The Rolling Stones have many great rocking songs with memorable riffs, hooks, and licks that have become staples in the world of classic rock. The good news for guitar students is that while these riffs are iconic, most of them aren’t too complicated to learn!
With the right guitar tuning, some bluesy overdrive and distortion, and a bit of practice, you can easily play these famous Stones songs. In this article, we’ll break down 3 of the most recognizable Rolling Stones riffs and explain exactly how to play them.
Whether you’re a beginner looking to add some classic rock to your repertoire or an experienced guitarist wanting to perfect your Stones skills, learning these essential riffs is a rite of passage.
With this guide, you’ll be ready to strum, pick, and rock out to “Satisfaction,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Start Me Up,” in no time.
I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)
Since there are so many songs to choose from we will pick three from their most prominent decades of the 1960’s to the 1980’s. “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” is not only one of The Rolling Stones most popular songs, but it is also one of the top 100 rock songs in history according to many polls.
Keith Richards supposedly wrote the riff as he was about to fall asleep and woke up the next morning surprised. Later in the recording process, they used an early version of a fuzz box as a guide for a horn section, but that never materialized. The grit and distortion of the fuzz effects would become a defining feature of the song.
The song is in the key E and starts on the second fret of the A string with the notes 2 2 2 4 5 5 5 5 4 4 and back to 2 which are the notes B, C#, D which fit the E blues scale with the flattened 7th (b7) with the D note.
The Rolling Stones music is blues rock based, so using b3, b5, and b7 notes is common. At first, it may seem a little stiff sounding but as you play along you will get the hang of where the slurs, hammer-ons, and pull-offs are. You can add a little bend on the 5th fret when you first hit it.
The rest of the song is a E to A major back and forth with a B7 at the second “I try”. As you play the chords you can incorporate that riff above into the chord changes.
There are plenty of blues rock hits that use this same I-V-V7 progression along with the flattened seventh. Their song “Brown Sugar” even adds in a bVII chord for more of a rocking feel, it is a common feature of their music.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
This song came out in 1971 and the intro is another one of the greatest riffs in rock history. There is something about the incredibly catchy opening guitar line that makes it perfect for movie soundtracks when you want a strong rocking vibe.
This song has two parts where the first two minutes are the main pop song, while the last of it is an extended jam.
The opening riff isn’t difficult if you have the right open G tuning of D G D G B D. From there it is a simple matter of playing the basic notes of the scale in a staccato style, even Keith has claimed it’s an easy riff. Once you know the basic frets you will be playing on, it’s possible to piece it together by ear.
Most of the riff focuses on the frets between 7 and 10 played on two strings with fourth intervals, which is another hallmark of Blue’s rock. This tuning makes it easy to repeat the riffs in a lower and higher register.
Start by holding the 99 on the D and G strings and then hit the 1010 and pull off onto the 99. Now hit the 77 once before going back to the 99 and pulling off.
We then move up a string and do this similar pattern with the 10th, 9th, and 7th frets. In the beginning, we mostly stay with these notes on the GDG section of the strings.
Next move down to the 5th and 7th fret of the bottom treble strings. With the open tuning, it makes it easier to play these double stops (two strings), the key is to get the bends, slurs, and pull-offs at the right time. Be sure to play along to get a feel for what Keith is doing.
As for effects, you have the normal blues rock overdrive, distortion, and fuzz to give it grit. Once you get comfortable with playing in the open G tuning it is easier to jam along with the track even if you don’t get the riff just right.
It is also a jam song after all! It may not sound great at first but as you get in the groove the riff becomes easier!
Start Me Up
By the early 1980’s The Rolling Stones were still seeing mainstream success, while other bands of the 60’s were having reunions, the Stones were still writing great music.
Despite being an older band this song had a regular rotation on MTV. And like their hits of the past, this starts with a memorable guitar riff by Keith Richards.
This song initially had a reggae vibe so remember that when playing the riff, it has a little less blues rock and more of a laid-back groove. And again we are in open G to make the riff that much easier!
It starts with X55555 and we use our middle and second to play X55565 right before hitting the 7 at X57565. After we play that it goes down to X333XX and riffs with the ring finger in the X3533X.
The key to the riff is a slight mute before moving to the 3rd fret and getting the right groove on hitting the extra string. The rest of the chords are then basic blues movements, for example, the initial riff is just a C-F chord, again a rocking 4th interval!
Also during the song, they use bVII (Bb) and even a bIII (Eb) which is another rock staple chord.
Keep your tuning in G if you plan on playing more riffs from The Rolling Stones, they aren’t all in that key but Keith sure loved it. Blues rock is not meant to be difficult or perfect, you just play rocking blue notes and fourths in a rhythmic manner and you will have incredible riffs.
In fact, after you are done learning some more Rolling Stones riffs you can try your own simple blues licks with these same tunings and intervals!
About the Author
Throughout Gary's career, from School of Rock, to Public School Modern Band Teacher, to Director of Curriculum at Little Kids Rock, there has been one single mission - to empower students to discover, play, and create music on their own terms. His role is simply to be the best guide he can be.