Potent Pairings: The Sound of the Rolling Stones

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

In this video, we're looking at some basic combinations of modern pedals and settings you can use to achieve the ‘Stones’ tones. Check out previous Nailing It and Potent Pairings for more tips on how to sound like the masters.

The Rolling Stones are living legends. Few bands will ever reach the heights they have, or possess the longevity that has allowed them to be a musical and cultural force over the last six decades. While they have sometimes been in the news for nefarious reasons, they recently made headlines again by playing a free show in Cuba.

With all that the band and its individual members have been through, it’s a miracle they’re still alive, let alone still making music. In honor of the seemingly immortal rockers, let’s take a look at some of the gear the Rolling Stones used to create the sounds on some of the most crucial tracks they’ve given us over their wild roller coaster of a career.

“Satisfaction,” Out of Our Heads, 1965

Perhaps the most ubiquitous Stones song, and their first No. 1 hit in the United States, “Satisfaction” is instantly recognizable and its fuzzed out riff has been played on air guitar by no fewer than a billion people. While I can’t substantiate that claim, I can tell you the nasty — in the best possible way — main riff is provided by Keith Richards courtesy of a Gibson Maestro FuzzTone pedal. Richards has said that the fuzz was supposed to denote what a horn section would be playing, but the band liked it so much, they decided to stick with the stripped down version. The song was so popular that it propelled the Stones to true rock star status and the fuzz box sold out by the end of the year.

If you’re looking to cop the tone, grab yourself a guitar equipped with low- to medium-output pickups, a vintage style fuzz and a clean amp with a bit of reverb. Odds are you don’t have a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard lying around; Richards used his famous Bigsby-equipped model for this track, but you can use your favorite humbucker guitar. In more recent performances, Richards uses his 1959 Gibson ES-355. As far as amps go, a Blackface Fender, such as a Dual Showman, will do nicely, but you can also use a Vox or Ampeg. Whatever amp you use, let the fuzz do the work. You don’t need a raging, saturated tone, just some gritty signal scrambling. If you can’t swing for an original Maestro, Electro-Harmonix has done you a solid by creating the aptly named Satisfaction Fuzz, which will run you just over fifty bucks.

“Under My Thumb,” Aftermath, 1966

Although Keef’s guitar takes a backseat to Brian Jones’ marimba work on this tune, it’s an important lesson in knowing when to lay back and contribute to the song as a whole. The guitar playing is so tastefully sparse that it stands out even more than a wild solo, and it fits in with the overall instrumentation perfectly. A Telecaster into an amp with the slightest amount of breakup will get you where you need to be for this one. As you’ll notice with most Stones’ songs, there isn’t an exhaustive list of gear. Just plug a classic guitar into a classic amp such as a Deluxe or Princeton Reverb, develop an attitude, mess up your hair, and you’re there.

“Sympathy For The Devil,” Beggars Banquet, 1968

If “Under My Thumb” shows us how to be subtle, “Sympathy for the Devil” demonstrates how to cut loose. Mr. Richards' solo is bright and brash, yet refined in the sense that it has great rhythm and spacing.

Most accounts say that the solo likely was played through a Dallas Rangemaster-style treble booster, and could have been performed using the bridge pickup on a three-pickup Les Paul. However, the tone also is reminiscent of the classic Roy Buchanan sound: a Tele bridge pickup into a Blackface amp with some spring reverb. Kicking the amp in the pants with a treble booster will help accentuate the right frequencies.

“Gimme Shelter,” Let It Bleed, 1969

Keith lays down the badass intro on this song by using the built-in tremolo on an obscure solid state amplifier, the Triumph Silicon 100. Lucky for you, there’s no need to go vintage amp hunting. Any tremolo amp or pedal will do.

There are some discrepancies with tuning on this track, as the studio version seems to be in open E, while Richards often plays it in standard tuning on his Gibson 355 for live shows. Again, you won’t need heavy drive, just a bit of grit. For the lead part, use some light overdrive in conjunction with a neck pickup to make the solo pop out in the mix.

“Wild Horses,” Sticky Fingers, 1971

The Stones’ classic ballad features a three-tiered guitar approach. Richards plays a 12-string acoustic, and Mick Taylor plays another acoustic guitar in Nashville tuning, giving a rich backdrop for Richards’ sweet, syrupy lead work. These days, Richards plays 12-string live, and Ronnie Wood plays lead on a Stratocaster, and you can achieve the smooth, intricate tone using your favorite clean guitar sound paired with a touch of delay for some sweet ambiance.

Entire Album: Exile on Main Street, 1972

This is often regarded as their most popular album, so to nail the tones of Exile on Main Street is to nail the sound of the band in general. This era of the Stones saw them using Ampeg amplifiers, most likely the V4 stack.

If you don’t feel like hauling around a substantial amplifier, allow me to direct your attention to a delightful pedal made by Catalinbread. The SFT is specifically modeled after an Ampeg amplifier, and it even has a switch labeled Stones/Stoner, allowing you to get both classic and crushing tones with ease. It is one of Catalinbread’s foundation overdrives, so you can use it as an always-on base tone. It even looks just like an Ampeg. If you’re after Keith’s tone, hit your Ampeg or SFT with a Tele and you’re golden. If you want to play the role of Mick Taylor, grab a Les Paul or Casino. If you have some kind of vibe, Leslie emulator or rotary effect, you can get the sound of “Let It Loose.” Add some analog delay and reverb for the “Shine A Light” solo, such as the Ibanez Analog Delay Mini (or old school MXR Analog Delay), and you’ve got it.

“Shattered,” Some Girls, 1978

This is a unique track in the Stones’ body of work. Clearly influenced by the British punk movement, Mick Jagger delivers the lyrics halfway between singing and talking while Keith Richards plays a repetitive riff enhanced with a watery sounding phaser. An MXR Phase 100 will get you in the zone, as it has some different waveforms available to cop the unique phasing heard on the track.

“Start Me Up,” Tattoo You, 1981

This one is pretty straightforward but worth mentioning as it is probably responsible for creating legions of guitarists. Grab a Tele, tune it to open G, and make some grown men cry. To add space, use reverb or some slapback echo. Some light drive from your amp or a pedal with a very light chorus or rotary effect will get you there. Nothing too dramatic; subtlety is once again key here when using effects.

As you can see, the Stones magic doesn’t lie in having tons of gear. There are no massive pedalboards that need to be powered by special generators. The secret is the swagger that comes from a band that has great chemistry as a result of years of recording and touring together. If you possess a Telecaster, Firebird, Les Paul or some kind of Gibson ES model, along with a tube amp with spring reverb, you could hold your own in a Stones cover band with no issues. As far as pedals go, a Tube Screamer and some kind of tape echo emulator or analog delay for slapback and added dimension will come in handy.

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