The Rolling Stones 50 Years of Innovation

So it is a month since the Rolling Stones finished the last leg of their 50 and Counting Tour in Hyde Park, which I was fortunate enough to attend on 6th July.

Richards, Jagger and company have been around for half a century and are firmly part of the musical establishment, so it's easy to forget that they were once pioneers at the forefront of British musical innovation.

But as old as they are now, The Stones have left a measurable impression on British guitar culture, which still bears significance today.

The Blues

The common factor that unifies The Stones is their love of the blues. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in fact began their musical partnership in 1960 at Dartmouth Train Station, when Richards approached Jagger about the Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry LPs that he was carrying. Together with band mates Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Brain Jones, they began to play blues covers and popularised the genre in the early 1960s. Whilst The Beatles drew their inspiration far more from folk genres, The Rolling Stone’s appropriated the delta blues whilst infusing it with rock and rhythm flavouring, therefore laying the foundations of rock-and-roll.


The first song most people associate with the Stones is ‘Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)’, highly recognisable for its repeating opening riff and that classic fuzz distortion. Richards supposedly wrote this in his sleep, but he was definitely wide awake when he hit the studio to record it. Richard’s use of a Gibson Maestro fuzzbox was highly revolutionary: it was the first chart-topping song to use a commercially available distortion box. Fuzz itself was not new: Dave Davies of The Kinks achieved it by slashing the speaker cone of his Vox AC 30 (an old blues method), but it was Richard’s use of a readily available effect that opened many eyes to the endless possibilities of guitar stomp box effects and, as Rolling Stone magazine comments, ‘transformed the rickety jump and puppy love of early rock & roll into rock'.

Open G and Micawber

Keith Richards began experimenting with the ‘Open G’ tuning in the late 1960s when he admits that his creative juices were beginning to run dry. The ‘Open G’ tuning sees the guitar strings tuned to ‘DGBGBD’ and was a common tuning for Richard’s beloved blues players. Richards also removed the low D string when playing in this tuning because he felt that it got in the way and having the dominant as the lowest string muddied his sound. The guitar most famous for this set up is ‘Micawber’, a five string telecaster tuned to ‘Open G’ with a vintage Gibson humbucker replacing the standard Fender neck pick-up. With this tuning, The Stones have produced some of their most memorable riffs including ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ ‘Honkytonk Women’, ‘Beast of Burden’, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Brown Sugar’. It also inspired a number of other players to take up the tuning, including Joni Mitchell and the Black Crowes.

Music PR

The Stones are the original ‘bad boys’ of rock and roll. Few have managed to match their hedonistic lifestyles and live to tell the tail. Richard’s heroin addiction and Ronnie Wood’s love of freebasing have gone down as legend in rock folklore, as has Bill Wyman’s love of the ladies. In short, The Stones in their heyday would make Pete Doherty look like a mischievous school-boy. But behind this bad boy image was a PR genius that had meticulously crafted this public image: Andrew Oldham. Magaer to The Stones between 1963 and 1967, he created their immoral image in contrast to that of The Beatles, who were largely celebrated by the British conservative establishment. To do this he created headlines such as ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?’, which angered older society and firmly identified the Stones with the younger, baby-boomer generation. 

The Ancient Art of Weaving

Keith Richards often talks about what he calls the ‘Ancient Art of Weaving’, which he practiced in the 1960s with Brian Jones. This approach to playing largely broke down with Mick Taylor’s stint in the band, but was resumed with Ronnie Wood. It requires two guitars and sees the lines between rhythm and lead guitar blurred, so that both duties are shared, thus creating an intricate melodical patchwork. This style has had a lasting impact on other ‘two-guitared’ bands. For example, even 45 years later, Bloc Party used this style with their hits ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Banquet’ and Johnny Marr could also be said to employ this style in the latter days of The Smiths. 

Written by Adam Sumnall

Student at the University of Exeter and resident Smiths enthusiast.

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