of his non-Tele collection, are kept in standard tuning. Both appear extensively on every night of every tour.
Well, we could go on and on about Keith Richard’s collection of more than 3,000 guitars. We could discuss ten new guitars every day and still have more to look at a year from now. But maybe a word or two is in order about his effects and his amps.
Oddly enough, the man who first introduced the fuzz pedal to most people has rarely ever used any effects. Keith Richards wasn’t the first to use a fuzz box, or even the first to use the Maestro Fuzz-Tone, but the success of Satisfaction in 1965 brought the obvious creative potential of the effect to a lot of people’s attention. He initially wanted a horn section to play the signature three-note part, and the fuzzy guitar track was meant to be nothing more than a sketch, but the other Stones and their manager out-voted him. The MXR Phase 90 marked a lot of his sound in the late 70s, especially on Some Girls. Now, except for a Fulltone Tape Echo for a little added depth and an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer to help drive his amps, he relies on the right guitar played through the right amp to get his sound.
And when it comes to the right amps, Keith Richards has played through quite a few. He used a Fender Dual Showman from 1964 to 66, then tried out various Vox and Hiwatt models before finding his Ampeg amps in 1969. The 120 watt V-4 head/VT-22 combo, and 60 watt V-2/VT-40 would define his on-stage sound for a decade. From 1977 to 1993 he used a 100 watt Mesa Boogie Mark 1 A804. For the past 20 years or so, he has matched his stage amps with his studio amps by playing through a pair of old Fender Tweed Twins. One of his Fender Twins is serial number #00003. It is believed to be the oldest functioning Fender Twin.
A collection of three thousand guitars and the oldest Fender Twin may seem a bit indulgent, but after fifty years on top and more than 400 songs that helped define the history of Rock and Roll, who do you think deserves it more than Keith Richards?