Mick Taylor did something rare and unexpected 40 years ago this week. On 12 December 1974, he walked away from The Rolling Stones. A select few followed in his footsteps over the next few decades, including Joe Perry, Slash and John Frusciante. They were all gifted lead guitar players, and they all voluntarily quit famous rock groups at the height of their powers.
For many Stones fans the Taylor era was the band's finest. The 20-year-old phenomenon had been playing with John Mayall in London when the Stones hired him to replace Brian Jones, who had been ousted in 1969 and was later found dead in his swimming pool. Taylor made his Stones debut at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park in front of 250,000 people – no pressure, right Mick? He then jumped in with the band on the infamous 1969 North American tour that produced the Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! live album and culminated in the tragic Altamont show, in which a fan was slain by members of the Hells Angels.
Taylor was an integral part of classic albums such as Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. "Some people think that's the best version of the band that existed," Mick Jagger once said. But Taylor announced his departure after five years in the Stones’ orbit and never looked back. He felt for many years like a junior citizen in the band of jaded veterans, and developed a heroin habit as the Stones plowed through a period of notorious decadence. "I just felt I'd had enough," Taylor later said, even though his subsequent musical endeavours were no match for the Stones commercial juggernaut. It’s likely Taylor would’ve become a millionaire several times over had he stuck it out. Still he claimed to have no regrets. "To ask if I regret leaving the Rolling Stones is to ask the wrong question," he once said. "The hard one to answer is, do I regret joining them?"
All indications are that Taylor's departure stunned the Stones. In subsequent years, Jagger and Keith Richards have both expressed admiration for the guitarist's abilities. The guitarist was even invited back for cameo appearances on the Stones' 2013 tour. His fateful decision in 1974 remains one of rock's most unexpected line-up changes ever, a departure from the usual ‘creative differences’, the typical excuse when a key band member is kicked to the curb.
In 1979, Taylor’s example was followed by Joe Perry, who took his guitar and walked home after bickering with singer Steven Tyler while Aerosmith was recording its aptly named Night in the Ruts album. Tyler didn't blink, completing the sessions with a variety of fill-ins, even though the Tyler-Perry partnership had turned Aerosmith into arena headliners during the '70s, with hits ranging from Walk This Way to a hit cover of The Beatles' Come Together. Perry went on to record three albums as The Joe Perry Project before he and Tyler reconciled.
A truce seems unlikely between another singer-guitarist one-two punch, however: Guns N' Roses’ Axl Rose and Slash. The Los Angeles hard-rock band was still flying high in the early '90s after the success of Appetite for Destruction and the two-part Use Your Illusion albums. Slash, the guitarist whose indelible riff anchored the band's biggest hit, Sweet Child O' Mine, finally got tired of waiting for Rose to record a follow-up and quit in 1996. Slash's exasperation stemmed from what he saw as Rose's attempts to distance himself from the rest of the band by firing drummer Steven Adler, showing up chronically late for concerts and demanding ownership rights over the band name. Rose has released exactly one Guns N’ Roses album since Slash left, but has made no move to bring him back.
Slash's exasperation with Rose was rooted in business logic. For John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, business had nothing to do with his decision to leave – just the opposite, in fact. The 1991 Blood Sugar Sex Magik album shot the punk-funk band into the mainstream, and ended up selling more than 13 million copies worldwide. But the quartet's newfound rock-star status troubled Frusciante, who abruptly quit in 1992. "Too high, too far, too soon," the guitarist later said, trying to explain his departure. Drugs and mental illness bedevilled him, before he returned to the Chili Peppers in 1997 for a second tour of duty, only to depart again in 2009.
Though the circumstances of Frusciante's departure on both occasions remain murky, what can't be disputed is that the Chili Peppers made their best music while the guitarist was in the band. For many fans, the Chili Peppers’ most beloved albums were made with him in the line-up: Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication in 1999.
The same could be said of Perry, Slash, and, perhaps most of all, Mick Taylor. The Stones continued to have success and made one or two great albums after he left, but the guitarist holds a special place in the notorious band’s history: he left the job of a lifetime on his own terms.
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.