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Watch rare footage of Keith Richards playing an early synth

For decades, the development of the synthesiser and electronic instruments progressed as inventions such as the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot emerged. However, the true breakthrough came in 1964, when Robert Moog created the modular Moog synthesiser – the first commercial synthesiser.

It wasn’t until 1968 that the instrument was made popular outside of the interests of experimental musicians due to the release of Wendy Carlos’ album Switched on Bach. Thanks to Carlos, improvements were made to the instrument since she was more musically gifted than Moog, knowing exactly what needed to be adjusted to become a more effective instrument.

Around this time, the synthesiser became a source of fascination for many popular acts who were interested in incorporating the new piece of equipment into their sound. One band enamoured by this new musical development was The Rolling Stones. Formed in 1962, the band swiftly became one of the biggest bands in the world, only rivalling The Beatles. Starting out with a penchant for playing rock and roll and rhythm and blues covers, the band started writing their own compositions, partly inspired by the success of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.

Soon enough, the Rolling Stones were formidable, earning a string of number-one hits. Musically, the band came a long way from their roots, constantly taking inspiration from different genres and instruments worldwide. Different band members provided different interests that proved vital to developing the band’s sound, from jazz to reggae. 

Thus, it is unsurprising that when the synthesiser became popular, the Stones were quick to experiment with the instrument. Mario Schifano’s arthouse movie, Umano non Umano, includes footage of Keith Richards, the band’s outspoken guitarist and occasional vocalist, playing around with a modular synthesiser. 

The short clip gives an insight into the band’s interest in musical experimentation, immersing themselves in the world of a new instrument without hesitation. Mick Jagger was supposedly interested in playing the synthesiser as his main instrument, and the band purchased one to try out. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, although the clip of Richards messing with the synth is a taste of what could’ve been for the Stones.

According to Robbie Lee, a rare instrument collector, “1969 was right on the cusp of commercial synths being available to rock musicians. Previously, they were all at universities and government-sponsored experimental tape centres.” 

The band inevitably decided to sell the Moog, and it was purchased by none other than Tangerine Dream’s Christoph Franke.

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