The Rolling Stones and guitar riffs are the quintessential musical pairing.
In fact, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have arguably built a successful career spanning several decades on a foundation of repetitive guitar patterns that most well-versed rock fans can mimic.
The “riff” is a fascinating concept. An age-old technique for opening any song in a memorable way, it’s often a simple arrangement of chords or lead guitar tinkering that becomes a lasting focal point for generations of listeners.
But from the endless selection of guitar riffs that The Rolling Stones have crafted, across an impressive sixty-year period, which ones are worthy of being considered their best? We have some thoughts.
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
Regarded as one of the greatest pop music ‘hooks’ of all time, the opening bars of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” bursts into life with a simple yet pulsating riff.
The Stones’ first U.S. number one begins with that famous crunching guitar, a huge and brass instrument-esque quality, blares out during a spine-tingling intro before Bill Wyman’s bass line adds to the grandeur.
Allegedly, Keith Richards wrote the riff ‘in his sleep,’ barely awake as he recorded a rough version into a Phillips Cassette player. The next morning he had no recollection of committing the arrangement to tape.
‘Satisfaction’ was named number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time” and its opening’s relentless drive is undoubtedly a huge contributing factor to its lasting success.
Get Off Of My Cloud (1965)
“Get Off Of My Cloud” was the immediate follow-up single to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
This catchy tune went on to top the charts in several countries. Whilst the song’s verse melody is seen as formulaic (and even publicly panned by Jagger) its strengths lie in an incredibly memorable chorus and carefully constructed riff.
The opening to the track is primarily built around Charlie Watts’ rolling drumbeat but it’s the riff that sets the pulse racing. Back and forth between Brian Jones and Keith Richards’ twin guitars is both intriguing and drives the melody forward. It continues into the verse and rolls along energetically underneath Jagger’s stunning vocals.
Paint It Black (1966)
By the mid-1960s a whirlwind of psychedelia was careering its way through rock music. With the Beatles’ Revolver on the horizon, “Paint It Black” emerged and tapped into the raga rock style, a sub-genre heavily influenced by Indian or Middle Eastern culture.
The song starts with lines of meandering sitar, one of the first chart-topping tunes to feature the instrument, instantly creating a dark and sinister tone. The riff creeps its way through the track, rising and falling like a menacing wave up until the song’s conclusion then slowly fades away.
Despite spending two weeks at number one, initial critiques of the track varied with many praising an innovation in sound yet others slated its strange and experimental nature. In the aftermath of its release and over time there has been an ever-growing appreciation for the song’s genuinely original riff.
Jumpin Jack Flash (1968)
“Jumpin Jack Flash” features perhaps one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous riffs.
Released as a single, this late 60’s hit has a groove firmly rooted in the blues genre and is also the Stones’ most-performed song to date with over 1,100 live plays!
The song starts with a fairly nondescript series of emphatic strums that have been heard on endless tracks down the years. But when ‘Jack Flash’s’ striking riff kicks in, the swaggering electric guitar runs transform the tune into a dangerous and snarling spectacle.
According to an account in Bill Wyman’s autobiography Stone Alone, the guitarist claimed to have penned the track’s timeless riff himself, and yet oddly the final writing credits would belong to Jagger/Richards.
Honky Tonk Women (1969)
Said to be largely inspired by their holiday to Brazil, “Honky Tonk Women ” is Jagger and Richards’ ode to female ‘caipiras’, local women from remote parts of South America they had stumbled upon during their trip. Although casting an eye over the song’s opening lyrics in particular, alternative influences point to dancing girls from Memphis instead.
Initially recorded with the working title “Country Honk” in a slow rural style, the track would eventually evolve to include its emphatic opening that Stones’ fans know and love today.
The riff itself is an inspired mixture of crashing guitar string strikes followed by intricate lines of lead magic. With both a filthy attitude and energetic bounce, the beginning of this track is the perfect toe-tapper.
An understated addition to the song’s intro is the repetitive beat of an accompanying cowbell actually played by Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller.
Brown Sugar (1969)
“Brown Sugar” was the lead single from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers and a huge number-one hit in the U.S.
The track has been linked with controversy, accused of containing racially charged innuendos and portrayed as a ‘dirty song’ by the music press.
Marsha Hunt, Jagger’s partner and mother to his firstborn Karis, actually claims the tune was written with her in mind.
The song’s riff is opposite to the rumored gloomy themes, a combination of snappy and blaring guitar work that quickly morphs into a euphoric swaying strummed sequence.
Rocks Off (1972)
“Rocks Off” is somewhat of a chaotic gem.
Recorded in the South of France, the lead track from Exile On Main St has a final mix that is an infamous ruckus. Numerous instruments and lead vocals inexplicably fade only to reappear at different points throughout the song.
In stark contrast to the tune’s frantic recording, its opening riff is oddly considered and precisely structured.
The spritely guitar work is almost formulaic, harping back to a simpler 1960s sound, and even has a glam rock feel. The riff works perfectly with fantastic tinny bass and echoey drums that accompany it in the catchy intro.
All Down The Line (1972)
Perhaps one of the less well-known Stones tracks on this list, “All Down The Line” is a direct and punchy electric rock number.
Featuring as an album track on the band’s 1972 album Exile On Main St, it was originally planned as a lead single but was finally released as a B-side on the single “Happy.”
The opening riff to the song is uplifting. It has a certain happiness and vigor, jangly strumming with an almost ‘vinyl’ style crackle in the background that adds to the authentic old-fashioned rock vibe.
Start Me Up (1981)
“Start Me Up” was first recorded in the late 1970s but didn’t fully see the light of day until its release on the 1981 album Tattoo You.
The song actually started life as a reggae-rock-inspired number titled “Never Stop,” yet after several failed attempts to complete it, the song was discarded and wouldn’t resurface for a further three years.
It was an instant no-brainer for the album’s lead single and fans responded well. “Start Me Up” reached number one in the Americas and even topped the charts in Australia along with top ten entries in various European countries.
The riff is classic Richards. The empty space between thrashes of the electric guitar only builds anticipation. Once the track finally kicks in, Charlie Watts’ pounding drum and a thumping bass line from Wyman both add real purpose to its beginnings. Richards then snatches aggressively at the strings and continues to riff throughout Jagger’s lyrical performance.
Photo: Rolling Stones in 2015. Jim Pietryga, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons