The Rolling Stones have been around since 1962, so this is their seventh decade making music. With such a long history, the iconic band has a massive body of work, a discography that was recently enlarged by their latest album, Hackney Diamonds.
Starting out as a London-based blues group, The Stones achieved phenomenal worldwide success mixing pop, rock, and blues, crafting their own unique sound that’s stood the test of time with classic songs like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women, and Angie which, even decades on, still sound fresh and exciting.
The Stones have always been a two-guitar outfit, with the legendary Keith Richards having been there from the beginning, partnered originally by Brian Jones, who tragically drowned in his swimming pool in 1969. Jones was followed by ex-John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers guitarist Mick Taylor, who in turn was replaced by Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood in 1975.
Throughout their recorded works, the guitar sounds of The Rolling Stones have been a mix of electric- and acoustic-based, with references to the band’s blues roots in cover versions of classic songs like I’m A King Bee and Little Red Rooster, and Richards, Jones, Taylor, and Wood all contributing slide guitar in various songs, too. Keith Richards' inspired guitar riffs have become the stuff of legend via songs like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Satisfaction, the latter of which was played using a Gibson Maestro FZ1 fuzz-tone pedal.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable and consistent musical sounds in the Stones' catalog is Richards' open tunings, where his guitar is tuned to open chords such as D, E, or, usually, G, where he removes the sixth string. This can be heard on numerous songs – such as Honky Tonk Women and Start Me Up – and has a big, rich, immensely pleasing sound.
These songs, among many others, would probably have been played using arguably Richards' most famously recognizable guitar, his 1950s Fender Telecaster, nicknamed Micawber, which features a Gibson PAF humbucker pickup in the neck position.
In this feature we’ll be looking at the styles of all the Stones' guitarists, with examples featuring their individual approaches – including their use of bluesy ideas such as mixing Minor and Major Pentatonic scales, country style flavors with the use of 6th interval shapes, and rock 'n' roll influenced double-stops.
We also look at Richards' open G-tuned rhythm style, as well as some Brian Jones-esque slide. There are also three ‘mini pieces’ which have a short rhythm guitar beginning followed by a solo. These are in three distinct musical flavors – a Major tonality piece, a Minor tonality piece, and a blues style piece.
It’s only rock 'n' roll, etc, so have fun!
Get the tone
Amp Settings: Gain 4, Bass 3, Middle 6, Treble 7, Reverb
Either a single-coil or humbucker-equipped guitar can be used here, since all four guitarists regularly switched between the two. A higher action might be better suited to slide though. You can use anywhere from clean to light or medium overdrive for both rhythm and solo duties. Feel free to add reverb or a mild delay for ambient thickening.
Example 1: Keith Richards
This is in the key of C and features melodic C Minor Pentatonic licks (C-Eb-F-G-Bb) over the Major chords C, F, and Bb.
Example 2: Keith Richards
This demonstrates Richards' rock 'n' roll influence from players such as Chuck Berry. Make sure the third string’s tone interval bends are accurate.
The double-stop bends on the third and second strings in bars 2-4 can be achieved with either the third or fourth finger of the fretting hand pushing upwards, or the flat of the third finger pulling downwards. Either way, make sure the third string bends up a tone and the second string bends up a semitone.
Example 3: Keith Richards
This exercise demonstrates Richards' style of rhythm playing using open G tuning. Tuning as follows, low to high: D-G-D-F-B-D. However, Richards famously removes his sixth string for this tuning, so as to avoid unwanted sixth string noise completely.
If you don’t want to go to such lengths, simply mute the sixth string with the tip of your fretting hand’s first finger when fretting the chords. Tuning it down to D of course, means if you do accidentally hit it, it’s not a disaster.
Example 4: Keith Richards
An extension of the previous exercise, this one shows how the chords can be embellished with open-string runs and pull-offs to make for a more involved rhythm part. Richards used this idea in tracks like Tumbling Dice and Honky Tonk Women to create an instantly memorable sound.
Example 1: Brian Jones
This slide guitar example uses open G tuning and a clean guitar tone. Ensure correct pitching by placing the slide directly over the fret. Then add light vibrato.
Example 2: Brian Jones
Another slide guitar example, this uses open E tuning. Tune the strings low to high: E-B-E-G#-B-E. A distorted guitar tone is used here, and side-to-side slide vibrato. Jones was a natural musician, playing a number of instruments and styles. His slide guitar topped the charts on Little Red Rooster.
Example 1: Mick Taylor
This example shows how the ‘country’ 6th interval is often played by the band. Taylor, Wood and Richards can all be heard using this approach at various times.
Make sure your fretting-hand fingers make the appropriate 6th interval shape, with the picking hand either using a fingerstyle approach of thumb and finger, or a hybrid picking approach of pick and fingers, or just the pick using alternate picking. Of the three approaches, hybrid probably makes the most sense.
Example 2: Mick Taylor
This example features some melodic bluesy licks, typical of Taylor’s lyrical style. Bar 1 involves bending the string up a tone but only letting it down by a semitone, so accurate pitching is essential.
Taylor likely learned this idea from copying Eric Clapton, who favored this often in his soloing. The repeating phrase over two strings in bar 2 is important to play cleanly. As a suggestion, try a downstroke on the second string and an upstroke on the third string.
Example 1: Ronnie Wood
This country-toned E Major Pentatonic (E-F#-G#-B-C#) idea features a 6th, with the third string bending up a tone (use the fretting hand’s third finger), while the fourth finger frets the first string. In bar 3, use the same fingering for the bend on the second string, with the fourth finger fretting the first string.
This example shows how the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales can inter-weave over a Major tonality chord progression in order to create a colourful mix of sweet Major sounds blending with bluesier Minor approaches. B.B. King was the master of this, with Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and others highly influenced by it.
Rolling Stones Mini-Pieces
Piece 1: Major
This piece is in the key of A and is in open G tuning with the capo at the 2nd fret. The first eight bars are a rhythm part and feature our Keith Richards-style approaches. The following eight bars are the solo. As the first string is lowered by a tone, remember the notes won’t be in the same place as they normally are.
Piece 2: Minor
Our Minor piece has a tonal center of B Minor and alternates between a bar of B Minor and a bar of E; the overall sound is B Dorian (B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A).
After the first four bars of ‘rhythm,’ the subsequent solo section mainly contains bluesy B Minor Pentatonic (B-D-E-F#-A) licks. In bars 7 and 8 we encounter some E Major Pentatonic country flavored licks over the E chord, adding another tonal character to the solo.
This 12-bar blues in G has a straight, driving feel, with two bars of chunking blues shuffle rhythm before the solo kicks in. Featuring licks containing both G Major Pentatonic (G-A-B-D-E) and G Minor Pentatonic (G-Bb-C-D-F), the overall feel of the solo is melodic. Make sure your string bends are pitched accurately.