The legendary Les Paul Standard player brought the band its most burnished guitar tones and most musically accomplished solos. His playing style also helped fuel the group’s second golden era, when the Stones successfully achieved the deeply American sound they’d sought since their founding in 1962 with the albums Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. And did so with a level of originality unprecedented in their earlier attempts, creating a new foundation based on the musical fabric of the South rather than reproducing the blues records that initially inspired them.
Taylor joined the band in 1969, after the death of co-founder Brian Jones. He was fresh from John Mayall’s influential group the Bluesbreakers, where he’d been part of their essential trilogy of early albums, spraying stone-cold lead guitar all over Crusade. Taylor has remained a consistently interesting and accomplished player over the decades since his departure from the band in December 1974.
Taylor was drafted back into the Rolling Stones to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary on several concert dates in 2012 and 2013, but this week he celebrates an anniversary of his own when he turns 65 on Friday, January 17. To celebrates, here’s a rundown of his top 10 performances with the oft-heralded “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band”:
• “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ ” (1971): Keith Richards’ open G riff propels this tune from Sticky Fingers, but the real magic kicks in at the four-minute mark when Taylor sparks the band into the spontaneous jam that kicked the song up a notch beyond its initial pop arrangement. Taylor was playing a brown Gibson ES-345 on the session, and its remarkably big, clean tones help keep the coda funky.
• “Sway” (1971): Taylor has long contended that he wrote this song with Mick Jagger, although he was uncredited for it on Sticky Fingers. The evidence is with him, since Richards does not play guitar on the track. The rhythm six-string is Jagger’s first recorded guitar performance, but the song’s ambiance is all Taylor — especially the gritty, singing slide solo and breaks, and the epic major key pentatonic soloing that brings the song to its coda.
• “Tumblin’ Dice” (1972): This song is all about the groove — the way the bass and drums push its lazy boogie-woogie beat along. The bass is played by Taylor filing in for an absent Bill Wyman. Taylor’s grasp of American music and the concept of playing behind the beat comes to the fore here to make this entry to Exile On Main Street indelible.
• “Brown Sugar” (1971): Sprung from recording sessions at Muscle Shoals, this Sticky Fingers’ smash is the Stones’ sleaziest hit and Taylor sprays plenty of gritty, greasy guitar all over it, multiplying the swagger in its lyrics.
• “Time Waits For No One” (1974): This song played a major role in Taylor’s decision to leave the Rolling Stones. The guitarist say that he and Jagger, not Richards, were the song’s major contributors, and Taylor’s lengthy, poetic solo at its conclusion brilliantly reinforces the number’s sense of ennui, with soaring bent notes and a minor-key melody. Nonetheless, Taylor once again did not receiving co-writing credit. That, along with the band’s decision to go to Munich to record another album rather than tour behind It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, appears to have been the catalyst for his departure.
• “Honky Tonk Women” (1969): Richards has said that he and Jagger wrote this number as a “Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers 1930s country song,” but that arrival of Taylor in the band took it in an entirely new direction. As for Taylor, he contends the song was done except for some sweetening when he arrived. Nonetheless, it was an explosive single to usher in the Taylor/Stones era, hitting the top of the charts and becoming a “more cowbell” classic.
• “Rocks Off” (1972): The opening track from Exile On Main Street is an example of the disc’s ensemble playing at its best, with Taylor’s and Richards’ guitars both careening in and out of the mix. Taylor’s playing is a mix of urgency and chaos — a sloppy rock ‘n’ roll fiesta.
• “Bitch” (1917): Ultimately the best rock bands are about teamwork, and here Taylor and Richards truly tag it up again, with Taylor laying in whip-crack punctuation and slicing notes, and Richards putting teeth in the rhythm track.
• “Winter” (1973): Yet another song — from Goats Head Soup — that seems to have been co-written by Taylor sans credit. His guitar serves as its spine, providing ringing rhythm, dark fills, slide and another of his patently soaring solos. The lyrics use an icy portrayal of cold weather as a metaphor for heartache, but what’s most impressive his how Taylor’s approach sparks yet another orchestral arrangement for the band’s cannon.
• “Ventilator Blues” (1972): This gritty slide guitar blues is Taylor’s solo writing credit on Exile On Main Street, although it sounds like his main contribution is the tune’s concluding solo, which is yet another of his patented virtuoso codas.
Gibson.com interview with Taylor here.