This song seems surprisingly upbeat for its subject matter. It almost sounds playful – this is no Clash singing about an imminent apocalypse, even though the song is inspired by real-life violence and unrest. At the same time, it's no "A Change is Gonna Come," lifting you up with its grand melodies and bittersweet optimism. The sing-songy tune of "Street Fighting Man" might mirror a little bit of the ambivalence that the lyrics seem to convey, about whether or not fighting in the street is actually going to get people anywhere.
In terms of instrumentals, "Street Fighting Man" is driven by Keith Richards' guitar riff and the drumming of Charlie Watts. Tinny and hollow-sounding, both the guitar and drums were recorded in an unusual way. Richards was always experimenting with new ways to get the kind of distortion he was looking for. On "Satisfaction," he used a Gibson fuzz box. On "Street Fighting Man," he got more creative. He used only miked-up acoustics for all the guitar parts—even the lead—and he recorded these first on a small cassette tape player. Once Richards had the guitar tracks recorded, he ran his small Philips cassette player through a small extension speaker and then onto studio tape through a microphone.
Charlie Watts matched Richards's cassette trick by whipping out an old 1930s practice drum kit. Small enough to be squeezed into a suitcase, the kit was designed for the drum student on the go. The drums, mounted on small brackets, were only the size of tambourines, but when miked-up, they produced a big, although hollow, sound.
In the summer of 1968, when the song was recorded, Brian Jones was still participating in the sessions, but his role was diminishing. He did, however, contribute the sitar and tamboura tracks.