guitar riffs

Guitar riffs, sonic hooks, and the Rolling Stones’ iconic sound

With guitar riffs like the one in “The Last Time,” the Rolling Stones established their musical signature on their way to becoming songwriting legends.

With a career that spans more than five decades, the Rolling Stones have been responsible for writing and recording dozens (and dozens) of iconic songs that stand as models for rock music record-making. When it comes to producing such noteworthy recordings, injecting a variety of guitar riffs and sonic hooks into a song is one means to pop success. That’s a practice the Rolling Stones mastered early in their career.

In this series of articles, we’ll look closely at three songs from the Stones’ early recording days in the mid-’60s to dissect and explain how they created memorable tracks that have withstood the test of time. And more than just a stroll down memory lane, I’m hoping these articles will spark some ideas that you can apply to your next songwriting or recording project.

Like the earlier series of articles on the songwriting and music production of The Beatles and Brian Wilson, the Stones’ catalog is worth study. First, though, it’s helpful to pick up a little history on the group and their influences, which are integral to understanding the Jagger-Richards songwriting team and their production techniques.

Startin’ up

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the songwriting engine behind the Rolling Stones’ extensive and valuable catalog. Interestingly, they were both born in 1943 in Dartford, a London suburb, and attended the same primary school. However, it was a chance meeting on a train platform on October 17, 1961 that kicked off their musical partnerships when they bonded over a shared love of American blues music.

“Did we hit it off?” Richards asked in his 2010 biography, Life. “You get in a carriage with a guy that’s got Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry on Chess Records and The Best of Muddy Waters also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off!”

Their shared fascination with blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues — which bordered on obsession — amounted to a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of artists, obscure recordings, and a true feel for the music. At the fledgling group’s heart, this love of American roots music would prove the inspiration for their own original songs over the majority of their career.

The duo soon discovered guitar and harmonica player, and fellow blues fanatic, Brian Jones. With their friend Dick Taylor on bass, keyboardist Ian “Stu” Stewart, and drummer Mick Avory, the group played its first gig on July 12, 1962 at the Marquee Club in London. They were billed as the Rollin’ Stones, an homage suggested by Brian Jones, quoting a lyric by Muddy Waters, one of the band’s heroes.

Musically, it was Stewart, who was a few years older than the rest of the band and who was way more experienced as a performer of blues and boogie-woogie, who helped to guide the Stones’ pathway to defining their stripped-down, bare-bones sound. Richards recalled the first time he heard the keyboardist play live in a pub. He was stunned by Stu’s virtuosity. “I can hear this boogie woogie piano, this unbelievable Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons stuff. I’m suddenly transported in a way. I feel like a musician and I haven’t even got there!”

By the start of 1963, the group’s line up, which was evolving steadily over the first year of its existence, included long-term members Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums. A recording date in March of 1963 helped cement the direction the band would take in the studio. Recording five songs, including pieces by Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and Willie Dixon, the band impressed sound engineer Glyn Johns, who recalled thinking the results were tremendous. Johns would go on to forge a long relationship with the band and record many of their most memorable 1960s hits.

Manager Andrew Loog Oldham discovered the band in April 1963 during their residency at the Crawdaddy Club and saw tremendous potential in the group. A talented publicist who worked with The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, Oldham assumed total control of the Stones’ affairs and soon got them a recording contract with Decca and gave them an image makeover as rebellious teenagers. He brilliantly positioned them as the “group your parents love to hate.”

Oldham also kicked keyboardist Ian Stewart out of the group (he looked too much older than the rest of the 18-year-olds) and officially added the “g” to the band’s name: Rolling Stones. Oldham masterfully cultivated this bad-boy image and the press ate it up. Rather than the matching suits and haircuts sported by their Liverpool contemporaries, the Stones were outfitted in tight black jeans, roll-neck sweaters and coached by Oldham to appear disillusioned to reflect teenagers’ general disdain for the establishment.

Fans responded, and soon the band had grown in popularity to where its second single, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” reached number 12 on the British charts. It features slide guitar by Brian Jones and a raw, Chess Records-like sound on the rest of instruments and vocals. Interestingly, the song was written and given to the Stones by their friends, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who would release it themselves, three weeks later, on their own second UK album, With the Beatles.

Chart topping covers

The Rolling Stones’ highly anticipated eponymous first album was released in April 1964 and spent a total of 12 weeks as the number one album in England. This LP was predominantly covers of American tunes the group used as the backbone of their live set. Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” Bobby Troup’s classic “Route 66,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” were typical of the music the group was interpreting in their own style.

Critics applauded the Stones’ raw sound, with some even comparing it to the sounds of Elvis Presley’s early records on Sun. Notably, the first recorded Jagger-Richards composition, the pop ballad “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” was included on the album by Oldham, even though Keith and Mick thought it had been recorded as a demo to pitch to another artist. A few of the songwriting duo’s early songs had been given to other UK pop artists to record since they didn’t fit the Stone’s tougher sound.

“Tell Me” is much more reminiscent of other Merseybeat-style groups of the time, a contrast to the rest of the Stones’ record, hence the band members’ surprise to hear it included on their LP. Seen strictly as an album cut for the UK release, its pop flavor caused Decca to choose it as the group’s first US single, releasing it to coincide with the Stones’ first US tour in June 1964. The song caught on with American teens and spent 10 weeks on the charts that summer, peaking at number 24, making it the first time the band cracked the American Top 40.

Another milestone represented by this song’s success was that the group’s primary direction up until that point had been to rely on covers of American blues and roots. Now, this would no longer be their sole focus. The success enjoyed from the sales of “Tell Me” led Oldham, Jagger, and Richards to widen the group’s musical direction to include more of a pop sound. With this background in place, the stage is set to look closely at the three Jagger-Richards compositions we’ll analyze in these articles: “The Last Time,” “Under My Thumb,” and “Ruby Tuesday.”

“The Last Time”

A mid-tempo rock tune with a lazy backbeat, the Stones’ January 18, 1965 recording of “The Last Time” set a new standard for the group’s evolving musical style. The 3:42-song announces itself with the insistent, instantly memorable guitar riff, played by Brian Jones on his Vox teardrop guitar, with the amp’s reverb cranked and a touch of tremolo effect.

This riff, learned by every aspiring guitarist in the 1960s, is the backbone of the song and plays incessantly with the exception of the song’s chorus. And while Brian’s part is the most memorable sonic hook, Keith Richards demonstrates his versatility by playing the essential acoustic guitar that propels the song forward, electric rhythm parts, the lead guitar break in the middle of the song, and he also sings harmony.

Charlie Watts plays a steady beat on his ride cymbal with Bill Wyman’s repetitive bass line far back in the mix. Added to the sonic palette is a tambourine played by studio musician Jack Nitzsche, who was in attendance at the session in RCA Records’ Hollywood studio. Nitzsche, who served as arranger and conductor for Phil Spector, would go on to work as a musical partner and session musician for the Stones from 1965-1971, famously arranging the chorus parts on their 1968 hit, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

After Brian kicks off the song with the guitar riff and tambourine, Keith comes in with single strums on the second statement of the riff, then Charlie and Bill kick in for the third and fourth riff statements before Mick jumps in, setting the tone for the tune with his memorable first line, “Well, I told you once and I told you twice.”

It’s a brilliant bit of songwriting, as the phrase on its own is a cliché of what a finger-waving parent might say in disciplining a child. Instead, Mick is warning his girlfriend that she’s gone too far and if she doesn’t respond to his complaints, by the third verse, he’ll “be gone a long, long time.” Jagger adds just the right touch of spite in his vocal delivery to sell the song’s concept to teens of the day and to remain consistent with the group’s bad boy image.

As mentioned earlier, the real propulsion in the song comes from Keith’s full-bodied acoustic rhythm guitar part which gives the mid-range sonic depth needed to fill out the track underneath Brian’s repeating riff. Keith adds a second vocal at the end of each line of the verse and chorus, sometimes hitting unison with Mick, sometimes hitting a harmony part. Still, although he mixes it up, the reason why “The Last Time” is so infectious is that the various parts in the mix are very repetitive. The only true variety in the entire song can be found in Keith’s lead guitar break at 1:37, which mixes upper-register chord voicings with Chuck Berry-inspired licks, before the song returns to the chorus at 1:57.

The other variation occurs during the song’s vamp, which accounts for nearly a minute of the track’s overall run time. Mick launches into his trademark wailing screams as Keith and Mick sing the overdubbed background vocals, “May be the last time,” over and over. The song form is simple, with just the four verses and choruses before the two-bar mini-breakdown at 2:51, after which the band swings into the vamp and fades out. Notice that the last thing you hear in the fade out is, yup, Brian’s riff.

As it turned out, Mick was unhappy with his original vocal performance and returned to RCA Studios exactly one month later on February 18, 1965 to recut the lead vocal we now hear on the track. Showing how fast record labels were to take advantage of a band’s rising prominence, Decca released “The Last Time” as a single on February 26, 1965. After only a week, it had risen to number one on the British pop charts, where it spent a total of three of its 13-week run.

While the song was their third UK number one hit, the first two had been covers of American songs. “The Last Time” gave 21-year old Jagger and Richards confidence that they had hit on their own sound and approach and could be successful as writers and performers rather than another band relying on cover tunes to build their careers.

Considering Brian’s all-important riff, music historians Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon argue that the Rolling Stones had “found their musical signature, and in the future, their songs would be recognizable from guitar riffs like this, which differentiated them from any other band.”

Signature guitar riffs would define the sound of the Stones’ most memorable recordings over the years, such as when they would return to RCA Studios just three months later in May 1965 to invent an even more memorable sonic hook, Keith’s three-note fuzz-tone introduction to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which would propel one of the band’s best-selling singles.

Next week, we’ll continue our exploration of the Rolling Stones with “Under My Thumb” and “Ruby Tuesday.”

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4 thoughts on “Guitar riffs, sonic hooks, and the Rolling Stones’ iconic sound

  1. Mick & Keith didn’t found the Rolling Stones. Brian did. Mick & Keith joined his band. Brian could play multiple instruments. This post seems to minimize his role.

    1. you are 100% correct. Brian Jones and Ian Stewart founded the stones. Mick and Keith answered an advertisment that Brian and Ian placed. And EVERYONE in England thought Brian was the band’s leader, as spoken to in interviews at the time. And as attested to in all artwork and album covers…Brian is always the main figure on all early albums, larger and most prominent. And who played the marimba on “under my thumb” and the electric sitar on “paint it black”? BRIAN!

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