Which Rolling Stones Era Was Best?

Which period in the Stones' career resulted in their most brilliant music?

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

Thanks to Gibson for the report.

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    The Mick Taylor years hands down. Although I still love the previous and subsequent years, this is the era that was by far the most influential in terms of blues based rock. I just love the groove and feel of all those albums, imo, they're untouchable.
    The period from Beggar's Banquet to Exile on Main Street. The last breath of Brian Jones' musical genius, Mick Taylor's mind blowing playing and some of Keith's finest riffage is in that period.
    I'm a big Stones fan and saw them when they came to Austin for my first real concert in 2006 and was completely blown away. That being said, when you watch Mick Taylor live and listen to tracks like Heartbreaker, Stop Breaking Down, Can't You Hear Me Knockin', Gimme Shelter, and so many other classics, in my opinion not only was the guitar playing a lot smoother ,yet sophisticated, but the music itself was better. I think the stones were most creative when they had Mick and really raise the question, "In the late sixties and early seventies, was it the Stones or Zeppelin?" They are still amazing today and are the ultimate band for lasting so long and can still pump out a hit. I'm especially fond of "Streets of Love" from 2006's "A Bigger Bang."
    Brian Jones. Beggars Banquet. Enough said.
    I agree that it's the Brian Jones era, but "Beggars Banguet" can't really be attributed to his influence. Both the book "Up and Down with the Rolling Stones" by Tony Sanchez and the French documentary "Sympathy for the Devil" are excellent chronicles of the Stones inner workings in the late 60's. By then Brian was a f*k'd up mess who could barely hold a guitar. The "Sympathy for the Devil" film shows the Stones in the studio recording some of the "Beggars Banquet" songs and it's painful to watch. Brian is instructed to just strum basic chords on an acoustic and can't even handle that. Another great film from '69 is "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" and Brian doesn't do much of anything...it's really sad because it's like he'd been shut out of his own band. I always consider 'Beggars Banquet' to be Keith's finest moment as Brian just was not functional any longer.
    Rock n Roll circus is not the best judge of Brian Jones' abilities, at least not the official version, they took his guitar out of the mix for all the tracks except No Expectations (listen to some of the bootlegs out there or the alternate takes in 25x5 and you hear that he certainly was playing some capable rhythm during the actual performances.) As for the Sympathy for the Devil film it shows him perfectly engaged at the start when he is jamming with Mick and Keith while figuring out an early arrangement of Sympathy on acoustic and he only seems to loose interest when the song moves away from being guitar driven. Beggar's Banquet features some fairly diverse contributions from Brian: the slide guitar on No Expectations, Harmonica on Prodigal Son and Dear Doctor, Sitar on Street Fighting Man, mellotron on Factory Girl. He may not have been as active on Guitar but his contributions certainly enhanced the feel of the album. If any album was truely Keith's album it would be Let It Bleed, he plays 90% of the guitar parts and they have nearly all become iconic Stones songs in their own right (Mick Taylor only features on two songs playing rhythm and Brian Jones only plays some auto-harp and precussion)
    According to "Up and Down with the Rolling Stones" Keith & Mick formed an alliance against Brian during the "Her Satanic Majesties" recordings. They'd have him go into the studio to record his parts and they wouldn't even bother recording them. The book paints a very unpleasant picture of Keith & Mick pushing Brian over the edge. Also, Brian reportedly hated "Her Satanic Majesties" but loved "Beggars Banquet".
    Don't trust Tony Sanchez's book, it is notoriously unreliable and based more on creating myths for money than it is on fact. Having said that they clearly turned against Jones before Satanic Majesties, ever since around 1965 where the switch went from recording Blues covers to Jagger/ Richards originals it was clear that they were pushing Jones to the sidelines of the band. As for them not bothering to record his parts, that doesn't play out if you listen to any of their songs before Let It Bleed! (he can be very clearly heard on most songs before this point, even if it not necessarily on guitar.) I have never heard anything really talk about Brian having a love for Beggars Banquet, but it wouldn't surprise me that he preferred it to Satanic Majesties (he hated psychedelia, even if the album showed off more of his diverse instrumental ability than most others)
    Just because "Spanish Tony" was Keith's live in valet and dope connection for Keith, Brian, and Anita doesn't necessarily make him unreliable, does it Anyway, a couple quotes from the Sanchez book re: Beggars Banquet and Brian. 1) "Brian knew by now that his days with the band were numbered. He had hardly played on the album, scarcely spoken to Mick or Keith for months, and he had two drug convictions, which made it impossible for him to visit the USA." 2) "Brian knew that Mick and Keith were trying to persuade Clapton to replace him, but he was unperturbed. He was virtually off dope now, and he really, genuinely dug the new album."
    I think the Brian Jones era was the best, as for the songs, but I don't think he was the best musician out of the three.
    Mick Taylor era for sure I take a ton of crap for it but IMO Taylor Stones
    1. Mick Taylor 2. Brian Jones 3. Ronnie Wood (3rd only because,having longest period of contribution, band has more failed albums than hits. But, hard to put any of them in 3rd really)
    The era between 1967 and 1975. Two of their biggest records were released - Let It Bleed and Exile Sticky Fingers too.
    Personally, I think that the Mick Taylor and Ron Wood eras are their best. I think you could say that Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed was the beginning of a new era for them, in which albums like Goat's Head Soup and Sticky Fingers followed so successfully.
    From Banquet till Tatto You, all solid albums. Taylor is my favorite but some very interesting stuff happens when Keef and Ronnie play together (like Beast of Burden)
    Yup Beggar's banquet to Exile is my fav. but it's hard to stop there: but love "winter" off goats head soup and love Woody best on some girls--you can hear his cheeky-ness coming through the guitar! Brian's best work was 67 & prior, before he was too ****ed up and lost his confidence to play much.
    The Brian Jones era. His interest and ability with odd instruments and arrangements made the Stones stand out from the other R&B/Blues based British invasion bands. This was the period they were their most experimental, creative, and ground breaking.
    Mick Taylor mostly, the only worthwhile Stones albums are Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. 1968 - 1972.