This 1971 masterpiece combined soul, folk, and straight-up rock into a musical mix that has influenced generations. Let’s dive into some of its seminal sounds and techniques.
• Learn how to create riffs in open-G tuning.
• Understand how to layer acoustic and electric guitar parts.
• Cop some magical jangle with high-strung Nashville tuning.
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The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is one of their greatest albums and captures the band’s unique combination of swagger and softness in an impeccable collection of wildly varied material. The album presents their richest guitar work, notably with consummate soloing by British blues virtuoso Mick Taylor, as well as Ry Cooder guesting on “Sister Morphine,” fine picking from Mick Jagger himself, and, of course, Keith Richards’ brilliant rhythm riffage. Recorded over a two-year period, Sticky Fingers was finally released in 1971 to critical acclaim and became the first Stones album to reach No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the guitar techniques used on this epic album.
But first, a note about open-G tuning: This tuning is essential to decoding Keith’s guitar style and he uses it prominently throughout Sticky Fingers—so much so that it has become almost synonymous with him. The tuning involves dropping the 6th and 1st strings to D, and the 5th string to G. This yields D–G–D–G–B–D.
Generally, Keith avoids the 6th string. (In fact, in the past few decades, Keith’s Telecasters are tuned to open G without a 6th string.) Though the 1st string is tuned down to D, it’s not always crucial for every riff or part. So what do we really need to deliver Stones-inspired riffs? Tuning the 5th string down to G is the only absolutely essential move, and many times that’s all you need to do. For those who won’t consider retuning their guitars, a reasonable option is to play exclusively on the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings when chasing Keith’s sound. That’s because these three strings are common to both open G and standard tuning.
Sticky Fingers kicks off with some powerful open-G riffs that are reminiscent of “Monkey Man,” from Let It Bleed, and foreshadow Keith’s rhythm work on such iconic tracks as “Start Me Up.” Just about all the must-have moves are here in Ex. 1, which is similar to something you might hear in “Brown Sugar,” so let’s look at the various chords: Everything is major and we get the trademark sound of root position chords (played with a simple index barre and nothing more) with inverted chords a fourth higher played by simply adding two fingers.
This I-IV sound is what’s special about Keith’s playing in open G, and getting a handle on the move is really the first step in creating similar riffs. If you try recording two guitars, as I’ve done here, don’t be overly concerned about exactly duplicating the electric part—part of the charm is that the acoustic has some contrast with the electric. This song is in C, so it’s also an example of cross tuning—the concept of tuning to an open chord but playing in another key.
In addition to being a gorgeous song, “Wild Horses” represents some of Keith’s most elegant crafting of layered guitar parts, further enhanced by Mick Taylor’s fill work, which could be piano-like one moment and suggest pedal steel the next. As to be expected, there’s an open-G acoustic, but the most striking sound is the Nashville–tuned acoustic (Ex. 2). To wrap your head around this Nashville setup, you can think of it as simply replacing strings 6-3 with the octave strings from a 12-string set. This is an old trick producers use to brighten and add depth to a track. The results are at once glorious but also incredibly tough to emulate or achieve any other way. If you can grab a beater acoustic or yard-sale special, try out this stringing technique. It’s hard not to become enamored with it, and it’s almost a must-have axe for you aspiring studio cats out there.
In this example, I tried to emulate Mick Taylor’s jazzy double-stop fills played on the high strings, so I used the neck pickup with the tone rolled down a bit.
Listen for the contrast between the two parts in Ex. 3, which has mix of held voicings and harmonics in the Nashville-tuned part while the open-tuned guitar strums. Like Taylor’s lead part, we’ve incorporated some pedal-steel bends and R&B-flavored slides.
The classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is full of badass blues-based riffs (Ex. 4). Keith likely used a Les Paul, but to cop the tone, start on the neck pickup of whatever guitar you have. If you’re trying to create this with pedals, a fuzz with a lower gain setting could get you in the ballpark. However you slice it, it ain’t pretty!
Let’s pause for a minute and take a listen to Mick Taylor’s solo on “Knocking.”
Whew. The solo is one of the best on any Stones record and represents Mick Taylor’s flawless delivery and phrasing over a quasi-Latin groove. Much of the playing is based in D minor pentatonic (D–F–G–A–C), but the occasional E and B notes hint at D Dorian (D–E–F–G–A–B–C). The important part is careful use of repetition and space combined with an immaculate sense of tone, feel, and delivery. Everything you could want in a classic-rock solo is in Ex. 5.
“Moonlight Mile” was based on ideas from demos from Keith, but the basic guitar track is actually Mick Jagger’s handiwork. He’s playing in open G, and as is typical for him, we hear a thoughtful and careful presentation in his playing. The melodic movement in Ex. 6 is G major pentatonic (G–A–B–D–E) and consists of single-string phrases played above low drone notes.