If you’re in a band with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, you’re pretty much doomed to a life in the shadows. During Aerosmith’s initial run in the seventies, almost all songs were written by Tyler/Perry. But just like with the Beatles, where George Harrison would sneak in the occasional gem on the albums, so did the other three members of Aerosmith. Drummer Joey Kramer has a writing credit on “Pandora’s Box,” and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford is responsible for two of the best Aerosmith tunes ever - “Last Child,” and “Nobody’s Fault” from the Rocks album. When Aerosmith were recording what was to become Toys in the Attic it seems like bassist Tom Hamilton was on a roll. He is credited with writing the music to the groovy “Uncle Salty,” as well as the classic “Sweet Emotion.”
In Aerosmith’s official autobiography, Walk This Way, Hamilton talks about how the famous “Sweet Emotion” bass intro came to be: “I had this original bass riff in high school. It got revived when we were doing Get Your Wings and living near Cleveland Circle. I showed it to Steven, but I had the riff a little different and Steven said, ‘That’s backward, man.’ He didn’t like it. Then it got to the end of doing tracks for the Toys album, and we had the extra day that Jack [Douglas, Toys in the Attic producer] called Jam Day, where he asks, ‘Does anyone have any spare riffs lying around?’”
Aside from Hamilton’s bass intro, what make “Sweet Emotion” stand out is Joe Perry’s use of a talk box during the intro. Perry sings the words “Sweet Emotion” while playing his guitar through a very early version of a talk box nicknamed “The Bag.” In an interview with Ultimate-Guitar, Perry talked about some of the equipment that he and Brad Whitford used in the studio at the time: “At that point I didn’t really have much of a guitar collection [...] I know for the first two records, I had a Les Paul Junior. And I used a Marshall and an Ampeg - which was the equivalent of a 50-watt Marshall, and belonged to that same kind of class - and that was basically it. Brad was pretty strict about using Marshalls at that point and I know he definitely used a Les Paul.”
Tom says that the interlude riff between the verses were in part inspired by Jeff Beck’s Rough and Ready, as he explains in an interview with Buzz Worthy: “We all lived in this apartment together and we had a stereo set up and listened to music together and Jeff Beck's Rough and Ready was on a lot. We're all Jeff Beck fans and he was going through a new phase. We would put it on and I was just absorbing the bass playing, how funky it was and energetic and thought, that is really cool. I didn’t try and learn anything but a lot of ideas just sank in. (On ‘Sweet Emotion’) there's the intro bass part, then verses, then the fast part, then the parts in between — those were the parts inspired by Rough and Ready.”
There are a few different versions of “Sweet Emotion.” First and foremost there’s the album version, which is the original. But if you’re listening to rock radio in the US, chances are you’ll very often hear the version that was included on the 1980 compilation Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits. This version skips the bass and talk box intro, as well as the solo at the end, and simply fades out over the chorus. In 1991 “Sweet Emotion” was re-released to promote the Aerosmith box-set Pandora’s Box. The song was treated to a remix by David Thoener, resulting in louder drums. The remixed version of the song is also included on the Armageddon soundtrack, but it is about 30 seconds longer. The version of “Sweet Emotion” that is included in the game Guitar Hero: Aerosmith distinguishes itself by having a real ending, instead of the fade-out that the other versions have. This is the ending that Aerosmith use when they play the song live.
Joe Perry’s monster guitar solo, which also serves as the end to the album version of the song, is most likely the result of Perry improvising. When Aerosmith play live, Perry tends to play it differently every time, aside from the lick with the long bends towards the very end of the solo.
In this rare promo video for “Sweet Emotion” from 1975 Whitford and Perry are both “playing” Gibson Firebird guitars.