Ask any Stones fan about the whole lead guitarist issue, and you’ll probably get the standard response. Everyone knows that the best lead player ever for the Stones was the one who played on the classic, best records – Mick Taylor. But there are other opinions.
Brian Jones was, in some versions of the story, the actual founder and namer of the Stones. Now that the group is planning their 50th anniversary tour, many fans are going back into their history to get the facts. And Jones was a musical genius and the guiding light of the early group, that’s a fact. He was a multi-instrumentalist who could play anything brought into the studio, but he played slide guitar especially well. He also taught Mick Jagger how to play the harmonica, and was the main harpist on most of the early recordings. His playing blended and meshed perfectly with Keith Richards’ distinctive rhythm style, and the original group was a well-oiled machine. So much so that many fans forget how seamlessly Jones’ playing was because he did not have a really personal approach, but a very workmanlike way of getting the job done.
When Brian Jones died at 27 and became a member of the forever 27 club, he was fading from the Stones’ stage. The best of his work can be heard on Beggar’s Banquet, the first of their classic albums. But when they were in the middle of recording the next one – Let It Bleed – he was too strung out to play, and they hired Mick Taylor as his replacement. From 1969 through 1974, Taylor was the lead guitarist for the group, and they made what most fans consider the very best recordings during those years. After Let it Bleed came Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and Goat’s Head Soup, and these were all graced by his technically brilliant playing. When he left the group after It’s Only Rock and Roll, they had a very hard time filling his shoes.
The album Black and Blue is now widely known as the audition record. The Stones tried out several session players, and recorded songs with each. The record was a let-down in quality after its predecessors, but Ron Wood stood out for his ability to fit in and mesh, much like Brian Jones did, with Keith, Charlie and Bill. With him, the Stones were back to being a great rock band, maybe the greatest ever. But many fans have always felt that something has been missing all these years, and that Jones and Taylor had styles of playing that made the recordings they worked on stand out. There is little doubt that Jones’ death at 27 had a huge impact on the band, and that Taylor was a major contributor to their classic recordings. So the question of who was the very best lead player for the Stones continues to be asked, and if you don’t have an opinion, you should listen to the records and let your ears decide.
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