The best way to look at The Rolling Stones’ long and varied history is to track the contrasting eras through their different guitar players. The Brian Jones era saw the band shed their initial blues predilections for pop, psychedelia, and eventually the rootsy rock and roll that would become emblematic of their second era. Anchored by Mick Taylor, this era would be The Stones critical peak, producing most of their greatest songs and albums. After Taylor’s departure, Ronnie Wood stepped in to perfect the guitar weaving style between him and Keith Richards that has lasted through to the current era.
Each player brings a different and unique flavour that influences the sound of the band. Jones was a blues purist, reflected in his delicate slide playing and grounding rhythm guitar. Taylor was a fluid lead player who brought a stronger sense of melody and dynamics to The Stones insistent thump, rarely if ever relegating himself to that of a rhythm player. Wood’s main purpose is to be a foil for Richards, whether that’s trading off lead licks or bolstering the rhythm in the background, always acting and reacting to Richards’ intuition.
At the heart, of course, is Keef, the only constant guitar presence in the band. On a number of occasions, Richards simply took on all of the guitar duties himself, whether it was because of the unreliability/instrumental detours of Jones, or simply because no one else was in the studio. Richards was mostly a rhythm player with Taylor, but when Wood joined the two traded lead and rhythm mid-song, creating a sonic tapestry that achieves a richer and fuller sound.
The Stones are responsible for some of the greatest guitar music of the past 60 years, and their influence on the way guitar is used in popular music is undeniably massive. To understand the changes and evolution of the band’s legendary axe work, take a tour through ten songs from each different era of The Stones, featuring all of the group’s guitar players, from the early teenybopper days to becoming hardened elder statesmen of rock and roll.
History of The Rolling Stones’ best guitar work:
1. ‘It’s All Over Now’
The early days of The Stones don’t accurately show a fully formed version of the twin guitar attack that would become iconic for the group. ‘It’s All Over Now’ does show the band trying to find their unique voice outside of the blues pastiches and teenybopper pop-rock of the day, including the weaving style that Richards would labour over for years.
The initial swampiness of the track isn’t quite representative of the band at peak perfected swampiness (that would be ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ from Exile), but the twin leads played by Jones and Richards in the songs intro signal a solid direction for the future.
2. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
Here is where Keith Richards’ reputation as a riff-making king emerges fully formed. The B minor guitar line is only three notes, but the way Richards ascends and descends along the fretboard is akin to a shot of adrenaline straight to the brain.
Aided by a fairly new invention, a fuzzbox guitar pedal, The Stones sounded dirty and dangerous for the first time. Richards originally wanted to replace the riff with horns, something Otis Redding perfected in his own soulful version that same year, but the riff in ‘Satisfaction’ calcified the signature sound that The Stones were searching for.
3. ‘No Expectations’
Brian Jones’ presence became more fleeting as the band entered the psychedelic second half of the sixties. Having lost interest in the guitar, Jones began contributing a bevvy of alternate instruments to recording sessions, diversifying the band’s sound but losing track of their guitar weaving sweet spot.
By 1968 he was in the throes of drug addiction and was barely contributing to The Stones at all. Perhaps his last major contribution was the mournful slide guitar of ‘No Expectations’, which unwittingly personified his state: fragile, soulful, and wearied. Jones’ mark on The Rolling Stones is forever etched into history, but often the legend can take hold over the work. ‘No Expectations’ shows a proper musician who was still able to create something meaningful and beautiful.
4. ‘Street Fighting Man’
As Jones’ contributions began to dwindle, Richards took it upon himself to flash out the guitar parts on most of The Stones output on Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. He began experimenting with personal recorders, which he would use as a pickup on an acoustic guitar and overload the machine to create a distorted, crunchy tone, best exemplified on the fully acoustic ‘Street Fighting Man’, apart from the bass guitar, also played by Richards.
The song is perhaps the greatest illustration of Richards’ intuition guiding him to new sounds and his increased self-reliance allowing him to have a greater influence on The Stones recorded material.
5. ‘Gimme Shelter’
By the time The Stones began work on Let It Bleed, the transition between eras was officially underway. The album is the last to feature recorded appearances from Brian Jones, although he didn’t play the guitar on either of the two tracks he is credited for, and the first to feature guitar work from Mick Taylor, contributing to ‘Country Honk’ and ‘Live With Me’.
Richards instead played off his own riffs and runs, and his solid interplay with his own playing is at its peak on the haunting ‘Gimme Shelter’, for which Richards recorded every guitar part. Legend has it that his guitar fell apart the second after the final guitar take was recorded, putting a punctuation mark on one of the greatest six string songs of all time.
6. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’
Mick Taylor’s abilities as a lead guitarist had an immediate effect on The Stones sound and style. Richards was now more or less solely responsible for rhythm guitar, as Taylor would almost never play chords or riffs. Instead, his speciality was fluid and melodic solos that were rooted in blues but also explored jazzy inversions and phrasings more common to vocalists or horn players.
If ever there was a perfect example of his prowess, the last three minutes of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ just might be it. A masterclass in building tension and rising dynamics, Taylor leads the band through spacey detours that rise higher and higher until he’s pushing the band to jam nirvana.
7. ‘All Down the Line’
Balance is all that Keith Richards was ever looking for in his six string compatriots. Mick Taylor, for all his monster abilities, solidified the distinctions between lead and rhythm more than any other player in Stones history. Still, the two could respond and improvise off each other in impressively cohesive ways, like on the Exile on Main St. cut ‘All Down the Line’.
Taylor’s slide work connects with both Mick Jagger’s vocal melodies and Richards’ choppy bursts of rhythm to glue the proceedings together, rather than stand out as a distinct entity.
8. ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’
What separated Keith Richards from his contemporary rock guitar players was his ferocious desire to find new sonic textures. ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’ introduces a number of new sounds – namely the wah wah pedal – to the Stones canon, with Taylor providing the quacky and distorted lead lines while Richards sits back and fills the spaces with atmospheric chords.
More than any other song, even the disco pulse of ‘Miss You’ or the country twang of ‘Dear Doctor’, ‘Heartbreaker’ sees The Stones attempting to incorporate modern sounds and contemporary styles into the group’s signature blend. The band never got funkier than they are here.
9. ‘Beast of Burden’
Much is made of the “ancient art of guitar weaving” that Richards often mentions in reverent tones. It’s his personal holy grail: two players so in tune with each other that it becomes like one guitar, where licks are traded and intuitively complimented without one overpowering the other.
Jones was too unreliable or too uninterested in guitar to achieve this dynamic, and Taylor was too intrinsically a lead player to sit back and weave. But Ronnie Wood was a kindred spirit with Richards, and the two played guitar like two halves of the same person. There’s no distinction between lead and rhythm on ‘Beast of Burden’, and it is the greatest example of the ancient art of the guitar weave on record.
10. ‘Start Me Up’
As much as the guitar weaving dynamic defines The Rolling Stones sound, ultimately Richards is best when he tunes his guitar to his signature open G and pumps out a killer riff.
There are a ton of incredible examples that didn’t make this list: ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Happy’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Honky Tonk Women‘, and ‘Before They Make Me Run’ among them. But even as they began pushing past the 20 year mark, The Stones still had the goods, and ‘Start Me Up’ is the killer opening riff to end all killer opening riffs in a discography filled with killer opening riffs.