Another ’60s Rock Mystery…

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It’s hard to discuss the Beatles without summoning their shadow: the Stones. Since posting last week about Randy Bachman solving the mystery of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord, I can’t stop thinking about another 1960s conundrum: Who played the solo on “Sympathy for the Devil?”

There’s one key reason why so many listeners suspect that it wasn’t Keith Richards: It simply doesn’t sound like anything else he ever recorded, and certainly nothing like his solos on the  many live versions of the song.

A couple of years ago a wrote a short piece on the solo for a “100 greatest guitar solos” anthology. Sadly, the project remains unpublished for legal reasons — a pity, since it boasted contributions from many great guitar-centric music writers. But I’m rather relieved my piece never appeared, since I argued that Keith did in fact play the solo. Now I suspect the opposite. Here’s what I wrote:

June, 1968. France was in turmoil. US troops were reeling from the Tet offensive. MLK was two months in the grave, and RFK was still lying in state. And the Rolling Stones were in London’s Olympic studios, struggling to complete “Sympathy for the Devil,” the greatest track on Beggar’s Banquet, perhaps their greatest album.

The notion that this song features Keith Richards’ finest solo should be beyond dispute. But few tunes have accrued as much extramusical mythology as “Sympathy.” Rumors abound: Some believe Jimmy Page played the solo. (He does in fact appear on some early Stones sides.). No, insist rival conspiracy theorists—it’s Roy Buchanan. (The Stones briefly courted Buchanan as a replacement for drug-sodden Brian Jones, who contributed only tepidly to Beggar’s Banquet.) And let’s not get into the silliness the Stones inspired by flirting with satanic imagery, a situation exacerbated the following year by Jones’s drowning death and the group’s disastrous Altamont concert. (Besides drawing on headlines of the day—literally—Mick Jagger’s “Sympathy” lyrics were inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s Stalin-era comic novel, The Master and Margarita, whose Professor Woland is the sort of Satan who’d at least brighten your cocktail party before laying your soul to waste.)

The Stones’ own accounts of the “Sympathy” sessions are jumbled and contradictory. Even the fact that Jean-Luc effin’ Godard filmed the proceedings does little to dispel the murk. In fact, the resulting film, Sympathy for the Devil (AKA One on One) is a triumph of murk, alternating Stones footage with polemical theatrics—and inevitably cutting away from the studio at precisely the wrong moment.

Even in strictly musical terms, it’s easy to see why the solo has inspired so much bunk speculation. For starters, it sounds like nothing Richards recorded before or since. (Keith rarely plays extroverted solos, preferring to pilot the groove via subtle rhythmic punctuation.) And there are few precedents, from Keith or anyone else, for the “Sympathy” solo’s infamously corrosive timbre. It’s not so much nails on a chalkboard as a nail bomb demolishing a chalkboard factory. Ironically, it’s a tone that countless guitarists have taken pains to avoid. If a journeyman player deployed such tweeter-shredding treble at a bar gig, he’d clear the house and have his beer coupons revoked. There’s nastiness of every sort on Beggar’s Banquet, but nothing nastier than Keith’s caustic assault. It’s one of the angriest solos ever recorded.

Richards had plenty to be angry about, and not just a world in chaos. The Stones’ previous release was the poorly received Their Satanic Majesties Request. (The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper may have been a razor-sharp response to the Beach Boys’ wigged-out Pet Sounds, but Satanic Majesties was a loose and rambling reply to Pepper.) Part of the problem with Majesties, the Stones’ deepest foray into psychedelia, was that Jagger, Richards, and Jones had been forced to record it while shuttling between studio, court, and jail as they battled drug charges. When it came time to record Beggar’s Banquet, the band adopted a tougher, more blues-infused approach. The lyrics were tougher too—while the Beatles sang of love and mystery tours, the Stones grappled with violence, class conflict, and 15-year-old groupies.

Yet there was still some Satanic Majesties-style experimentation. (Example: Keith jettisoned conventional recording wisdom by tracking “Street Fighting Man” through a cheapo cassette recorder’s preamp.) Footage of the “Sympathy” sessions reveals a laborious evolution from limp acoustic ballad to apocalyptic masterpiece. Much of the struggle had to do with creating the right rhythm-section arrangement. The song commenced as as a leaden pseudo-samba with churchy organ chords, but blossomed into a fiery Afro-jam thanks to the conga work of Ghanaian percussionist Kwashi “Rocky Dijon” Dzidzornu. Richards played a Fender Precision bass on the basic tracks, with Stones bassist Bill Wyman relegated to rattling an axatse (a West African shaker).

Richards recorded his solo as an overdub, and it sounds like one. Dry and painfully present, it doesn’t “sit with the track,” as good little overdubs are supposed to do, but springs from it like a cobra exiting a basket. The brittle tone makes many suspect Richards plays a Fender Telecaster on its bridge pickup, but he’s most likely using a three-pickup ’57 Les Paul Custom. The Custom is generally viewed as a warm-sounding instrument, but it can be bright in some circumstances—such as playing it through a treble-boost pedal, as Richards almost certainly does here. (Richards was an early stompbox devotee, having immortalized the raspy buzz of the Maestro Fuzz-Tone on “Satisfaction” in 1965.) By the late ’60s, pretty much the entire Brit guitar pantheon was using treble-boosters such as the Dallas Rangemaster, which is probably the device heard on “Sympathy.” Unlike latter-day distortion pedals that boost frequencies across the tonal spectrum, treble-boosters attack tone from the top down, introducing a massive gain increase that emphasizes highs as it pummels a guitar amp’s preamp tubes into overdriven submission. In this case, the victim amp is probably one of two Voxes visible in the studio footage: a classic AC-30 or a newfangled solid-state Supreme. Producer Jimmy Miller and engineer Glyn Johns may have tweaked the tone further at the mixing board.

The guitar tone isn’t the only shocker—Richards’ spasmodic phrasing is equally jarring. His opening lick erupts like projectile vomit. He compounds the offense by playing it again. Many of the solo’s phrases unfold like that—a few coarse syllables, repeated, repeated, and then gradually extended, like some bitter soul refining the perfect put-down beneath his breath.

The solo resumes after the song’s final chorus, as Richards regurgitates variations of his earlier licks. Between phrases he marks time with percussive glissandos that sound for all the world like a smoker expectorating phlegm. (Sorry to keep grossing you out, but if you’re going to pollute your soul with devil music, don’t expect politesse or taste.)

Richards’ note choices and articulations allude to such Chicago-based blues players as Freddie King and Buddy Guy, but the crude, asymmetrical phrasing is breathtakingly original. Elsewhere on Beggar’s Banquet, Jagger and Richards pillage the blues. (They recorded Robert Wilkins’ 1929 classic “That’s No Way To Get Along,” renamed it “Prodigal Son,” and claimed authorship, at least until their plagiarism was exposed.) But on “Sympathy,” Richards stands as a bona-fide blues original.

So did Keith create his most stunning and singular solo by tapping the source of eternal wickedness? Or did he just happen to dial up an exceptionally wicked tone on his stompbox one night? I’m going with the second theory. But if the Stones were unconvincing antichrists, they made damn good antibeatles.

What changed my mind? Listening to isolated tracks from the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which have been leaked online in recent years.

audio clip

When I wrote the original article, I listened, read, analyzed, read, and listened some more. I came to an “Occam’s Razor” conclusion: The notion that somehow, Keith tapped into a unique energy at a unique time seemed a likelier explanation than any of the alternatives.

But when I heard Keith’s “Shelter” parts soloed, I had an instant gut reaction: It’s not the same hands that played “Sympathy.”

“Shelter” sounds cut from the same cloth as everything else Keith’s recorded over the last half-century. “Sympathy” is . . . something else. The phrasing, the fingering, intonation, and vibrato just don’t match.

Two things I should add: I have absolutely no inside knowledge about what transpired at that epic 1968 session. This is strictly about subjective listening. Furthermore, were we to learn definitively that Keith did not play the “Sympathy” solo, it wouldn’t tarnish my fandom in the slightest. Most of the great ’60s bands — or at least their producers — had no qualms about bringing in pinch hitters if it meant a better track. (McGuinn was the only Byrd permitted to play on the band’s first disc, and think of all the great, uncredited musicians who enlivened the Beatles’ albums.)

When I was in London on tour with Tracy Chapman a couple of years ago, I kept running into Keith and his bodyguard in the stairways and elevators of the Knightsbridge hotel where we were staying. He looked . . . sort of magnificent: bright-eyed and dashing in a craggy, eccentric- country-squire sort of way. Naturally, I was way too chicken to say anything, even though friends who’ve met him all say he’s charming, and I had a decent opening line. (“Hey — we’ve both played with Waits!”) I guess Keith will always be a superhuman action figure to me, no matter who played certain solos. :satansmoking:

If you force me to guess who the “Sympathy” soloist is, I’m going to have to go with Page. Ask in six months, and I may have a different answer.

So what do you think?

66 comments to Another ’60s Rock Mystery…

  • Couldn’t tell you who laid down the track but the Stones have made the sound track for every relevant war movie better! This song never got my juju beads going but many of the darker stones songs really get me going. Paint it black is just killer in the ‘nth degree.

  • Flürk

    The closest solo that comes to my mind is James Williamson’s on the intro of “Search and Destroy”…
    As a Zep fan, it would be funny to find out that one of my favorite Stones track had one of his solos !

  • dave

    Sorry, I’m not buying it.  Keith never plays the same solo twice, even when he retreads the same licks.  But listen to him play Sympathy on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus; the tone is similar, and he does play some of the same motifs.
    I think most of us judge Keith’s lead playing after the lifestyle started to take affect on his playing.  But there are moments, even if they are few, where I’m not exactly sure who played what during the Taylor years.  Who plays the solo on Dead Flowers for example?
    Many judge Keith on his lead playing, and I must admit most of the time he is not the most inspiring lead player.  But I’ll put him up against almost anyone when it comes to playing rhythm.

    • joe

      Hey Dave — thanks for contributing! And thanks for inspiring me to listen to the Circus track again.


      Here’s the clip:



      Here’s what I hear — and remember, this remains 100% subjective:


      1. Sounds a lot like Keith’s Get Your Ya-Yas Out “Sympathy” solo. He’s clearly the sort of player who tends to improvise via variations of predetermined shaped and gestures, but the basic layout of the licks remains fairly constant from performance to performance.

      2. The tone sounds quite different from the studio solo. In particular, the studio pick attack feels alien. It sounds like less pick surface touches the strings, and like the notes are struck with much more force.

      2. Keith tends to phrase on the downbeats. The studio “Sympathy” solo is much more syncopated.

      3. Keith tends not break his phrases into isolated segments, while the studio “Sympathy” solo does.

      4. Keith seldom “pre-bends” —  that is, bending string up to pitch before releasing them. The technique, however, is used much more extensively on the studio track.

      5. The intonation is different. All blues-rock guitar is “out of tune,” but each player is out of tune in his or her own way. Keith usually “wobbles” more, and I’m not talking about anything substance-related!

      6. In the live version, Keith quotes Chuck Berry, as he so often does. Berry licks are conspicuous in their absence in the studio “Sympathy” solo.

      7. Keith tends to start solos on the tonic and work up. The way the studio solo “swoops” down from its highest pitches seems like a different sensibility.

      8. I don’t hear those violent, percussive downward glissandi elsewhere in Keith’s work.

      9. The vibrato is faster, stronger, and more “tightly coiled” on the studio version.


      Dang, are we geeks or what? 🙂

  • JM

    Keith never was an accomplished lead player and he never really wanted to be, he was more about the song.  Taylor was the best pure lead player the Stones ever had.  As for the Sympathy solo? Is it Page? Sounds like it could be.

    • joe

      Hey JM! Happy holidays. 

      Oh, don’t get me started on one of my most cracked crackpot theories: that there ought not be a distinction between rhythm and lead guitar.

      Think about it: Do you hear people talking about great single-note piano players, versus great chord players? Well, actually they do, with, say, Bud Powell being a great example of the former, while Bill Evans kills via chordal playing. But really, with most instruments, we think in terms of solo vs. accompaniment, or single-note melodies vs. chords/polyphony, or simple vs. complex, or flashy players versus less technically skilled ones. But no one ever called Bud Powell a great lead pianist, or Bill Evans a great rhythm pianist.

      Talking about “lead guitar” vs. “rhythm guitar” as if they were two separate instruments always strikes me as silly. Worse, it short-changes the wonderful realm of playing that falls somewhere between those two “categories”: everything that’s not strummed, blocky chords or wheedily-wheedily soloing. You know, the cool stuff. Like Keith plays!

  • Has anyone ever sat down with the man and asked him if he played it? He might remember, just as long ax it wasn’t between snorting hits of his father mixed with a little white powder 🙂

  • Bill

    It was often told when Ya-Ya’s came out that Mick Taylor did the lead on Sympathy on tour.And since 71 when I got out of the military, my guitarist friends who saw the Stones live have never heard that lead played. The first lead was definitely Keith, the melodic leads were Mick Taylor.

  • greg

    It’s Roy Buchanan. Think about it. Listen to Roy’s recordings. There is only ONE guy that could get that Tele bridge sound. This was about the time the Stones were looking for Jone’s replacement. They auditioned Roy and he came up with this. Keith has said in the past he played the bass part. 

    Now add this into the mix: Roy is gone and can’t lay claim to it. Someone would have by now but, the silence is deafening isn’t it? Nobody is claiming it because the player of that solo is, sadly, deceased now. 

    It has Roy written all over it. Nobody has that tone. It’s clearly a “Tele with a straight line to the amp” sound. Nothing else. It has Roy’s left handed strength with the bends and the signature string attack as if he’s using a sharp dagger for a pick.  

    My money’s on Roy.

  • greg

    then again……

    Listen to the phrasing on “Monkey Man”. The quick, snippy solos. They are vaguely similar to Sympathy’s solo. The staccato stop, start, stop. The cadence is remarkably similar.  

    OK, it’s Mick Taylor. I’m sure of it. Yeah, my money’s on Mick. 😉

  • Way back in the 70s, Keith was in Guitar Player magazine, and said that the solo was played on an acoustic guitar! It was mic’d and played through a small taper player cranked up so it would distort. That’s why it doesn’t sound like a typical electric guitar. 

    Keith is also playing the bass line.

  • Sam

    Joe, I think it still goes back to Occam’s Razor.  Keef has never pulled any punches about anything.  His autobio is certainly warts-and-all.  He makes no bones about Ry Cooder’s contribution to that era of the Stones, not to mention giving him just deserves about turning him onto open tuning- the most iconic aspect of Keef’s playing.  He’s always been a fan of the bright bite of a Tele.  As for Buchanan, he was certainly a brilliant guitarist, but that doesn’t really sound like his playing at all either.  No soaring bends but quick, staccato jabs like nothing I’ve heard in Roy’s playing.  At the end of the day it sounds like what someone inspired by the intensity of the drums would play if he were indeed playing simply to serve the song.  We stumbled on that song during a gig one night.  Never having played it before but it always being one of my favorite Stones tunes I took a run at the lead- something I rarely did in those days.  I was magic for me.  It felt so natural, it was almost like I’d been playing it for years.  All evidence to the contrary, I’ll have to hang with Keith on this one.

  • Keith Parks

    I agree with Sam.  I don’t think it sounds like Roy Buchanan because I can’t think of any of his solos having that razor blade quality to it.  Keith is an impressive guitar player, but you have to do some digging to find that out, so I think it could be him.  Maybe someone pissed him off that day – probably Mick – and he took it out on the solo.  Anything’s possible.  But ain’t it great to be able to discuss esoteric guitar stuff?  I could do it all day, but my family politely change the subject or leave the room!

  • cod

    Jimmy Page. See “Communuication Breakdown” on LZ.

  • Keith gets my vote, for the following reasons. To my ears, whoever played the solo was a) not comfortable with position shifts and b) runs out of ideas 3/4 of the way through, hence the repeated glissandos, then perks up a bit as he realizes he’s almost at the finish line. There isn’t anything about the solo that is harder technically than the “Time Is On My Side” solo he played a few years earlier, which is also not we think of as characteristic Keith playing.
    It’s not Mick. The vibrato is way too fast and narrow. Plus the late sixties Mick Taylor was playing eleven minute virtuoso epics with John Mayall on a nightly basis just months before. He never would have run out of ideas, or stayed in one part of the neck for six minutes as the “Sympathy” soloist does. Hear what he does on “Ya Yas!” And there are no repeated glisses in any example of Mick’s playing I’ve ever heard.
    It’s not Roy. He was playing in the DC area six nights a week at this time and had never been to England before he went there under his own name in the Seventies.
    I don’t think it’s Jimmy either, though that is the most believable alternative; a guitarist living in England at the time who often played with a vicious, trebly sound and had blues chops. The phrasing and choice of notes don’t sound like Page to me, and he wouldn’t have run out of ideas either. Plus he uses glisses as an arranging technique, not repeatedly to accompany a vocal. I’m pretty sure he was done with sessions by this time and working with Zeppelin but I don’t have the dates to verify one way or the other.
    Keith has been playing guitar forever, and occasionally does things you don’t expect, like the impeccable slide on “You Got To Move.” There is more to his work than the three strings/two fingers/one a**hole approach he himself describes. I bet it’s the Les Paul into a cassette recorder for the sound, and a great guitarist rising to the occasion of a great track at the end of a long and tiring session.
    If it isn’t Keith, here are more likely names to bat around. Brian Jones, Mick Jagger (who plays on Monkey Man) and Ry Cooder. Any one of these to me sound more likely. Here’s another one. Dick Taylor of the Pretty Things! Great post, very thought provoking.

    • joe

      Hey Andy — thanks for chiming in! I’m not sure I share your final conclusion, but I agree with many of your musical observations. 🙂

    • joe

      Can’t help adding, Andy: It’s a fine line between “running out of ideas” and “refraining from wanking.” :smirk:

      I actually love the loose, non-melodic parts of the solo. If the player had just “blowed more,” the solo would blow more.

  • Here’s another thought: Keith might have been inspired/challenged by Mick Taylor, and wanted to prove, to himself if nobody else, “Hey, that’s really cool, but I can do it too.” That style of guitar was very much of the time; if there was ever a period in the Rolling Stones’ history where Keith would have been tempted to try his own hand at it, 1968/69 would have been it. I know I would be really excited if a player of that caliber was joining my band, no matter how famous we were! And I’d be very interested in watching what he did closely, and maybe trying it for myself when nobody was listening.
    If nobody has the balls to ask Keith, why doesn’t somebody ask Glyn Johns? Maybe he said, “Taylor is MIA at the moment, why don’t you give it a try till he comes back.” We’d at least find out how they got the sound.

  • dave

    Come on guys, Mick Taylor wasn’t even in the picture during the recording of Beggar’s Banquet.  Brian Jones is only on one track on that album, No Expectations.  I guess if I believed it was anyone but Keith, it would have to be Brian.  But Brian was in no condition to play guitar at that time.   Everyone who knew him at that time attests to that.  BTW, I always thought the Roy Buchanan “offer” was supposed to be after Taylor left.
    Joe your argument is perfectly logical and it has me thinking.  I still think it’s Keith though.  There are other songs that have that extremely bright tone on them on Beggar’s Banquet.  Stray Cat Blues comes to mind.

    • joe

      You might be right, Dave. But for me the doubt stems not from the tone (anyone can change their tone with a different guitar and amp), but from the articulation, phrasing, and syntax, which seem to me more like DNA.

      • Out of curiosity, there is a lot of debate on what and/or how the solo was recorded. I wonder if this was actually an acoustic guitar amped to the point of distortion or a simple Tele twanged beyond repair. Joe, are you up to the task of seeing if you can nail that tone so you can recreate this solo? After all, this is essentially a blog about tone!

        • joe

          Actually, zyon, I don’t know that I can copy that tone — though I sure wish I could! And if I did get close, it wouldn’t really tell us anything. The real test would be to get a ’57 Les Paul Custom (another big “I wish!”), a couple of the Voxes seen in the studio footage, and a Rangemaster. If anybody has that stuff, send it to me, and I’ll try. And I promise to return it real soon . . .


        • joe

          Oh, and a couple of people mentioned the distorted acoustic angle. Yep, this is exactly when Keith pioneered the technique, but that’s what you hear on “Street Fighting Mad” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and those tracks sound like distorted acoustic guitars. This, on the other hand, sounds like an electric guitar Plus, I can’t imagine many players — and certainly not Keith — managing all those 15th- and 17th-fret bends on acoustic. You’d need strings so slinky and action so low, there would be no tone left. (Reference point: Ron Wood’s acoustic leads on the Faces “Ooh La La.”)

  • Colm

    I think Sympathy is an anomaly in the Stones’ catalogue; it grooves far differently from anything else they have ever done and for that reason alone the solo would have required a different approach, hence the perceived differences between its guitar solo and how Keith “usually” plays.

    Also, I don’t think the guitar sound would have been suited to his regular approach meaning he would have had to step out of his comfort zone. And this “on the edge” element is what makes it so great.

    I know that a lot of Jimmy Page’s solos have a similar sort of vibe, but Page said this was never intentional but rather a case of him flubbing notes occasionally. I also think Page is a much more technically capable guitarist than Richards and wouldn’t have sounded as “lost” (for lack of a better word) as Keith does in spots on this solo.

  • Coley Caldwell

    I’m not sure which way I believe on this subject. I can definitely see the Page angle though. I always thought the solo had a “direct input” quality to it. Like, a distorted mic pre on top of that like The Beatles did for Revolution. I DO recall, many years ago, an interview with Glynn Johns in Guitar World or someplace, where he mentioned that album. He recalled that he didn’t like how the final solo turned out and wished that Keith had gone with one of the original takes, implying that Keith recorded it. Who knows!

  • Me thinks its Keith. Those us us who collect bootlegs and out takes etc have cuts that ya can tell IMHO. I have over twenty hours of the stuff and over fourty hours of Beatle out takes etc too.  Love the blog Joe! 🙂

    • joe

      Hey Bill — thanks for the nice words about the blog. I got an email from my friend, super-awesome music journalist Charles Shaar Murray, who agrees with you too. I’m going to ask him if he’ll let me post his comments. 🙂

  • joe

    Okay, here’s Charles Shaar Murray’s take on it:

    Intriguing postulation re Lord Keef and SFTD … And I did note that in the Scorsese ‘Shine A Light’ Stones concert flick, he screws up that iconic solo so bad that if you or I did it, we’d never dare play in public again … But then again HE’S KEEF AND WE’RE NOT … Plus his old fingers are majorly arthritic these days … And I haven’t had time to go through all the accessible live versions for comparison purposes, so pending that, I’ll accept his authorship.

    Remember, at the time the Sympathy sessions occurred, Page was still in the (winding down) Yardbirds and just beginning to assemble the new line-up which would become Zep … And Keef, a man who loves being part of a two-guitar team, was still in that Stones phase when Brian Jones was becoming progressively more and more useless, but Mick Taylor was not yet on board, meaning that KR had to build the Stones sound (on most of both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed) by overdubbing loads of guitars (plus bass if inspiration struck when Bill W wasn’t around (cf Jumping Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man, both of which also feature Keef baselines).

    Anyway … All good controversy, all good fun.


    Besides being a fine player, Murray one of my absolute favorite music writers.Check out his Amazon book page. More info here.

  • Crowbone

    I’ve always pictured in my head that it was Keith, and I still hope it is.
    I’ve also heard that Mick Taylor was in on many sessions for Beggar’s as Brian just wasn’t showing up, but to me, it sounds like a Keith solo should sound, fragmented, and angry, like a fit taking child, kicking on the floor.
    As to what guitar, I’d lean toward the Tele, if that was the choice between that and the Les Paul, but what about a Strat with the 1rst pickup only. I’ve played some that sound like you are biting tinfoil, and that could get the job done too.
    Great article, Joe!

    • joe

      Hey, Crowbone — thanks for sounding off, and thanks for the kind words about the article. I like your description of the anger in the solo. Man, it electrified me as a little kid, and still does eighty-seven many years later. Nice job on the tinfoil metaphor, too — if I still wrote for a guitar mag, I’d steal that one! 😉

  • Johnny Stingray

    Just my take, but I always thought it was Keith on a Tele with a capo on about the 3rd or 4th fret, or a ‘high strung’ Tele. Keith recalls learning to ‘high string’ from Buck Owens band, whom they met on tour in the mid 60’s

    • joe

      I love that theory — but sadly, it’s wrong. If you play the solo yourself, you’ll discover pretty quickly that the the lower strings are tuned standard. That is DEFINITELY not an octave G!

      Still love those ’60s Buckaroos records, though . . .


  • Dr. Z

    No way it’s anybody but Roy Buchanan.  Listen to some of his stuff and you’ll quickly hear many of the elements in the Sympathy solo.  We’ve all been listening to Jimmy Page for so long – it would be plainly obvious if it were him.  It’s just not Jimmy at all.

  • Dr. Z

    And it’s definitely not Keith!  Much as I love and respect him as a musician, He is not now, nor was he ever capable of the blistering opening lines of that solo.  Sorry Keith!

  • Nilsson

    Hi! Thanks for an interesting article and nice read! It’s definitely Keith, but the inspiration to the solo (and maybe also the song) may have come from a different direction, or source, than what’s been covered in this thread.

    The Stones had just brought in Jimmy Miller as a producer, being impressed by his work with the newly formed band “The Traffic” (Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi) and their debut album “Mr. Fantasy” (1967). It is well known today that Dave Mason is playing on some of the songs of “Beggar’s Banquet” (“Factory Girl” and “Street Fighting Man”), which in turn have lead some people to believe that maybe it is Dave Mason who is playing the solo on “Sympathy…”. But he isn’t, and he had already left “Traffic” just short of the release of their debut album. But if you take a close listen to the song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” from the album “Mr.Fantasy”, you will find a song that have a few common features with “Sympathy…”.

    The chord sequence of the verse is very similar (I believe it is: dominant-subdominant-tonic-dominant, which in the case of “Sympathy…” becomes E-D-A-E, but don’t quote me on that: I ain’t been to a music schoool). But even more significant is the guitar solo of that song. It is quite easy to hear the resemblance between the first solo of “Dear Mr.Fantasy” and the first one in “Sympathy..” (the outro, or second, solo of each song also have some similarities but less so than the first solo). It is also quite obvious that they are not played by the same guitarist, but the one in “Sympathy…” is trying to catch some of the phrases and attacks from the solo in “Fantasy”.

    Adding to the confusion, the solo in “Fantasy” is not played by Dave Mason, but by Steve Winwood (not only is he a very soulful singer and keyboard player, he can also play some nice, bluesy guitar as well)! So my guess is that the solo in “Sympathy..” is done by Keith Richards, and that he is trying to imitate some of Steve Winwoods playing from “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.

    And, yes, Keith Richards have never ever since that day been close to what he did on “Sympathy…”, but by going back a little in time, you might get a glimpse of his capability by listening to his solo in the song “It’s All Over Now” (1964), which also is a mean solo with a dirty sound and playing to it, and it is damn fast too.

    • joe

      Thanks for posting that, Jorgen. The Traffic connection is interesting indeed. No need to apologize about your theory knowledge or lack thereof — you got the chord progression right. 🙂

      I’m still not sure of the basis of your “it’s definitely Keith” claim. On the other hand, the only thing I have supporting my “It’s not Keith” suspicions are my intuitions. But those intuitions are based from spending most of my life either teaching guitarists or interviewing them. So the issue for me isn’t the speed of the solo, or even the note choice, but the micro-details of articulation, and the way the “thoughts” are organized. I just don’t perceive Keith’s “musical DNA” here.

      But yes — I’ve been wrong many times and I could be totally wrong here as well.

  • erik

    IMO the stones were not seasoned musicians at 25, they simply could not play well due to young age and lack of musical education. After that age they already did not need to play well as they were popular. Then it was arthritis that prevent them to play well. So actually they never did and never needed. :finger: :rant:

  • HB

    Hmmm, this might end up with more theories than the Kennedy assassination (too soon?). But…

    I still think it’s Keith. Primarily because his approach to solos was/is very erratic and you never really know what the hell he might pull out of the bag. For instance, a listen to him trading licks with Mick Taylor on Midnight Rambler from the “Brussels Affair” album shows that he can surprise you and even blur the lines a little bit. Perhaps it all comes down to what’s in his cup of tea on any given night 😉

    It also doesn’t seem to be mentioned in any of the reputable books I’ve read so far, not to say I’ve read them all…and the Jean-Luc Godard film of the same name seems like a fairly well captured document of the songs evolution, down to the large crowd of “Woo-hoo”s. Plus, during the Brian Jones era Keith was considered the “lead” guitarist of the Stones and was probably quite used to playing that role – at least prior to him having to do everything when Jones started losing it.

    I can see why there is much debate and confusion, but in the end we’ll never know the truth because the people who were there and still alive would most likely not be able to remember. They’d probably swear Oswald was there the day before…

  • HB

    whoops – didn’t realize how old this thread was. Still good for it, I hope.

  • Andrew

    There’s a bit in the Godard film of SFTD where Keith noodles the ‘diddley boaw da dun’ phrase ( ). Taking into account all of the comments above you wonder :

    a) Keith did the original solo, there he is, on film, noodling an embryonic phase out of his LP custom.
    b) Maybe he did the original solo but then someone else replaced it, and having heard the roughs, kept a couple of Keith’s ideas.
    c) Was this section of the film made AFTER the song had been finished and Keith is copying a phrase from the solo done by someone else.

  • Andrew

    ..and I’d have to say, I think it’s Keith.

    The stylistic anomalies from ‘later Keith’ might be explained by what was ‘in his tea’ on the day of the recording session.

    In the 60’s you could buy amphetamines over the counter – they were widely marketed as slimming tablets. As a touring band I’m sure the Stones bought plenty, speed being an essential stamina aid for the touring musician. Take a fistful of ‘mother’s little helpers’ and half an hour later I bet your vibrato speeds up quite a bit! And the ‘ice pick in the forehead’ tone seems appropriate to the synthetic chemical compund. Compare the tone here to the more ‘natural’ influences of a few years later, from the Exile period on.

    It’s certainly interesting to apply the ‘I wonder what they were on, if anything’ analysis to all your favourite records…

  • Tim

    I don’t think Page played the solo….the timing is weird like somebody struggling to play it properly. I think it’s Richards outside of his comfort zone. Page has been said to have played on many records by other artist including the solo’s on the Kinks “You really got me” but if you’ve seen live footage of the Kinks playing it at the time, Dave Davies plays it exactly as it sounds on the record..

  • steve

    The bends are too poetic to be Page. Definitely sounds like Richards to me.

  • Sukhbir

    I think the Traffic connection is more than a coincidence. The Stones were probably impressed with the Dear Mr Fantasy album that came out a few months before, and they hired the producer Jimmy Miller and invited Dave Mason into the studio also. Being impressed by Dear Mr Fantasy, Keith probably learned to play the song including the solo, and naturally, with Sympathy for the Devil being so similar to Dear Mr Fantasy, Keith’s version of that solo came out. I don’t think there is any way, however, that it was another guitarist playing that solo.

    My theory is that Sympathy for the Devil started off sounding too much like Dear Mr Fantasy, so they tinkered with the arrangement (replaced guitar with piano) and added african rhythm. The solo is the only part that remained that was very reminiscent of Dear Mr Fantasy.

  • Nanker

    I always thought, and still think it was Brian. He was the signature sound on the early hits using different instruments, including guitars. They called him the Stones’ secret weapon after Paint it Black aired on Ed Sullivan. According to Bill Wyman, how the Sympathy lead part should sound was Brian’s idea. The gossip that Brian was in no condition to play because of drugs at that time; what about the masterful slide guitar on No Expectations? Also; sitar, acoustic guitar, harmonica, mellotron, tambora and backing vocals on the album. He seems to be credited on most of the songs. He was not the only one in the group with drug issues at that time. He had the imagination and the ability to play a variety of instruments and styles to fit, no, to transform the songs. Think of his slide guitar on Little Red Rooster; not one, but two harmonicas on Not Fade Away; dulcimer on Lady Jane; recorder on Ruby Tuesday; Paint it Black, sitar; Under My Thumb, marimba. If it wasn’t Brian, I could believe Steve Winwood. But I still think it was Brian, and they ripped him off as usual. Don’t get me wrong, Keith is a great lead guitarist and had a real synergistic thing going with Brian on guitars. I just don’t think he had the imagination for this, and it doesn’t sound like him, before or since. That would be normal for Brian, with him everything was unique.

    • joe

      Brian was exceedingly creative at dabbling with multiple instruments — you’ve cited some of the best examples. All those parts are fantastic, and they often make the song. But I hear no evidence that he had much technical skills on any of them. If he could play that sort of physically challenging, linear guitar solo, why is there no evidence of such playing anywhere else in his work?

  • Oinkus

    Still think it was Jimmy Page no matter how much stuff I read about this anywhere.

  • Nanker

    Listen to this by Steve Winwood;

    The whole song is great, solo comes in around 6 minute mark. I saw him play this on David Letterman, bought the CD, was “disappointed” that Clapton plays the lead on the recorded version!

    So if Jimmy Miller was producing Traffic and the Stones and they were sharing studios, it’s possible there was cross over recording with unaccredited parts.

  • Nanker

    That was the wrong post (recorded version) this should be the live version with Winwood playing lead;

  • Aleksandar

    Very early on in Jean-Luc Godard’s film ‘Sympathy or the Devil’, around the 8 minute mark or so, you can see Keith sitting down with his black Les Paul trying out some leads. The first few licks he plays sound like the start of the solo, and I was surprised to see him play like that because it sounds very un-Keith.

  • Nanker

    I remember it well, they just don’t show the actual solo/lead part being recorded. There was that (good) back and forth between Keith and Brian with guitar parts. I still think it was Brian. Although true there is nothing like it before in his work, but neither is there anything like his other instrumental forays, except slide guitar.

  • Nanker

    One more comment about why it could be Brian, Andy’s comment above mentions it was a guitarist living in England with trebly sound and blues chops. We know Brian was the original blues fanatic of the group, he was also in to exotic music. The Brian Jones book says on 12 May 1968 the band did a surprise performance on stage at the NME Poll Winners show. “The Stones unleashed Jumpin’ Jack Flash and followed up with Satisfaction. The consensus was that this was the band at a new peak. Keith cranking out the main riff of Jumpin’ Jack Flash on his black Les Paul Custom while Brian played the little trebly flourishes on a Gibson ES300.” You can also sort out which parts are missing in the Aretha Franklin version with Keith playing (also sounds great) but Brian was already gone by that time.

    • Joe Gore

      Cool — thanks for sharing! It’s a pretty good impersonation of the Howlin’ Wolf original. But nothing that sounds remotely like “Sympathy.”

  • Nanker

    Nothing sounds like Sympathy. But Brian always came up with something new. It doesn’t prove he did it, but it would not surprise me.

  • Highwater

    My theory is that it was Tony Iommi.

    Some of his early Sabbath solos have that same sort of hard-attack, icepicky-treble tone, and some syncopated phrasing to boot. To me, at-least, the vibrato sounds more like his than Keith’s or Jimmy’s.

    It’s a bit of a stretch for him to have wandered through that studio that day, I know. But here’s the thing: a couple months later, he was (very briefly) hired by Jethro Tull when (drumroll please) Mick Taylor turned them down… and the universe seems to love creating those sorts of co-incidences.

    Either way, I don’t think it was Keith Richards *or* Jimmy Page… but I’m a lot more sure that it wasn’t Keith.

  • Bill

    If that’s not Jimmy playing that killer solo, which definitely has Jimmy’s solo tone from this time, namely a telecaster through a supro amplifier, I don’t know what is. The way Jimmy rakes the notes is a signature move that I have never heard Keith Richard’s play before or since.

    • joe

      Man, so many people disagree with me! Notably my pal Richard Fortus from GN’R and Psychedelic Furs, who knows more about gear, playing, and rock history than almost anyone I know. But still, it just doesn’t sound like Keith’s hands to me.

  • Nanker

    Also, if what David said is so, (December 27, 2011); “Way back in the 70s, Keith was in Guitar Player magazine, and said that the solo was played on an acoustic guitar! It was mic’d and played through a small taper player cranked up so it would distort. That’s why it doesn’t sound like a typical electric guitar…”

    Remember who had the acoustic guitar in the Goddard film. It was Brian, I agree with Andy (December 28, 2011), Brian must be considered. He would have/should have been the angriest Stone at the time and had the imagination to create a new sound. I don’t see anyone else, then or now.

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