The early sixties were not known for an abundance of guitar driven groups. Pop music was dominated by lavish Motown and Phil Spector productions as well as by Brill Building songwriting factories which churned out formula hits for personality driven acts like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, and countless others. Most of the guitar groups of the day, such as The Ventures or Dick Dale and the Deltones, were instrumentalists.
Then came The Beatles.
The Beatles changed the way the rock group was viewed and charted a course for every rock group that followed them. They established the gold standard for the way that rock groups operated and then pushed the limits outward, setting them apart from all of the groups that sought to be just like them.
Musically, The Beatles as a whole were very good, but as individual instrumentalists they were never confused with the virtuosos of their respective instruments (Paul McCartney coming closest with his mastery of the bass guitar). What made The Beatles great was their ability to change their sound -to keep moving. While lesser groups worked to create a signature sound that would define them (and all too often staying with that sound so long that it became tiresome) The Beatles switched musical genres from song to song. Rockabilly to R&B to ballad to all-out rocker all on the same album.
And once those songs became hits and the albums topped the charts they changed their sound for the next one. They did this through their musical curiosity, their songwriting talents, and, in the case of George Harrison through a lasting experimentation with his own sound.
What one can discover when taking a look at The Beatles catalogue is that George went through several distinct phases in his approach to recording and playing. Adding effects here, changing guitars there he was the first of The Beatles to alter their sound simply by switching guitars or adding effects to his overall sound. The result of these experiments changed the way The Beatles sounded in significant ways and kept them fresh, while also laying the groundwork for more pronounced changes to the way they performed once they left the road and entered the studio full-time. It also influenced scores of guitar players who simply wanted to look or sound like the most famous lead guitar player on the planet from 1963-1966. We begin at the beginning with what may be the guitar most commonly associated with George Harrison.
1962-February 1964 – The Gretsch
George’s first guitar of choice was the Gretsch Chet Atkins “Country Gentleman” model (black) which he used throughout the early to mid 1960s. As a devotee of rockabilly, and Carl Perkins in particular, it was natural that George would choose a guitar that symbolized the country and western sound of the period. A prime example of the “Gentleman’s” distinctive tone can be found in the opening notes of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and indeed in songs such as “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” and “Honey Don’t”. George was introduced to America playing this guitar on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and the image of him with the sleek, black widebody guitar became something of a Beatles trademark, along with Ringo’s bass drum with the dropped-T logo, Paul’s Hofner violin-bass guitar and John’s black and white Rickenbacker.
The Gretsch was also the guitar that George chose to tour with throughout the 1964, 1965 and 1966 tours. Its tone was reliable and could fit in effortlessly on songs played live which had been recorded using other guitars. Quite simply, the cacophony created by the screaming girls in the audience made changing guitars to suit the song unnecessary.
Its twangy tone was typical of the era and provided the perfect sound for the style of music The Beatles performed in the early sixties. Sadly George’s original Gretsch Country Gentleman was destroyed when it fell off the roof of The Beatles touring van and was run over by passing motorists. George replaced it with a brown Chet Atkins “Tennessean” model Gretsch which he used during the 1965 and 1966 tours. The Tennessean was the more affordable version of the Country Gentleman, but it had its advantages as it had a smaller body than the CG and featured a similar tone.
February 1964-February 1965 – The Electric 12-String and the Birth of The Byrds
Early in 1964 George the Rickenbacker guitar manufacturing company presented George with the second Rickenbacker Electric 12-String guitar ever made. It obviously made an impression on him as the instrument immediately became a staple of Beatles records throughout 1964 and early 1965. Its shimmering tone can be heard on virtually all of the A Hard Day’s Night album and parts of the Beatles for Sale and Help! albums.
- The exposure given to this new instrument its use in the A Hard Day’s Night film was profound as Jim McGuinn (later Roger McGuinn) of The Byrds saw the film and immediately purchased the same model guitar. Through The Byrds this guitar became something of a staple of the folk-rock sound of the mid-sixties and has been in regular use ever since.
It can be debated which guitarist is more closely identified with the Rickenbacker Electric 12-String, McGuinn or Harrison, but its effect on music is undeniable, from the opening chord on “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Mr. Tambourine Man” to Tom Petty (among others) this guitar has left its mark on rock history. And it would not have happened without George Harrison.
1965 Help! Sessions – The Dreadful Affair of the Tone Pedal Experiment
By February, 1965 The Beatles were set to begin filming for their second feature film, Eight Arms To Hold You (which would eventually be retitled Help!). They would need material for the soundtrack and had only weeks to produce suitable material. Much like with Beatles For Sale which was recorded quickly between Beatles obligations, the early sessions (with the notable exceptions of “Ticket To Ride” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”) did not yield their best output.
From a musical standpoint The Beatles were experimenting with new sounds, some of which worked and some of which did not. The electric piano was featured prominently on several of the tracks recorded that February (“Tell Me What You See,” “Another Girl,” “The Night Before,” “You Like Me Too Much”). And, for this brief period George experimented with the tone pedal.
The tone pedal is a device that, when pressure is applied to the pedal, the volume is increased or reduced in a relative amount. The device would later find more widespread use as a “wah-wah” pedal which altered the amount of treble output instead of the volume. George must have been fascinated by the device because he used it in the recording of “I Need You,” “Yes It Is,” as well as in “Wait” and “It’s Only Love” a few months later.
The result of this experimentation was a handful of tracks that seemed to lose a little for the pedal’s inclusion. Though the effort to push the boundaries of their sound was something that propelled their music to greater heights later in the year with the recording of Rubber Soul this particular effect did not add to the sound and only served to take away from the beautiful melody of a song such as “Yes It Is” (for evidence I refer you to the gorgeous remastered version/demo included as a track on the Anthology 2 cd). Thankfully this experiment would not last long.
1965 Rubber Soul Sessions – Call In the Strats
While recording the Rubber Soul album in 1965 The Beatles experimented with their sound still further. Armed with much stronger material than ever before they were in the midst of producing their most cohesive album to date -and the album that is most often used to separate the “Early Beatles” sound from the “Later Beatles” sound.
During the recording of “Nowhere Man” John and George were trying to find a way to increase the treble on the guitars. They finally asked longtime assistant Mal Evans to go out of the studio and purchase two Fender Stratocasters for John and George to play (Fender Stratocasters being known for a trademark treble tone). Mal returned with two 1961 Strats (powder blue). The difference in tone is unmistakable as can be heard in the solo on “Nowhere Man”, and on “Run for Your Life” and “The Word”. This guitar sound, in my opinion, defined the album and gives it its signature sound.
During this transitional period George’s playing was somewhat rough. Raised on 50’s rock and roll and mastering The Beatles early sound, Rubber Soul was new territory for rock music and George was doing his best to go from playing “Roll Over Beethoven” to playing “Michelle”. The Beatles’ longtime engineer Geoff Emerick wrote about the difficulty George had in composing solos in this period in his book Here there and Everywhere. And as we will soon discover, his response to this would be to play fewer of them.
1966 Revolver Sessions – Fattening Up the Tone with the Gibson SG
1966’s sole album offering Revolver was intended to be a studio creation. By that I mean that its songs were not intended to be played live, even though The Beatles had a world tour planned after the recording of the album. In what may have been an attempt to create a new sound after the Strat-heavy sound of Rubber Soul (or perhaps just the result of George’s changing tastes) George used a Gibson SG for most of Revolver and the difference can be heard in the heavier sounding “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Rain”, “Paperback Writer” and “She Said, She Said”. Crunching guitar riffs replaced the more twangy Rubber Soul sound.
The Beatles had always been a riff heavy band. From “Ticket to Ride” to “Day Tripper” some of the most recognizable guitar riffs of the period belonged to The Beatles. But these new riffs were different -louder, more brash, distorted. Thanks to the Gibson SG guitar Revolver was a heavy album for its day and left no doubt that The Beatles were entering a new, heavier phase in their career.
1967 – “Rocky” Gets a Paint Job
In late 1966 The Beatles took a much-needed break. George studied the sitar in India, Paul recorded a film soundtrack for the film The Family Way, John went to Spain to film How I Won The War, and Ringo…waited for the others to return. By the time they came back to the studio to record “When I’m 64”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” they had changed as a group. With touring behind them permanently their goal was to explore the boundaries of “the studio” and to create songs as artistic works.
Their new outlook on songwriting and recording rendered the two and a half-minute pop song and requisite guitar solo as a mere cliché of the four piece combo. Beginning in 1966 and especially throughout 1967 we can see this in practice:
Number of guitar solos on Beatles albums:
Revolver: 4 (2 Harrison, 1 McCartney, 1 Harrison + McCartney)
Sgt. Pepper: 2 (1 Harrison, 1 McCartney)
Magical Mystery Tour: 1 (if you count 8 seconds of “All You Need is Love” as a solo)
The Beatles were indeed changing the definition of the pop song. Sitars, tape effects and orchestras now occupied the space once reserved for guitars, and on many songs the guitar is absent altogether.
During this period George mainly used the Fender Stratocaster that he played on Rubber Soul which he dubbed “Rocky”. In true 1967 fashion George gave Rocky a fresh psychedelic paint job using day-glo paints and nail polish (close inspection reveals the original powder blue of the guitar). He can be seen playing “Rocky” in the Magical Mystery Tour film (in color). He also played it on his lone solo on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“Fixing a Hole”).
1969 Get Back Sessions – The Wah Pedal That Wahsn’t
In January of 1969 The Beatles set up shop in Twickenham Studios to film their latest idea for a film. Originally intended to be a television special The Beatles, not unanimously as it would be discovered, decided to be filmed rehearsing material for a future live performance. Eschewing the technical effects of Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles (the “White Album”) for a more stripped-down sound, The Beatles christened the project “Get Back” to symbolize the group “getting back” to their roots.
The footage selected for the eventual film “Let It Be” shows that the sessions themselves were clearly uninspired and monotonous –mostly consisting of jams, 50’s rock covers and bored versions of some of The Beatles weaker original material. The cold, cavernous confines of a warehouse-like Twickenham soundstage could not have helped either as tensions ran high and the spirits remained low.
In these sessions, however George can be heard using a wah pedal in nearly every track, creating a very odd wandering rhythm guitar that unsurprisingly made it into exactly zero of the finished tracks on either Let It Be or Abbey Road, which also culled some of the material first rehearsed in the sessions (the closest example being the more underscored wah-wah rhythm guitar used in the song “Something”). Take, for example the following video:
This phase of George’s playing was short-lived and could have been the result of the simple boredom that surrounded the sessions. The Beatles as a group had been stretched to the breaking point during the “White Album” sessions and seemed to be recording out of habit and obligation. That lack of inventiveness on the guitar was the manifestation of The Beatles general directionless course is unsurprising.
1969-2001 The Classic Harrison Slide Sound
Following the tumultuous “Get Back” sessions the Beatles embarked on a series of solo projects and production duties for the newly signed stable of Apple artists. George, for his part was compiling a roster of songs that he knew would not be chosen for inclusion on a future Beatles record (with his standard 1-2 song allotment on each album still in place). And who knew if another Beatles project would even materialize? By the spring of 1969 business matters and lawsuits dominated The Beatles professional lives, straining the tensions between the group further still.
Amidst the chaos of a disorganized Apple Corps, marriages and lawsuits The Beatles regrouped to record one final album intended to serve as a more appropriate farewell than anything the unreleased “Get Back” sessions would ever hope to be. That album would become Abbey Road.
In that period George’s playing improved dramatically and he recorded some of his best solos of his Beatles career. “Old Brown Shoe,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Polythene Pam” and George’s contribution to the three-part guitar solo in “The End” featured George at his most lyrical as a soloist. It is, however, his work on his own composition “Something” that would be his best and a harbinger of his style as a solo artist.
George’s post-Beatles guitar sound would remain a slide guitar heavy one until his death in 2001. It is first unveiled on the song “Come Together” with the slide guitar contributing to the sleazy, strutting sound of the song. “Something,” while not actually played using a bottleneck slide contains all of the elements of George’s slide guitar sound played with deep bends and long slurs instead. The solo amounts to one of the most beautiful George ever recorded.
Following The Beatles breakup, his successes on Abbey Road having given him the opportunity to reach escape velocity from the Beatles orbit George would find a home for his backlog of songs written over the previous three years on his masterpiece All Things Must Pass. His guitar sound would change little over the following 30 years as his dedication to the slide guitar would see him through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. But it would not have been possible for him to achieve his signature sound without the experimental phases that shaped him as a player during the 1960s and gave the world such wonderful music.