10 Stones’ Tracks: How Mick Taylor’s Red-Hot Guitar Made a Great Band Greater

by Peter Wendel
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MickTaylor1972LarryRogersWiki

MT with his Sunburst Les Paul [photo: Larry Rogers]

Oh, what could have been. The Rolling Stones – billed in 1969 as “the greatest rock & roll band in the world” – could have been even greater (for even longer) if not for the 1974 departure of guitar phenom, Mick Taylor. The Stones never sounded quite the same, or quite as great after he left. (There, I said it.)

The cake remained, but all that tasty icing was gone.

MICK TAYLOR’S MOJO

With all due respect to Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood (MT’s replacement), when Taylor was on the stage or in the studio, the band’s musical IQ went up by a factor of two.

Yes, he was that good – although he rarely gets the credit he deserves.

MT’s fingerprints are all over many of The Stones’ greatest songs, like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sway” and “Shine a Light.” Hell, he put the moonlight in “Moonlight Mile.” And he’s responsible for spinning out much of the gold contained in the band’s “Golden Era” – a sublime period of output that ran from ’68 through ’72 and included The Stones’ finest albums like Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St.

MickTaylorbyDinaRegine

MT playing slide [photo: Dina Regine]

Taylor’s smooth and technically precise lyrical touch – rolling off his fingers in seemingly effortless fashion – provided the perfect contrast to Keith’s jagged, slash-and-burn style of play.

Sadly, in December of 1974, MT left The Rolling Stones and with him went much of the band’s instrumental depth – its blues-infused texture and flare.

TAYLOR AND THE BLUESBREAKERS

Taylor made his name as a bonafide player as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – the band that launched the careers of Eric Clapton and Peter Green. MT had the right schooling – tailor-made pedigree – for a Chicago blues-rock band like The Rolling Stones.

DRIVING SIDEWAYS
Crusade (1967)
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
Mick Taylor on lead guitar

Here’s a 1967 recording of Mick, who was all of 18 at the time, playing lead guitar with The Bluesbreakers. Taylor steps up and stretches out, displaying his brazen blues chops. Man oh man, the kid could play!

LetItBleedArt SongMango.comTAYLOR JOINS THE STONES

As the story goes, blues master John Mayall recommended MT as a replacement for Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones, who was dismissed from the band in June of 1969 after spiraling into a deep drug addiction. Taylor impressed Jagger and Richards with his prodigious skills, and the Glimmer Twins brought him into the fold.

MT’s contributions to the band began in short order, making his onstage debut as a Rolling Stone at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5, 1969. In the studio, he served up overdubbed guitar work on “Live with Me” and “Country Honk” for Let It Bleed, which was released in December of ’69.

TAYLOR LEAVES HIS MARK

MT made a huge mark on the sweet spot of The Rolling Stones’ legendary output. His magical riffs, golden-toned flourishes and bad-ass blazing solos grace the band’s finest albums, including Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile On Main St. (1972). Although the band’s subsequent albums – Goats Head Soup (1973) and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974) – were of lower quality overall than the three previous masterpieces, Taylor’s work continued to be a bright spot.

RSgoatsheadsoupIn honor of MT’s monster talent, we’ve assembled a list of songs (listen below) that contain his most powerful and colorful guitar work. Let’s bask in its glory.

In addition to well-known Taylor-made gems, like “Shine A Light” and “Sway,” we feature some of MT’s (other) less-recognized guitar wizardry, like his gunslinging raunch on “Jiving Sister Fanny” and the scorched-earth play he unleashes on “100 Years Ago” from Goats Head Soup. Another illustration of Taylor’s talent is captured on “Winter” – a song full of melancholy nostalgia that showcases MT’s delicate slide work.

RECOGNIZING MT’s GUITAR

For those of you who aren’t entirely familiar with Taylor’s sound and style, let’s use “Jiving Sister Fanny” as a jumping-off point. The track, featuring a standout solo from MT, appears on The Stones’ 1975 compilation album, Metamorphosis. Although the song wasn’t released until 1975, it was recorded in the summer of ’69 during the Let It Bleed sessions.

The intent here is to help you recognize MT’s guitar – his golden tone and lyrical technique (as opposed to Keith’s sound and style).

JIVING SISTER FANNY
Metamorphosis (1975)

Jagger and MT get all the glory on this raunchy in-your-face rocker. The interplay between Jagger’s vocals and Taylor’s lead guitar delivers all the swagger and attitude we’d come to expect from rock’s baddest bad boys. MT lights it up with his buttery tone at 1:12. Hang on tight.

TAYLOR’S MAGIC TOUCH

Here are nine tracks – some well-known, others not so much – that feature Taylor’s magical play. He brought a virtuoso’s effortless touch, elegance and color to so much of The Stones’ greatest output. Now kickback, turn up the volume and enjoy!

The following tracks are in alphabetical order.

100 YEARS AGO
Goats Head Soup (1973)

This has to be Taylor’s filthiest guitar play on record. “100 Years Ago,” a song about growing older, is all MT – at least as far as the guitar work goes. (Keith plays bass.) Taylor rolls up his sleeves and serves up a fire-breathing guitar frenzy. He busts out the flamethrower at 1:34, and then at 3:02 he proceeds to burn the whole fucking place to the ground.

CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING
Sticky Fingers (1971)

The side-by-side solos from the late Bobby Keys (sax) and then Taylor capture one of the most widely recognized instrumental passages in rock music. Masterfully done. MT takes over from Bobby at 4:40, and he soars out into the night.

MOONLIGHT MILE
Sticky Fingers (1971)

Jagger plays the track’s acoustic riff while Taylor provides all the delicate electric fills and flourishes, and the extraordinary outro passage (4:27) that fades into the snowy dreamscape. (Keith wasn’t around so all the electric guitar you hear is from Taylor.) Reportedly, it was Taylor’s idea to include the string arrangement – a dimension that gives the song its epic weight and feel.

ROCKS OFF
Exile On Main St. (1972)

Taylor’s brief but brilliant solo at the end of “Rocks Off” is often overlooked, but it’s a must-hear for fans of MT’s work. You’ll need to turn the volume way up so the solo doesn’t get lost in the fade. Check in at 4:18.

SHINE A LIGHT
Exile On Main St. (1972)

MT’s solo at 2:40 is every bit as warm and smooth as “the evening sun.”

SWAY
Sticky Fingers (1971)

If you had to pick just one song to showcase the enormous talent of Mick Taylor, “Sway” would have to be on the short list. MT wrote the song with Jagger during one of Keith’s (unexcused) absences, and he plays both the laid-back slide solo (1:35) toward the middle of the song as well as the lyrically precise outro solo (2:38) that brings the ship in for a smooth landing. It’s truly a thing of beauty. How did Jagger let him leave the band?

TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE
It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974)

Do not miss this. Taylor unfurls his most expansive solo in the Latin-laced “Time Waits For No One” – a glossy track that by Stones’ standards borders on easy listening (think “Waiting On A Friend”). Rather than MT’s signature blues line, “Time Waits For No One” stirs up a jazzy Latin flavor that was inspired by a visit to Brazil following the band’s 1973 European tour. Taylor begins his climb at about 3:38, rolling out nearly three full minutes of pure guitar bliss. You won’t find a more explorative run from MT anywhere in The Stones’ catalog.

TUMBLING DICE
The Montreux Rehearsals (1972)

We’ve all heard the studio version of “Tumbling Dice” a million times so to mix it up a little, here’s a gritty rendition from Montreux, Switzerland recorded in May of 1972. The Stones had just released Exile On Main St. and were preparing for a big-time U.S. tour to promote the new double album. Here’s footage of the band running through “Tumbling Dice” in Montreux. Taylor lays down a warm-toned, syrupy-sweet leads at 1:57, 3:11 and 3:45. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the color and texture that he added to The Stones’ sound.

WINTER
Goats Head Soup (1973)

Gorgeous stuff. Keith was MIA (again) so MT had to multitask, performing all the guitar parts that create the snowy nostalgia of “Winter,” including the song’s main cascading riff as well as the ethereal slide solo at 3:18. The track has the same dreamscape feel of “Moonlight Mile” with its powerful, almost biblically proportioned, string arrangement. The perfect song for a cold gray morning.

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach Mountain Jam, The All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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