Richards's mother introduced him to the music of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and bought him his first guitar, a Rosetti acoustic, for seven pounds. His father was less encouraging: "Every time the poor guy came in at night," Richards says, "he'd find me sitting at the top of the stairs with my guitar, playing and banging on the wall for percussion. He was great about it really. He'd only mutter, 'Stop that bloody noise.'" Richards's first guitar hero was Scotty Moore.
Richards attended Wentworth Primary School, as did Mick Jagger; the two knew each other as schoolboys, and lived in the same neighbourhood until 1954. That year the Richards family moved to what Richards has described as "a fucking soul-destroying council estate at completely the other end of town" that looked like "a disgusting concrete jungle". The move was disorienting for the young Richards, as was his transfer a year later to Dartford Technical School (now named Wilmington Grammar School for Boys), which he attended from 1955 to 1959. The Dartford Tech choirmaster Jake Clair noticed Richards's singing voice and recruited him into the school choir. As one of a trio of boy sopranos Richards sang (among other performances) at Westminster Abbey in front of Queen Elizabeth II – an experience that he has called his "first taste of show biz."
In 1959, Richards was expelled from Dartford Technical School for truancy, and the headmaster suggested he would be more at home at the art college in the neighbouring town of Sidcup. At Sidcup Art College Richards devoted his time to playing guitar after he heard American blues artists like Little Walter and Big Bill Broonzy. He swapped a pile of records for his first electric guitar, a hollow-body Höfner cutaway. Fellow Sidcup student and future musical colleague Dick Taylor recalls, "There was a lot of music being played at Sidcup, and we'd go into the empty classrooms and fool around with our guitars. ... Even in those days Keith could play most of [Chuck Berry's] solos." Taylor also remembers Richards experimenting with various drugs at Sidcup: "In order to stay up late with our music and still get to Sidcup in the morning, Keith and I were on a pretty steady diet of pep pills, which not only kept us awake but gave us a lift. We took all kinds of things – pills that girls took for menstruation, inhalers like Nostrilene, and other stuff. Opposite the college there was this little park with an aviary that had a cockatoo in it. Cocky the Cockatoo we used to call it. Keith used to feed it pep pills and make it stagger around on its perch. If ever we were feeling bored we'd go and give another upper to Cocky."
One morning in 1961, on the train journey from Dartford to Sidcup, Richards happened to get into the same carriage as Mick Jagger, who was then a student at the London School of Economics. They recognized each other and began talking about the LPs Jagger had with him – blues and rhythm & blues albums he had acquired by mail-order from America. Richards was surprised and impressed that Jagger not only shared his enthusiasm for Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters but also that he owned such LPs which were extremely rare in Britain at the time. The two discovered that they had a mutual friend in Dick Taylor, with whom Jagger was singing in an amateur band called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Jagger invited Richards to a rehearsal and soon afterwards Richards also joined the line-up. The group disbanded after Jagger, Richards and Taylor met Brian Jones and Ian Stewart, with whom they went on to form The Rolling Stones (Taylor left the band in November 1962 to return to art school).
By mid-1962 Richards had left Sidcup Art College in favour of pursuing his fledgling musical career and moved into a London flat with Jagger and Jones. His parents divorced about the same time. Richards maintained close ties with his mother, who was very supportive of his musical activities, but he became estranged from his father and didn't resume contact with him until 1982.
In 1963 Richards dropped the "s" from his surname and began using the professional name "Keith Richard", because Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham felt it "looked more pop". (He used the s-less version as his pen name and stage name until the late 1970s.)
Richards's guitar playing shows his fascination with chords and rhythm; he conspicuously avoids flamboyant virtuosity in favour of riffs Chris Spedding described as "direct, incisive and unpretentious". Richards prefers to play in tandem with another guitarist and has always toured with one, and since 1969 he has always toured with a keyboardist.
Chuck Berry has been a constant inspiration for Richards. Richards and Jagger played many Berry numbers with the first band they played in, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys; and it was Richards and Jagger who introduced Berry's songs to The Rolling Stones' early repertoire. Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters records were another early source of inspiration, and the basis for the style of interwoven lead and rhythm guitar that Richards developed with Brian Jones. In the late 1960s, Brian Jones's declining interest in guitar led to Richards recording all guitar parts on many tracks, including slide guitar, which had been Jones's specialty in the band's early years. Jones's replacement guitarist Mick Taylor worked with The Rolling Stones from 1969 to 1974, and Taylor's virtuosity at lead guitar led to a much more pronounced separation between lead and rhythm guitar roles, notably onstage. In 1975 Taylor was replaced by Ronnie Wood, marking a return to the style of guitar interplay that he and Richards call "the ancient art of weaving".
The 1967/68 break in the Rolling Stones' touring allowed Richards experiment with open tunings. Open tunings were commonly used for slide guitar, but Richards explored their use in rhythm playing, developing an innovative and distinctive style of syncopated and ringing I-IV chording that can be heard on "Street Fighting Man" and "Start Me Up". Richards has used various open tunings (and has always regularly used standard tuning as well) but particularly favours a five-string variant of open G tuning using GDGBD unencumbered by a low 6th string. Several of his Telecasters are tuned this way (see the "Guitars" section below), and this tuning is prominent on Rolling Stones tracks and concert renditions including "Honky Tonk Women", "Brown Sugar" and "Start Me Up".
Richards considers acoustic guitar to be the basis for his playing, and has said: "...you're never going to get the full potential out of an electric, because you lose that touch." Richards's acoustic guitar is featured on tracks throughout the Rolling Stones' career, including hits like "Not Fade Away", "Brown Sugar", "Beast of Burden" and "Almost Hear You Sigh". All the guitars on the studio version of "Street Fighting Man" are Richards on acoustic, distorted by overloading a small cassette recorder microphone, a technique also used on "Jumping Jack Flash".
Richards has described his role in the Rolling Stones as "oiling the machinery". Ian Stewart called him the musical leader of the Rolling Stones, and both Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood have noted that while other bands follow the drummer, the Rolling Stones follow Richards. Wyman stated in 1978: "[O]nstage you have to follow Keith. You have no way of not following him."
Richards and Jagger collaborated on songs in 1963, following the nearby example of the Beatles' Lennon/McCartney and the encouragement of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who saw little future for a cover band. The earliest Jagger/Richards collaborations were recorded by other artists, including Gene Pitney, whose rendition of "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" was their first top-ten single in the UK. Richards recalls: "We were writing these terrible pop songs that were becoming Top 10 hits. ... They had nothing to do with us, except we wrote 'em."
The Rolling Stones' first top-ten hit with a Jagger/Richards original was "The Last Time" (1965); "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (also 1965) was their first international #1 recording. (Richards has stated that the "Satisfaction" riff came to him in his sleep; he woke up just long enough to record it on a cassette player by his bed.) Since Aftermath (1966) most Rolling Stones albums have consisted mainly of Jagger/Richards originals. Their songs reflect the influence of blues, R&B, rock & roll, pop, soul, gospel and country, as well as forays into psychedelia and Dylanesque social commentary. Their work in the 1970s and beyond has incorporated elements of funk, disco, reggae and punk. Richards has also written and recorded slow torchy ballads, such as "All About You" (1980).
In his solo career, Richards has often shared co-writing credits with drummer and co-producer Steve Jordan. Richards has said: "I've always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it."
Richards has frequently stated that he feels less like a creator than a conduit when writing songs: "I don't have that God aspect about it. I prefer to think of myself as an antenna. There's only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme."
Richards was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1993.
Even though Richards has used many different guitar models, in a 1986 Guitar World interview he joked that no matter what model he plays, "give me five minutes and I'll make 'em all sound the same."
Richards's amplifier preferences have changed repeatedly, but some of his notable amplifiers are:
- Mesa Boogie Mark 1 A804 - Used between 1977 and 1993, this 100-watt 1x12" combo is finished in hardwood with a wicker grille. It can be heard on the Rolling Stones albums Love You Live, Some Girls, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You, as well as on Richards's two solo albums Talk is Cheap and Main Offender. This amplifier was handcrafted by Randall Smith and delivered to Richards in March 1977.
- Fender Twin - Since the 1990s, Richards has tended to use a variety of Fender "tweed" Twins on stage. Containing a pair of 12" speakers, the Fender Twin was, by 1958, an 80-watt all-tube guitar amplifier. Richards has utilized a pair of Fender Twins to "to achieve his signature clean/dirty rhythm and lead sound."
In 1965 Richards used a Gibson Maestro fuzzbox to achieve the distinctive tone of his riff on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"; the success of the resulting single boosted the sales of the device to the extent that all available stock had sold out by the end of 1965. In the 1970s and early 1980s Richards frequently used guitar effects such as a wah-wah pedal, a phaser and a Leslie speaker, but he mainly relies on combining "the right amp with the right guitar" to achieve the sound he wants.
Richards, who has been frank about his habits, has earned notoriety for his decadent outlaw persona. Rock critic Nick Kent summed up his 1970s image: "[Keith Richards] was the big Lord Byron figure. He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know." In 1994 Richards said of this image: "It's something you drag around behind you like a long shadow ... Even though that was nearly twenty years ago, you cannot convince some people that I'm not a mad drug addict. So I've still got that [image] in my baggage."
Richards has been tried on drug-related charges five times: in 1967, twice in 1973, in 1977 and in 1978. The first trial – the only one involving a prison sentence – resulted from a February 1967 police raid on Redlands, Richards's Sussex estate, where he and some friends, including Jagger, were spending the weekend. The subsequent arrest of Richards and Jagger put them on trial before the Courts of the United Kingdom as well as the court of public opinion. On 29 June Jagger was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for possession of four amphetamine tablets; Richards was found guilty of allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property and sentenced to one year in prison. Both Jagger and Richards were imprisoned at that point, Jagger was taken to Brixton prison in south London and Richards to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in west London, they were both released on bail the next day pending appeal. On 1 July The Times ran an editorial entitled "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?", portraying Jagger's sentence as persecution, and public sentiment against the convictions increased. A month later the appeals court overturned Richards's conviction for lack of evidence, while Jagger was given a conditional discharge.
The most serious charges Richards faced resulted from his arrest on 27 February 1977 at Toronto's Harbour Castle Hotel (R. v. Richards (1979), 49 C.C.C. (2d) 517), when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found him in possession of "22 grams of heroin". Richards was originally charged with "possession of heroin for the purpose of trafficking" – an offence that under the Criminal Code of Canada can result in prison sentences of seven years to life. His passport was confiscated and Richards and his family remained in Toronto until 1 April, when Richards was allowed to enter the United States on a medical visa for treatment for heroin addiction. The charge against him was later reduced to "simple possession of heroin".
For the next two years, Richards lived under threat of criminal sanction. Throughout this period he remained active with The Rolling Stones, recording their biggest-selling studio album, Some Girls, and touring North America. Richards was tried in October 1978, pleading guilty to possession of heroin. He was given a suspended sentence and put on probation for one year, with orders to continue treatment for heroin addiction and to perform a benefit concert on behalf of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Although the prosecution had filed an appeal of the sentence, Richards performed two CNIB benefit concerts at Oshawa Civic Auditorium on 22 April 1979; both shows featured The Rolling Stones and The New Barbarians. In September 1979 the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the original sentence.
Later in 1979, Richards met future wife, model Patti Hansen. They married on 18 December 1983, Richards's 40th birthday, and have two daughters, Theodora and Alexandra, born in 1985 and 1986 respectively.
Richards maintains cordial relations with Italian-born actress Anita Pallenberg, the mother of his first three children; although they were never married, Richards and Pallenberg were a couple from 1967 to 1979. Together they have a son, Marlon (named after the actor Marlon Brando), born in 1969 and a daughter, Angela (originally named Dandelion), born in 1972. Their third child, a boy named Tara (after Richards's friend Tara Browne), died on 6 June 1976, less than three months after his birth.
Richards still owns Redlands, the Sussex estate he purchased in 1966, as well as a home in Weston, Connecticut and another in Turks & Caicos. He is an avid reader with a strong interest in history and owns an extensive library. It's recently come to light that he's a yearning to be a librarian.
In an April 2007 interview for NME magazine, music journalist Mark Beaumont asked Richards what the strangest thing he ever snorted was, and quoted him as replying: "My father. I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn't have cared ... It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive." In the media uproar that followed, Richards' manager said that the anecdote had been meant as a joke; Beaumont told Uncut magazine that the interview had been conducted by international telephone and that he had misquoted Richards at one point (reporting that Richards had said he listens to Motörhead, when what he had said was Mozart), but that he believed the ash-snorting anecdote was true. Richards later confirmed in an interview with Mojo magazine that he had, in fact, snorted his father's ashes – with no cocaine mixed in – before burying them under an oak tree: "I said I'd chopped him up like cocaine, not with. I opened his box up and ... out comes a bit of dad on the dining room table. I'm going, 'I can't use a brush and dustpan for this.'"
Doris Richards, the guitarist's 91-year-old mother, died of cancer in England on 21 April 2007. An official statement released by a Richards representative stated that Richards, her only child, kept a vigil by her bedside during her last days.
Richards made a cameo appearance as Captain Teague, the father of Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp), in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, released in May 2007, and won the Best Celebrity Cameo award at the 2007 Spike Horror Awards for the role. Depp has stated that he based many of Sparrow's mannerisms on Richards.
In August 2007 Richards signed a publishing deal for his autobiography, scheduled to come out in 2010.
In March 2008 fashion house Louis Vuitton unveiled an advertising campaign featuring a photo of Richards with his ebony Gibson ES-355, taken by photographer Annie Leibovitz. Richards donated the fee for his involvement to The Climate Project, an organization for raising environmental awareness.
On 28 October 2008 Richards appeared at the Musicians' Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Nashville, Tennessee, joining the newly inducted Crickets on stage for performances of "Peggy Sue", "Not Fade Away" and "That'll Be the Day".
In August 2009, Richards was ranked #4 in Time magazine's list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time. In September 2009 Richards revealed to Rolling Stone magazine that in addition to anticipating a new Rolling Stones album, he has done some recording with Jack White: "I enjoy working with Jack," he said. "We’ve done a couple of tracks." On 17 October 2009, Richards received the Rock Immortal Award at Spike TV’s Scream 2009 awards ceremony at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles; the award was presented by Johnny Depp. "I liked the living legend, that was all right," Richards said, referring to an award he received in 1989, "but immortal is even better."
In 2009, a book of Richards' quotations was published, titled What Would Keith Richards Do?: Daily Affirmations from a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor.
Keith Richards' autobiography, Life, is expected to be released in October 2010.