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Keith Richards explains the 5-string guitar: '5 strings, 3 notes, 2 hands and 1 asshole'

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

"You can't buy a persona. You can either make it up or you can be it," states Keith Richards in the upcoming documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, which gets its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival tonight, followed by wide release on Netflix Sept. 18.

And if there's anybody who knows about creating persona, it's the Rolling Stones guitarist, who, as he said during a press conference for the film (dressed in a snakeskin blazer, Rastafarian-striped bandana and mirrored glasses), "has stories." This was followed by his gravelly, inimitable laugh.

But one thing, besides stories, that Richards is known for is his use of a five-string guitar and "open G" tuning, which gives every Rolling Stones song that signature sound. He was asked to explain his relationship with the five-string, and in true Richards fashion, he replied like this: "ah, the five string guitar: it’s five strings, three notes, two hands and one asshole." This was followed, of course, by that same laugh, but also a lengthier description of how he came to play it.

Actually, it’s a very old fashioned tuning, it actually comes from banjo, I believe, although it has a kind of murky history. … Some people would even call it Spanish tuning, other "open G." I got fascinated with it because it wasn’t your classico (at this, he makes the impression of stiffly holding a classic guitar). In a way, you were given another instrument to play and figure out. And especially when you electrified it, you start to get these drone notes going that you can’t get from a regular guitar. And so I decided, what I found, was this sorta interesting, especially for a rhythm guitar, incredible bed for music, especially for blues and rhythm & blues and rock n’ roll, to lean on. So I just experimented. At the time, I suppose, I thought I was not going to get any better on the six string. I thought well, take one string off and then reinvent things. That will help me, and it did, for what I wanted to do. It’s a rather unique tuning and I don’t recommend it for everybody.

He was also asked if he would reconsider his recent stance on rap music – basically, that it's for the "tone deaf"– because of it's close relationship to the blues, jazz and soul, all genres he admittedly loves. But the veteran rocker wasn't budging.

"If you consider it just talking, ya. The blues to me also includes music, not just someone talking, and it’s as simple as that," he said. "For me, I need music, I need notes that change. It just doesn’t grab me. And that’s all. I don’t want to knock anything, they’re having a great time at it and loads of people love it and stuff like like, but I prefer not to hear ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with a bad drum beat behind it."

He's got a persona, and he's sticking to it.