Keith Richards was born on December 18, 1943, in Dartford, Kent, England. His maternal grandfather was a guitar player in a jazz band that toured Britain. The young Richards took an early interest in playing guitar and having a music career from this influence. His mother nurtured his musical interest, introducing him to other jazz musicians such as Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. When he was 15, she bought him his first guitar, an instrument that would become the focal point of his life. His father was less supportive of his musical endeavours, often telling him to “Stop that bloody noise.”
Richards got what he would call his “first taste of show biz” while attending Dartford Technical School. The young musician attracted the attention of the school choirmaster, Jake Clair, with his singing voice and was recruited into the choir. During his time in the choir, he had the opportunity to sing with two other boys in a trio that performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. His time in the choir would be cut short after getting himself expelled from the school for truancy.
At the advice of the headmaster who had expelled him, Richards began attending Sidcup Art College, where he was exposed to American blues artists. The exciting new musical influence re-invigorated his love for guitar and he traded the acoustic that his mother had bought him for an electric. Fellow Sidcup classmate and Future Rolling Stones bandmate, Dick Taylor, once remarked that even in those early years when Keith was just starting out on electric he could play most of Chuck Berry’s solos.
In a fortunate twist of fate for music fans, Keith Richards would run into a former classmate from his early days at Wentworth Primary School while traveling on a train to Sidcup. He and Mick Jagger, who was now a student at the London School of Economics recognized each other from their childhood days and began to talk. Eventually the conversation turned to the LPs that Richards was carrying with him, rare rhythm and blues albums that he had special ordered from America. Richards was shocked to learn that not only did Jagger share his taste in music, but also had his own collection of rare rhythm and blues albums from America. Even more coincidentally, Richards learned that Jagger was also friends with Dick Taylor and was singing in a band with him called ‘Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys’. He was invited to a rehearsal and soon after asked to join the band.
In 1962, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met Brian Jones and Ian Stewart and disbanded the ‘Blue Boys’ to form ‘The Rolling Stones’. Later that year Taylor left the group to return to art school. Richards abandoned the school to pursue his music career and moved into a flat with bandmates Jagger and Jones. During this time his parents divorced. Richards remained close to his mother, who continued to be supportive of his musical interests. His relationship with his father, on the other hand, would suffer from the divorce; the two didn’t talk for nearly 20 years.
As a member of one of the most influential rock groups of all time, Richards developed a unique style that was born of his love for mixed rhythm/lead style playing of early heros like Muddy Waters. He combined the dual role playing of his early heros with open G tuning, which he began experimenting with between 1967 and 1968, and created a sound that is to this day immediately identifiable with his iconic band. This signature “Keith Richards sound” can be heard on many of the Stones most popular tracks, including: ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, and ‘Brown Sugar’.
An early experimenter with electronic fuzz boxes, Richards performance with a Gibson Maestro fuzz on the track ‘Satisfaction’ resulted in a huge boost in sales for the device. During his lengthy career he has also been known to use wah-wah pedals, phasers, and even a Leslie speaker; his preferred setup, however is just a simple guitar and amp. In fact, he prefers an acoustic for practice work at home, having this to say on the subject, “Every guitar player should play acoustic at home. No matter what else you do, if you don’t keep up your acoustic work you’re never going to get the full potential out of an electric, because you lose that touch.” On tracks such as ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’, Keith is using an acoustic guitar that is distorted by an overloaded cassette recorder microphone.
Keith Richards’ fame has led to an influence outside of the musical world. Johnny Depp has said in interviews that he based many of the mannerisms of his character in Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow, on Richards. The association led to Richards being cast as Jack Sparrow’s father in one of the movie’s sequels.