For many Rolling Stones fans, favoring one period of the band’s career over another is a bit like choosing a favorite ice cream: all are pretty darn good. Still, especially from a guitar player’s standpoint, the eras during which Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood each put their respective stamps on the Stones’ music has its own distinct flavor. Wood’s lengthy tenure continues to this day, of course, and brilliantly so. On the other hand, Brian Jones was the band’s original creative engine, and it was Taylor who hardwired and firmed up the group’s loose-limbed blues identity. Let’s take a look, beginning with Jones.
Brian Jones (1962 – 1969)
“Hands down, Brian Jones remains [the Stones] best musician,” a music critic for the Dallas Morning News once wrote. “His eclecticism was amazing, whether on sitar, slide guitar, percussion or just about any other instrument. His contributions in shaping the group's sound cannot be overstated.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment. As The Rolling Stones’ founder and initial leader, Jones gave the band its original identity, based foremost on his devotion to American blues music.
Jones’ love of Elmore James, Robert Johnson and other blues giants was boundless, and the depths to which he assimilated their influences shined brightly in his slide work and his harmonica playing. (It was he who taught Mick Jagger how to play harp.) Nothing musically-related was beyond his grasp, and his expertise on a variety of instruments was essential in the expansion of the Stones’ stylistic palette. The guitar riff on “The Last Time”? His. The sitar on “Paint It, Black”? His. The harpsichord on “Lady Jane”? His. And on it goes.
Such eclecticism was especially evident on 1966’s Aftermath, and 1967’s Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Perhaps most importantly, during their time together, Jones and Keith Richards perfected a new type of guitar interplay. Dubbed “guitar weaving” by Richards, that six-string tangle – wherein lead work and rhythm work have no clear boundaries – has remained integral to the Stones’ sound ever since.
Mick Taylor (1969 – 1974)
“Jones’ departure pretty much stripped the Stones of the diverse experimentalism they had enjoyed, the occasional exotic world beat flourishes that often elevated what would otherwise have been pedestrian songs," wrote music scribe Vincent Rodriguez. "Without him, though, they refined their unique fusion of R&B, blues and rock, which gradually evolved into the classic ‘Stones sound’ they had perfected by Exile on Main Street.”
Indeed, in tandem with Keith Richards, the man most responsible for perfecting that sound was Mick Taylor. Coming on-board as Jones’ replacement, at age 20, Taylor helped the Stones usher in a period marked by a deepening assimilation of blues, R&B and country. Putting aside their brief infatuation with psychedelia, the band released a series of monumental albums that, to this day, remain essential touchstones for any aspiring rock band.
Beginning with his work on the single, “Honky Tonk Women,” Taylor offered up lyrical guitar lines that ratcheted the Stones’ blues foundation to new levels. It’s no accident that Exile on Main Street, widely considered the Stones’ masterpiece, was made during Taylor’s tenure. Speaking to Rolling Stone in a 1995 interview, Jagger offered his assessment of Taylor’s role. “I think he had a big contribution,” Jagger said. “He made it very musical. He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don't have now. Neither Keith nor Ronnie Wood plays that kind of style. It was very good for me working with him. Mick Taylor would play very fluid lines against my vocals. He was exciting ….”
Writing in the wake of Taylor’s decision to leave the Stones, New York Times music critic Robert Palmer said, “Taylor is the most accomplished technician who ever served as a Stone. [He is] a blues guitarist with a jazzman's flair for melodic invention.”
Ron Wood (1976 – Present)
Mick Taylor’s departure in 1974 left big shoes to fill. The Stones auditioned several potential replacements, including Peter Frampton and American session guitarist Wayne Perkins. In the end, however, they made an impeccable choice in the person of Ron Wood. While still a member of Faces, Wood toured with the Stones in 1975, and was declared an official member in February 1976.
New Musical Express hailed the choice, writing, “In the Rolling Stones, Wood plays the slide guitar as Taylor and Brian Jones had done before him, adding both lap steel and pedal steel guitar. In addition, Wood, as his predecessors did, exchanges roles on the guitar with Richards, often blurring the boundaries between rhythm and lead, even within a particular song. He also occasionally plays bass guitar, as seen during 1975 concert performances of ‘Fingerprint File,’ when Mick Jagger played rhythm guitar and bassist Bill Wyman moved to synthesizer.”
Inevitably, given his multi-decade tenure with the band, Wood has seen the Stones release the occasional “clunker.” Still, there’s no disputing that he’s been integral to some of the group’s finest work. Such albums as Some Girls, Tattoo You and Steel Wheels uplifted the Stones’ reputation as “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” and the Richards-Woods twin-guitar attack remains a force like no other. It’s hard to imagine that such varied fare as “Miss You,” “Start Me Up” and “Beast of Burden” would sound remotely the same without Wood’s presence.
In a 2007 interview with Gibson, veteran Rolling Stones producer Don Was provided insight on the internal workings of the band. “They’re just like every other musician, on every level,” he said. “They love to play more than anything else in the world. They riff off each other. It’s like a jazz group, really.” Those comments were made about the current incarnation of the group, but Was could just as well have been talking about the Jones era or the Taylor era. So, what’s your opinion? Which period in the Stones’ career resulted in their most brilliant music? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.