The 12 most memorable Rolling Stones guitars
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07.12.2023

The 12 most memorable Rolling Stones guitars

Rolling Stones
Words by Christie Eliezer

The Rolling Stones’ guitarists – Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood – have had thousands of guitars between them since they plugged in from the early 1960s and went into GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) mode.

Here we look at 12 of the Rolling Stones’ guitarists most special guitars, and how they were part of the changing of rock music.

KEITH RICHARDS

Keith Richards’ first guitar was a Rosetti acoustic his mother Doris bought him in 1959. 

In his autobiography Life, the Human Riff said he was 15 at the time “and it was about ten quid” (£286.93 or AU$ 550.60 in today’s money).

He’d already had lessons on his grandfather Gus’ classical guitar, and the first song he learned was the Spanish folk song “Malagueña”.

Read up on all the latest interviews, features and columns here.

Early 1960s Harmony Meteor H70

It was a toss-up between this and a Hawk but on January 25, 1963 he went for the Harmony as it had two pick-ups (DeArmond “Golden Tone”).

The hollow arch-top body with short scale length of 24” featured spruce top with maple back and sides, bolt-on maple neck, and finished in 2-tone sunburst and came with a 2-tone case PS74.

He’d have played this on the first two Rolling Stones singles, the first album, and first TV appearance Thank Your Lucky Stars on July 7, 1963.

1962 Epiphone Casino

Built at Gibson’s factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Epiphone’s great sound was highly desired by British bands, including all three Beatles. 

Brian is seen with one on the cover of the reissue EP of Got Live If You Want It!. 

Keith’s shredder featured a thin-line hollow laminated maple body, trapeze-type tailpiece, and two Gibson P-90 pickups.

It was his main axe on the first US tour in mid-1964 until he was electrocuted at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium on December 3, 1965.

This happened as they went into “The Last Time”, and he bumped his guitar into a mic stand, which was ungrounded. 

In a shower of sparks, he fell back unconscious, very close to death (and not for the first time).

1959 “Keith Burst” Gibson Les Paul Standard

Fitted with a Bigsby vibrato, the Keith Burst made its debut in 1964 on a British tour and on the Rolling Stones album Out Of Our Heads.

It was on “Satisfaction” (with a Gibson Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone pedal in place of the horns he initially envisaged to drive the song),  “Get Off My Cloud,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Little Red Rooster and “Time is on My Side.”

A pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page borrowed it for some of his session work, and Eric Clapton used it when Cream made their official debut at the ’66 Windsor Jazz & Blues festival that July.

Keith lost interested in the Burst and switched to a 1960s Freshman Guild and a black Les Paul Custom 1957/58 (“Black Beauty”), the main gat on Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed.

It was bought by a young Mick Taylor, who’d had his Fender stolen just as he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (replacing Peter Green who went off to form Fleetwood Mac) and let it known around music circles he was looking for a replacement.

 The Stones road manager Ian Stewart told him to come down to Olympic Studios (London) where the Stones were recording Beggars Banquet in the summer of 1968 to look at it.

A year later when Brian Jones was sacked for being a drug zombie, Taylor replaced him and the Fender came back to the Stones.

1960s Gibson Hummingbird

When Gibson launched the flat top Hummingbird acoustic during the ‘60s folk boom, Keith and Mick each got a ceramic saddled cherry sunburst with a 24.75″ scale, slim neck profiles and parallelogram inlays. Jones got a J-200.

On Rolling Stones YouTube clips, you can see Jagger and Richards writing “Sympathy For The Devil”, which started out life as a ballad, on the ‘Birds.

“Wild Horses” was written on one. Before recording it at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama (same session as “Brown Sugar”) Keith completed it in the quiet studio toilet.

The ‘Bird is used in the riff to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man”, in which he recorded the acoustic with an open D tuning and an E capo put through a cheap Phillips tape recorder to get a rough sound, and then mixed it in with takes conventionally made in the studio.

Fender Telecaster ‘53 (Micawber) / Fender Telecaster ‘54 (Malcolm)

Eric Clapton gave him the ’53 edition as a 27th birthday gift (December 18, 1970) just as the Stones were to work on Exile On Main Street.

It was nicknamed Micawber, after the kindly theatrical character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and set about recording “Rocks Off”.

It became Keith’s favourite Rolling Stones live axe, in 1972

replacing the single-coil pickup with a Gibson PAF humbucker for more grunt, installed backwards so that the magnet poles face away from the neck and to the tail end.

Other modifications were a Fender Champion lap steel pickup put in the bridge position and held in by two screws, a brass bridge converted with individual saddles to a five-string tuning, the low E taken out to play in open G tuning (GDGBD) and switch to Sperzel locking tuners.

Malcolm was an identical Tele soundalike, the Gibson PAF installed in the standard orientation, poles facing towards the neck.

BRIAN JONES

Brian Jones was leader of the early Rolling Stones in every way, ahead of the pack as a musician, a rebel and a fashionista. He also taught Keith how to progress past three chords.

Brian’s first instrument had in fact been the sax, after his early love for American jazzman Cannonball Adderly. 

He got a cheap nylon string Spanish guitar on his 17th birthday from his parents.

In the early ‘60s London music scene, he was the first to play slide guitar (on a Hofner) and did country-blues finger picking. 

Jones’ axes included a Harmony Stratotone bought for £30 in 1959 and went missing a few years later, a two-tone lime green Gretsch Double anniversary featured on their “I Wanna Be Your Man” single and the first album. 

Others included a solid body Gibson Firebird from an endorsement deal, a Gretsch White Falcon, a Telecaster, a 1968 Les Paul Standard, and a Rickenbacker electric 12-string which was stolen and replaced with a 360/12.

Vox Teardrop

Brian Jones is most associated with the Vox Prototype 6-string and 12 string guitar, and Vox Phantom MKIII – or the Teardrop after its shape.

Tom Jennings, the Brit behind the Vox amp and electronic keyboard Univox, started to build guitars in 1961 to compete with US  brands.

He gave Jones handmade copies of the Teardrop to promote it. The first was used on the first American tour in 1964, and used to record “It’s All Over Now” at Chess Studio in Chicago.

The Teardrop, modelled on US makes, had two single coil pickups, a three position selector switch for one or both pickups, a headstock with six-on-a-side tuning pegs, a zero-fret to increase sustain, and a bridge culled from a 1950s Strat.

The Mark 3 12- and 9-string had two pickups and a white headstock.

But Brian soon tired of guitar and used his canny ability to pick up new instruments.

These included sitar (“Paint It, Black”,  “Street Fighting Man”), sax (“Child Of The Moon”, “Citadel”), mellotron (“We Love You”), marimba (“Under My Thumb”, “Out Of Time”, recorder “Ruby Tuesday”), Appalachian dulcimer (“Lady Jane”) and oboe (“Dandelion”).

MICK TAYLOR

Mick Taylor, a teen prodigy in the ‘60s, was 20 years old when the Rolling Stones casually asked him to come down on May 24, 1969, to Olympia Studios where were hatching up Let It Bleed.

Taylor thought he was called to do a session. It was an audition to replace Brian. They’d already asked Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher.

 Mick and Keith were so impressed that they invited him back the next day, and he stayed on, recording “Honky Tonk Women”.

Also on those were the jams “Live With Me” and “Country Honk” included on Let It Bleed, and “Jiving Sister Fannie” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)” that would only emerge in 1975 on Metamorphosis.

Taylor stayed on with for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (1970), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile On Main Street (1972), Goat’s Head Soup (1973) and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974).

The Rolling Stones’ most accomplished player but not a showman, he provided magnificent guitar, notably on “Sway”, the end jam of “Can You Hear Me Knocking”, “Shine A Light”, “All Down The Line”, and slide on the ballads “Winter” and “Til The Next Goodbye.”

In Guitar World, Taylor ranked his solo on “Time Waits for No One” (from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, if you want to check it out) as his best and most adventurous.

“Because of the structure of the song, it pushed my guitar playing in a slightly different direction.

“It’s more – I don’t like to use the term Carlos Santana-esque because it sounds too pretentious, but I kind of played in a different mode. 

“I was playing over a Cmaj7 to an Fmaj7, which aren’t chords the Stones used that much.” 

His collection included a Selmer Hawaiian, a white Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard and a Gibson ES-345.

Gibson SG Standard

Acquired in 1968, it was brought to Rolling Stones fans’ attention on his July 5, 1969, Hyde Park debut where he kicked off proceedings with “I’m Yours, I’m Hers” and the 1969 US tour which gave us Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!. 

Taylor told Gibson in 2010: “I just remember loving that guitar – I must have loved it a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t have forsaken a Les Paul to play that. 

“I played both, but I think I preferred that SG because it had a very wide neck, and a very flat neck, and the action was absolutely superb.

“The sound was good, too. And it had a Bigsby arm on it, which I didn’t use a great deal in those days, but I like that kind of effect as well.”

Les Paul Standard

The one bought from Keith Richards, Taylor lost it in September 1971 in the “burglary” during the Exile On Main Street sessions at the 16-room Villa Nellcôte in south of France, which Keith rented and where three day binges and debauched parties took place.

The Corsican mafia, based in nearby Marseilles, who provided an endless supply of drugs, took a bunch of guitars and other instruments in broad daylight when payment was slow.

Later owners included Cosmo Verrico of Heavy Metal Kids and Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake. In 2006 bought by a collector for $1 million.

RONNIE WOOD

When a 17-year old Ronnie Wood saw the Stones at London’s Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in ’64, he was so dazzled that he vowed, “Someday, I’m gonna be in that band.” 

He told Vintage Guitar that on the way out of the tent, “I banged my leg really hard on this huge tent peg. It really hurt, but I didn’t think about the pain. I was just thinking, “Yeah, that’s my band.”

He wouldn’t officially join until April 23, 1976 although he toured with them a year before. But there had been another missed chance.

In 1969 when Brian Jones got the flick, Jagger sent word to Wood through Faces bassist Ron Lane but was told, “No thanks, Ronnie is quite happy where he is with us.” 

Wood wouldn’t find out about this call until five years later, but held no grudge against Lane.

Fender Old 55 Strat

He got this as a present from Warner Bros Records in 1974, and it remains his most beloved axe, the one he uses most on stage.

Put through a ’58 Fender Twin or AC30, it gives a stunning twang. Like other ’55 models, Wood’s was lighter and very comfortable to play, but has no tremolo unit leading the strings to go through the body.

Zemaitis Metal Top

In 1971, Ronnie Wood was the second guitarist that British luthier Tony Zemaitis made a black axe for. 

The Faces were at their peak then (for an idea of its grit, listen to The Faces’ “Stay With Me”), and his exposure helped Zemaitis’ company take off.

Zemaitis got the idea in 1969 when Eric Clapton visited his South London workshop and started strumming an early ‘test’ electric guitar.

He recalled, “The uncanny thing was his playing was echoing his words and phrases as he spoke and the hairs on the back of my head stood up. 

“It really was spooky just how the notes sounded like his voice. That stuck in my mind.”

Zemaitis made four solid mahogany body 24-fret ebony fingerboard metal-tops with three Gibson PAF humbucking pickups for Wood.

He used these until 1995. He also built Wood’s Desert Island metal disc top guitar. 

Raya Blue Light Special

Finnish luthier named Kari Nieminen made uniquely-shaped guitars that ticked off boxes on sound and playability.

No surprise that when Wood heard one, he wanted two right away. He went on to buy four more. 

The Blue Light is one of his favourite live axes, with a powerful blue LED light just behind the bridge that lights up when it is plugged in.

Being a visual artist himself, Wood was struck by the Blue Light’s gold leaf top and headstock, and a special lacquer finish that creates a unique three dimensional visual effect. 

It has a solid alder body with maple top and black back, East Indian rosewood fingerboard with green abalone shell dots, Gotoh tuners, a 25.4″ scale length, chrome plated hardware, perforated steel sides, and one volume and one tone control with a three way switch.

Wood’s Raya collection includes two Electric Baritones 6 strings, Buxom 12 acoustic (a 60th birthday gift from Nieminen) and a Henry Gold Leaf Top Electric.

Woods’ Zemaitis caught your eye? Read more here.