The Rolling Stones’ 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

The Human Riff and his little helpers have laid down some of the greatest guitar of all time – here, from the elegantly wasted to the demonic and dangerous, are 20 standout moments from The Stones’ sprawling studio catalogue.

Once a dangerous symbol of cultural rebellion, now a musical institution, The Rolling Stones are close to celebrating 60 years as a band. Although now primarily a live act, in theory, there are 25 studio albums to pick through to assemble a list of their guitar highlights. Yet The Stones’ late-60s-to-early-70s output isn’t called their ‘imperial phase’ for nothing, and that’s where the majority of tracks on this list inevitably originate.

Fans of pure blues could just as easily argue for, say, the Clapton-fuelled Everybody Knows About My Good Thing from 2016’s excellent Blue & Lonesome covers album; and the ‘ancient art of weaving’ perfected by Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards over the years has produced some standout moments of guitar telepathy, too. But here’s our selection of the finest 12-string, six-string and, of course, five-string moments from their incredible body of work…

20. Ventilator Blues

Named for the lack of air con in the damp basement at Villa Nellcôte, where Exile On Main St took form, the sublime, predatory open-G slide riff throughout Ventilator Blues perfectly evokes the decadence of its surroundings. Mick Taylor came up with the riff, which earned him his only songwriting co-credit with the band, but Richards played it (“We got some weird sound of something that had gone wrong – some valve or tube that had gone,” he said of its guttural sound). The spacious strut is fully exploited by the offbeat staccato rhythm, taught to Charlie Watts by Bobby Keys, Hopkins’ sinuous piano, mean horns and a classy, Bluesbreakers-esque outro solo from the on-fire Mick Taylor.

Did you know?

The Stones regularly played this in rehearsals, but could never recapture its glorious seediness live: “It’s a great track, but we never play it as well as the original,” said Charlie Watts in 2013. “Something will not be quite right; either Keith will play it a bit differently or I’ll do it wrong”

19. Sister Morphine

Another of The Stones’ plentiful supply of bottleneck highlights, Ry Cooder’s haunting guitar announcing itself in the right speaker at the start of the second verse is a spine-tingling, timeless rock ’n’ roll moment. It’s a prelude to a masterclass in beautifully expressive slide playing, with Cooder coaxing a blend of lead and rhythm licks and showcasing his unique vibrato. And why does the doctor have no face?

Did you know?

Cooder worked as a session player on various Stones songs between 1968 and 1969, played slide on the Jagger-starring 1970 movie Performance and was another of the guitarists rumoured to have been in contention to replace Brian Jones

Keith Richards
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Image: Mick Hutson / Redferns

18. Start Me Up

This 1981 single from Tattoo You was the band’s last UK Top 10 single. Start Me Up began life as a reggae song titled Never Stop in 1975. It was tried and abandoned during the sessions for 1978 album, Some Girls and forgotten about until 1981, when a more rock ’n’ roll take was rediscovered. The band casually threw together the final version in a matter of six hours. The iconic main I-IV figure is played in open G on a Telecaster through a Mesa/Boogie amp and has become one of Keef’s best-loved riffs, although, according to producer Chris Kimsey: “I’m not sure whether he likes it to this day.”

Did you know?

Microsoft paid millions of dollars to use Start Me Up in the company’s first TV commercial as part of the Windows 95 ad campaign

17. Let It Bleed

The Stones are at their ramshackle best on the slow-building title track from the band’s 1969 masterpiece. Legend has it that Keith Richards played the acoustic part until his fingers bled, but alongside the tasteful piano of ‘sixth Stone’ Ian Stewart, Wyman’s atmospheric zither and Watts’ characterful drums, it’s Keith’s open-C-tuned slide playing that steals the show. From the just-woken-up opening riff onwards, Keith feels his way around the song, improvising tentative soulful touches before throwing caution to the wind and adding bursts of buzzing vibrato towards the end. It may lack the technical finesse of the soon-to-join Mick Taylor or Ry Cooder, but as an example of rinsing out pure expressiveness, it’s hard to match.

Did you know?

The Let It Bleed album was originally going to be called Automatic Changer; the working title inspired Robert Brownjohn’s sculpture on the album cover

16. The Last Time

The first Jagger-Richards-penned A-side, The Last Time was inspired by The Staple Sisters’ 1955 gospel song This May Be The Last Time and the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of it formed the basis for the Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. The original recording’s cycling guitar riff, courtesy of Brian Jones and his Vox Teardrop, is a finger-knotting work of genius in itself in the way it cleverly spells the chords of the song out with open D and A strings; together with Keith’s lead-and-chords-alternating guitar solo, The Last Time marked the Stones as musical innovators from the very outset.

Did you know?

The Last Time was The Stones’ first self-penned UK No. 1 (in 1965). Richards recalled of the song: “It gave us a level of confidence; a pathway of how to do it”

15. Monkey Man

Written on the Amalfi Coast on the same 1969 holiday as Midnight Rambler and originally titled Positano Grande, the brooding funk of Monkey Man was immortalised in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It features one of Jagger’s most cryptic stream-of-consciousness lyrics, (“I’m a cold Italian pizza, I could use a lemon squeezer’) and is also built around one of the Stones’ most underrated riffs. Keith Richards plays all the guitars, digging into his entire repertoire of tricks to come up with the atmospheric C♯ minor descent of the opening, the triumphal slide solo and in-between, the magnificent main riff that takes a simple repeated chord figure but uses every hammer-on, pull-off, walking-bass note and dissonant tone within reach to transform it into a furious simian fist of funk.

Did you know?

Bill Wyman played the vibraphone as well as the bass on the track

14. Brown Sugar

The lead single from 1971’s Sticky Fingers has one of the most instantaneously classic opening riffs in all of guitardom and while the song was conceptually all Jagger’s, musically at least, it’s one of Richards’ finest hours. Jammed into being and recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in December 1970, in a three-night session presided over by guitarist and studio co-founder Jimmy Johnson that also yielded You Gotta Move and Wild Horses, Richards played a black SG, while Mick Taylor played a Strat, both through their Fender Twins, with overdubs added later in London.

Did you know?

A 2015 Deluxe Edition of the album included an alternate take featuring Eric Clapton on slide guitar, recorded at Keith Richards’ birthday party at Olympic Studios in 1970

13. Street Fighting Man

The Stones’ first and one of their only overtly political songs, Street Fighting Man is among the quintessential tracks of the 60s and is a perfect example of how innovative the band could get when chasing the sounds in their heads. Richards was inspired by the sound of French police-car sirens (reflected in the Doppler swoons of the song’s vocal melody) and, in pursuit of a “garage-y” sound, the guitarist recorded his open-D-tuned Gibson Hummingbird acoustic into a Philips tape deck, together with Charlie Watts playing a tiny practice drumkit. Aside from the electric bass Keef added later, the song’s instrumentation is all-acoustic, with a second acoustic-guitar part, piano, a Shelani, a tambouri and a sitar.

Did you know?

Street Fighting Man is one of Keith Richards’ favourite Stones songs: “It’s the kind of record you love to make… and they don’t come around that often”

12. Wild Horses

As well as Jim Dickinson’s bedrock piano, The Stones’ timeless country-tinged ballad is a story of three masterfully interwoven guitar parts. There’s Richards’ 12-string tuned to open G (not something you could do onstage in a hurry), picking out minor chords and harmonic embellishments; Mick Taylor’s second acoustic, in Nashville tuning (with the lower-gauge E, A, D and G strings tuned an octave higher) holding the song structure down; and Richards’ mournful electric-guitar licks incorporating blues, rock ’n’ roll and country styles into one majestic, perfectly phrased performance.

Did you know?

During a transfer at Olympic Studios, a bent spool caused the master tape of Wild Horses to become wrapped around a capstan motor; the creases were pressed out with a cold iron. Ironically, the real zipper found on the packaging of Sticky Fingers would often dent that specific track on the vinyl anyway

11. Tumbling Dice

Can a song – or even a lone guitar part – be regarded as a classic primarily because of its ‘feel’? If so, then Tumbling Dice definitely qualifies. Though it perfectly encapsulates the mythology of Exile On Main St as an endless, decadent party in a basement, Tumbling Dice actually started off life during the Sticky Fingers sessions and its casual insouciance took four studios, over 100 takes, two drum tracks and possibly even two drummers to nail down. But Keith Richards’ opening riff and the song’s infinitely rolling twin-guitar refrain in the outro (open G, capo on the fourth fret, you’re going to be there for a while) ultimately make it all worth it.

Did you know?

Jagger also plays guitar on this track, with Mick Taylor playing bass

10. Love In Vain

This inventive reimagining of Robert Johnson’s 1937 recording dresses it in the borrowed clothes of country, adds a Southern drawl, extra chords and even mandolin, but still manages to convey the authenticity of The Stones’ connection to Delta blues styles. Keith’s reworked arrangement enables the listener to pick out every intricacy of his acoustic guitar, Ry Cooder’s frantically picked mandolin (Brian Jones was by this point unavailable) and the soaring slide chords that conjure up the song’s melancholy, otherworldly atmosphere.

Did you know?

The songwriting credit for Love In Vain is attributed to ‘Woody Payne’, which was one of Robert Johnson’s pseudonyms

9. Sympathy For The Devil

French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard captured footage of the Stones putting the song together for jarringly incoherent muso-political film One Plus One. And while Keith Richards memorably reviewed the documentary as “a big intellectual wank”, the footage provides precious insight into the band dynamics of the Stones as well as their determined musicality, as they patiently transform Jagger’s composition from folky beginnings to demonic samba. But you could instead just listen to the isolated guitar track of Richards’ barbed solo played on his Black Beauty Les Paul Custom: it shines a fresh light on one of the most memorable six-string lightning strikes ever committed to tape.

Did you know?

Godard’s film crew’s lamps set the studio on fire during the sessions for the song

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones. Image: Rich Fury / Getty Images

8. Sway

Guitar-wise, Sticky FingersSway is all about Mick Taylor – Keith Richards only added backing vocals, along with Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane and others (but took the usual 50 per cent songwriting credit). Sway was the first song recorded at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves mansion studio, with Mick Taylor’s amp in the fireplace and the mic in the chimney. The guitarist’s ever-tasteful Les Paul blues chops are given free reign and his fluid solos blend different techniques (slide, fast triplets, trills, bends, blurring the major and minor pentatonic) with unerring precision and thoughtful structuring… In the absence of Keith, Sway demonstrates why Taylor was the perfect virtuoso foil for the earthier talents of Richards during his six-year tenure in the band.

Did you know?

Mick Jagger plays the rhythm guitar track on this song

7. Paint It Black

The Stones were beaten to the sitar-and-guitar combination by The Beatles on Norwegian Wood the year before, but the dark psychedelic flavour conjured up by Brian Jones’ ominous noodling on this 1966 counterculture anthem has arguably proved just as influential. The song owes a lot of its power to Charlie Watts’ kinetic drums combined with the ‘bolero’ rhythms strummed on acoustic guitars; though apparently, Keith was less enamoured with his electric on the record: “The electric guitar doesn’t sound quite right to me, the one I play,” he said in 1966. “I should have used a different guitar; at least, a different sound.”

Did you know?

Bill Wyman played the B-3 organ pedals on the track by laying on the ground and punching them with his fists

6. Honky Tonk Women

Honky Tonk Women is eclectic – a country-inflected rock ’n’ roll song written in Brazil about a woman in Memphis, sung by an Englishman affecting an American accent, that begins with a cowbell solo and ends with a horn section. It’s also one of the greatest rhythm-guitar parts there is. While Mick Taylor takes the spotlight with his bluesey-country hoedown of pedal-steel-style licks, Keith’s open-G Telecaster riffs offer aspiring guitarists a lesson in the power of leaving space – to the extent that Honky Tonk Women should be prescribed to any guitarist who can’t resist playing the same thing over and over again in a song.

Did you know?

Early sessions for the recording of this song were Brian Jones’ last with the band. The UK single was released a day after his death

5. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

Really two songs in one, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking bolts together Keith Richards’ sleaziest riff with a musically scintillating Santana-esque extended jam, featuring an all-star cast of accompanying musicians: Ricky Dijon, Bobby Keys, Billy Preston and Jimmy Miller. Though the song’s main riff appeared to Keith Richards in a flash, he squeezes every drop of nuance out of it throughout the song’s first half, applying his love of Chuck Berry’s doublestop-based rhythm-and-lead to the framework of open G. For the jam’s extended outro, Mick Taylor used a brown Gibson ES-345 to cut a majestic improvised solo with a finesse was definitely missing from the Stones first extended jam on the 11-minute Going Home on 1966’s Aftermath.

Did you know?

Keith said of the song’s one-take session: “We didn’t even know they were still taping. We were just rambling and they kept the tape rolling. I figured we’d just fade it off”

4. Midnight Rambler

Let It Bleed’s sprawling, near-seven-minute Side B opener, referred to by Richards as a “blues opera, basically”, was, like Monkey Man, written by Jagger and Richards while on holiday in a sun-drenched Amalfi Coast town in 1968. The guitar parts – which are all Richards’, played on a hollowbody Maton EG240 – push the lyrical exploration of the monstrous mind of a serial killer through a hard-edged Chicago-blues filter. The main rhythm part is in standard tuning with a capo on the seventh fret, while the slide part is in open E: Richards spent several nights perfecting this performance, eventually delivering the perfect, sinuous foil to Jagger’s haunting harmonica playing.

Did you know?

Brian Jones’ percussion on this song was one of his final Stones contributions, later described by Richards as “a last flare from the shipwreck”

3. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

When people who don’t play guitar draw a guitar, they draw a Strat (“Idiot! Those contours are all wrong!”). When people who don’t play guitar mimic the sound of one, they hum this riff. That’s how iconic Keith Richards’ snarling signature – famously a horn part he wrote and recorded ‘in his sleep’ – has become. It’s not all about that Maestro FZ-1-assisted riff, of course. Aside from Jagger stretching out with his lyrics, props are also due to Bill Wyman’s amazing but oft-overlooked offbeat bassline, the simplicity of Brian Jones’ acoustic and Keef’s verse licks over the propulsive beat and insistent tambourine… Altogether, a sound that expanded the horizons of pop music.

Did you know?

Jagger and Richards initially doubted the song would be a hit, but an in-band vote persuaded them to release it as a single

2. Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Recorded using the same technique as for Street Fighting Man – recording acoustic guitars into a cassette deck to distort their sound – this May 1968 single is a shot of pure guitar innovation. But for such a direct and simple-sounding riff (played on a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic tuned to open E and a second acoustic in Nashville tuning), it has many hidden depths and is often misunderstood (we’re looking at you, every covers band ever). Yet if you only learn one Keith Richards lick, make it this – after all, in his 2010 autobiography, Life, Richards said if he was told he could only play one of his riffs for the rest of his life, this is the one he’d choose.

Did you know?

The Stones rearranged the song for live performance and Richards now plays it in open G with a capo on the fourth fret

1. Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter has a theatrical backstory and rock ’n’ roll mythology to rival even Sympathy For The Devil in The Stones’ rich catalogue. Newsweek called it: “Ecstatic, ironic, all-powerful, an erotic exorcism for a doomed decade” – just one example of how its chilling lyrical atmosphere of brooding apocalypse, the hollow yearning inhabiting Jagger’s voice (and harmonica playing), its driving percussion and Merry Clayton’s astounding vocal incantation irresistibly conjure up the washing away of the peace-and-love decade’s naïve ideals.

Yet, like Sympathy… before it, it took something special musically to cement its place as one of the greatest songs of all time, and this factor is Keith’s immortal guitar intro, that came to him as he looked out of an apartment window at a stormy London day (while, not far away, his partner was filming sex scenes with his songwriting partner).

Recorded using his 1960 Maton hollowbody through a solid-state Triumph Silicon 100 amp, its tremolo-washed chord progression is studded with inspired bluesey howls in regular tuning that take on new menace in the song’s ambiguous minor-key context: incidentally, despite being played in an open-E tuning, the song’s cycling chordal figure bears a structural resemblance to Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower… Variations on this progression certainly hold some magic for guitar players, it would seem.

Did you know?

The song was the last hurrah for Keith’s 1960s Maton: “It was just at the end of recording, just as we’re tailing off on Gimme Shelter, and I feel this sort of rubbery feeling – everything’s going rubbery. And the neck just fell off. I said, ‘Well, thank god it’s a fade-out, because obviously this song is over.’ He died in the harness, that one”