Any remotely credible student of popular music can attest to the significance of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. After all, he was in no small part responsible for the establishment of what many consider to be the greatest rock and roll band of all time.
Jones’ involvement in the early success of the Rolling Stones undoubtedly warrants acknowledgment, and it is unlikely the band would have achieved the level of success they ultimately did if not for the guitarist turned multi-instrumentalist. The same could be said for pianist Ian Stewart, potentially even to a more significant degree.
Members of the band themselves have never shied away from singing the praises of Stewart and his indelible contributions to the group’s growth and success. Though when queried on Jones’ place in the band’s history, there is notably and consistently a more reticent response.
“Fame doesn’t sit very comfortably on anyone’s shoulders. But some people’s shoulders it doesn’t seem to sit on at all,” lead vocalist Mick Jagger once said of his late bandmate.
Jones’ role within the Rolling Stones transcended music, with the guitarist assuming managerial duties by handling the booking of shows and promotion of the band. Andrew Loog Oldham would infamously step into this role soon afterward, while also situating himself in the producer’s chair.
On the musical front, the rapid development of the young Jagger/Richard(s) songwriting team would see Jones all but relegated to sideman status within a band of which he had not so long ago been considered the leader. As Jagger/ Richard(s) began to dominate proceedings in terms of forging the stylistic direction of the band, Jones himself would begin to develop his own facility as a multi-instrumentalist, along with his capacity for indulging in mind-altering substances.
Much has been made of Jones’ impact on the band with respect to his explorations of instruments outside the limitations of standard rock & roll structures. His utilization of the sitar on “Paint It Black” for example is likely largely responsible for the overall appeal and notable longevity of the tune. Jones’ respective turns on marimba for “Under My Thumb” and piano for “Ruby Tuesday” likewise endowed the songs with a sense of color, setting them apart from music emerging from the popular scene of the time.
Jagger and Richard(s) coming into their own as songwriters meant a waning emphasis on the blues standards through which the guitarist developed his musical sensibilities. Musical interest notwithstanding, Jones’ outside-the-box instrumental offerings were generally more based in arrangement than in composition, leading some of his most well-known contributions – “Paint It Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Street Fighting Man” – to have been credited solely to Jagger/Richard(s).
Upon the onset of his disenchantment with standard blues forms, Jones struggled to establish his place creatively within the Rolling Stones. While the musician exhibited a natural aptitude for navigating unfamiliar instruments, it’s worth noting that the dedication to these instruments was such that Jones’ was nowhere near approaching mastery, or in many cases even proficiency, in terms of skill on the instruments in question.
While Jones could likely have sat in on guitar with any number of rock or blues-based outfits without issue, one would be remiss to assume that such a situation could transpire as seamlessly with the musician on any number of other instruments. Certainly, the concerted implementation of unusual instruments could be considered impressive. But the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of these conceptions had there not been original music actively being churned out elsewhere within the band is worth consideration.
Had Mick and Keith been less preoccupied with the business of writing chart-topping masterpieces, one might surmise that one or both of them could likely have fiddled with a dulcimer enough to coax out of it some sort of workable melody. While Jones remained steadfast in proving his competency on as many instruments as possible while putting forth as little effort and dedication as possible with regard to developing any actual technique on said instruments, Jagger and Richard(s) were busy developing their own distinctive styles beyond the scope of churning out imitation Jimmy Reed licks.
It is also worth noting that, at the onset of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones was easily as proficient a musician as the band’s would-be leaders. In fact, Jones was initially the more advanced musician of the three and remained undoubtedly creative as evidenced by his ability to conjure interesting ideas from instruments for which he arguably had limited facility.
One could reasonably assume Jones would have been better served directing this energy into a single instrument – ideally guitar. Spreading himself so thin in this regard could be assumed to have restricted his overall capacity for contribution, all but limiting many of his ideas to novelty additions.
In the present day, Jones is well regarded – perhaps to an exaggerated degree – as a multi-instrumentalist. Guitarists around the world have been studying the musical intricacies of Keith Richards’ approach to guitar for decades; however, few (if any) marimba, sitar, piano, or saxophone players are devoutly studying the technique of Brian Jones.
Even in considering a hypothetical timeline in which Jones was more capable of moderating his own mental state, it seems unlikely that he’d have remained a fixture of The Rolling Stones outfit. The ambition of the Jagger/Richard(s) team was evident early on, and one need look no further than the band’s Mick Taylor era for indication of how keen the two were on allowing additional cooks in the figurative creative kitchen.
Jones’ own ambition, if left to flourish, would likely have led him in more abstract directions than would be permitted within the framework of the Rolling Stones. And while Jones’ instrumental explorations and budding interest in soundtrack composition certainly pointed to a potentially fruitful artistic future outside the Rolling Stones, the musician’s early demise at 27 has left listeners with a frustratingly limited body of work to assess.
Photo: Brian Jones (public domain)