“We were just a band that made it very, very big. That’s all.” Was John Lennon’s myth-busting synopsis of The Beatles’ story, uttered during an interview with Rolling Stone. While the technical truth of that statement is inarguable, for millions around the world, The Beatles were – and remain – a huge deal more than just another band. From that first fabled meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1957 to the spontaneous final rooftop performance atop Apple Corps’ Savile Row HQ at the culmination of the 1960s, The Beatles became one of the most seismic forces ever to impact popular culture.
- READ MORE: The history of guitars with built-in tech
Narrowing down The Beatles’ greatest guitar moments isn’t just about honing in on technical nouse; this is also a showcase of the range of experimentation the four enthusiastically pursued, to the benefit of all who listened. The Beatles moved the goalposts in terms of what a pop song could be, and proved eternally wrong one Dick Rowe of Decca Records, who airily dismissed the four, and their manager Brian Epstein, on the cusp of their success with the catastrophic misjudgement that ‘guitar groups are on their way out’.” Ironically, The Beatles’ shattering of pop’s parameters instead proved that ‘guitar groups’ could outgrow such tired labels, and shape a more musically expansive future.
20. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
Launching The Beatles’ long-awaited first album since forgoing the world of touring, Sgt Pepper’s title track knowingly plays on the outside speculation that their refusal to play live indicated that it wouldn’t be long before the band folded – by shrewdly morphing themselves into a completely new band in a faux-live context. Driven by McCartney’s impulsive three-note lead riff, the opening track sounds instantly beefier and rockier than anything we’ve heard before, largely due to Starr’s close-mic’d drum kit and Harrison’s chugging G-A-C-G power chord cycle. McCartney’s lead part was likely performed on either an Epiphone Casino or a Fender Esquire, with the more distorted tone provided by a gain-boosted Selmer Zodiac Twin 50 Mark II amp. McCartney was pictured overdubbing a range of Sgt Pepper solos (including the similarly-flavoured Good Morning, Good Morning) with that combo, cementing the fact that, by this point, The Beatles were flexible instrument switchers. It’s a self-assured, bold statement of an opener, which also introduced listeners to a brand new medium – the concept album.
Did you know?
That searing lead motif enthralled even the mighty Jimi Hendrix, who learned the song in its entirety the weekend after Sgt Pepper’s Friday release so he could cover it at a show at the Saville Theatre on the Monday.
19. Dig a Pony (Let it Be, 1970)
Though the record which became Let It Be was beset by tensions (a conception that Peter Jackson’s upcoming Get Back looks set to challenge), the resulting songs, when assembled for belated release in 1970, were largely top-notch. Lennon’s Dig a Pony was clear evidence of the band’s hope to return to a more conventional rock sound after the genre-flitting of the previous year’s sprawling double album. Though the sound is more grounded, its opening 3/4 time signature which shifts to a 6/8 waltz for the verse, and Lennon’s philosophical lyrical wordplay are reminders of the band’s depths. The central pentatonic riff finds Lennon, Harrison and McCartney’s bass rigidly glued together, providing a hefty, Cream-esque quality. After augmenting the verse chords with some arms-length licks, Harrison’s spotlight solo was performed live on the rooftop with his custom-built rosewood Fender Telecaster, and serenely streaks across the verse chord sequence, providing succulent additional melodies that build on Lennon’s top-line with aplomb.
Did you know?
The recording of Dig a Pony on Let it Be is actually the live version recorded during the bittersweet Savile Row rooftop performance. It concludes with a chilly Lennon stating “Thank you, brothers…My hands are getting too cold to play the chords.”
18. Nowhere Man (Rubber Soul, 1965)
Another of Lennon’s introspective self-portraits, and a spiritual sequel to the anguished dejection of Help, Nowhere Man’s initially pessimistic lyric crafts a portrait of its apathetic titular character, before being guided by Lennon in the chorus to wake up to the fact that the whole world is at his command. We’re already on psychologically compelling ground, far removed from the simple romantic themes of The Beatles’ early work. Throw in some remarkable three-part harmonies and some gleaming guitar work from Harrison, and it’s up there with Rubber Soul’s finest moments.
In McCartney 3,2,1 Sir Paul remembered that George and John’s cutting tone for their in-unison guitar break was achieved by first turning the treble on both their Vox AC-100s and Sonic Blue Fender Stratocasters to the maximum value. “It sounded pretty cool but we wanted to try and push it.” Paul remembered, After the engineers said it was already as far as it could go, Paul, John and George still wanted more, “How about you take that, and put it over to [another track on the console’s] EQs, and do it all again.” McCarney instructed, “So we’d have it going through a few channels, each time putting more and more treble on it. It’s a nice sound though.”
Did you know?
The matching Sonic Blue Fender Strats that Lennon and Harrison used on Nowhere Man were bought together by the band’s roadie. Harrison recalled (as quoted in Andy Babiuk’s Beatles Gear) that, “I decided I’d get a Strat, and John decided he’d get one too. We sent our roadie, Mal Evans, and he came back with two of them, pale blue ones. Straight away we used them on the album we were making at the time.”
17. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Abbey Road, 1969)
Across Abbey Road, we get some tantalising glimpses of what might have been, had the band put aside the acrimony and strove onwards into the next decade. Chief among these is the eight-minute, multi-sectioned powerhouse I Want You (She’s So Heavy), an assortment of disparate musical parts that coalesce to form one of the album’s most captivating cuts. Lennon’s composition begins in a hypnotic 6/8 time signature, with ominous arpeggios in Dm and a gloomy, descending bass part, before switching to a series of 4/4 blues-pastiche verses, rooted in Am7 – interjected by a deranged sounding E7♭9 jazz chord. It’s a swerving, pained arrangement that reflects Lennon’s dramatically psychotic vocal performance – and its love-as-obsession lyric. Most interesting is Harrison’s doubling of Lennon’s topline with a slinky lead part, which gets some more exposure after the second verse, and most influentially, the song’s final, gradual ascending/descending repeat of the opening motif, with its forceful drop-D riff gradually taking on a sense of scale that many point to as a forebear of heavy metal.
Did you know?
The Beatles were among the first to experiment with the sonic potential of synthesisers, and used a brand new Moog IIIP to shade various Abbey Road arrangements, Lennon used the synth to add a howling wind effect to I Want You’s outro.
16. Ticket to Ride (Help!, 1965)
Topping the charts for the seventh time in a row, The Beatles’s first UK single of 1965 opened a year of creative growth for the band, and Ticket To Ride was a considerable indication of a more matured band from both form and sound perspectives. With a continual drone on the A chord, Harrison delivers a radiant, rhythmic arpeggio around A major with his Fireglo Rickenbacker 360 12-string. Of that irresistible riff’s tone, Harrison remembered, on radio series, The Concise History of the Frying Pan that, though his first Rickenbacker had a range of controls, it was difficult to carefully wrangle tones from it. “[The Rickenbacker] had a tiny knob that never seemed to do anything. All it ever seemed was there was one sound I could get where it was bright, which was the sound you hear on Ticket to Ride.”
Lennon’s chord sequence, recorded with his jet-glo Rickenbacker 325 12-String, is supremely crafted – with a shift to an F♯m for the song’s refrain suggesting a hint of melancholy that counters the verse’s bright feel. The inspired tempo switch to double-time for the bridge and outro sections allowed for a more jaunty mood shift, with McCartney providing the wiry lead part with his Epiphone Casino.
Did you know?
Lennon remained proud of Ticket to Ride for years that followed, and in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone claimed the song prefigured heavy rock “It was a slightly new sound at the time, because it was pretty fucking heavy for then. It’s all happening, it’s a heavy record. And the drums are heavy, too. That’s why I like it.”
15. All My Loving (With The Beatles, 1963)
From the very outset of The Beatles recording history, it was clear that Lennon and McCartney – whether working closely together, or competitively one-upping each other – had a knack for song-craft. Case in point, All My Loving, a pulsing and romantic McCarney-penned piece that was an apt choice to be the first track performed on their debut US television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. For millions, this performance of All My Loving was their very first exposure to the group.
Fitting then, that the track encapsulated the band’s developing strengths. While McCartney takes the lead with both a poetic, sweet lyric and astonishingly mobile bass line, understated in the arrangement is one of Lennon’s finest moments as a rhythm guitar player. His frantic, unfaltering triplets tightly propel the momentum of the track’s energy and was an approach likely inspired by The Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron (or so reckons Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head). The song’s lead break allows George a moment to play off the topline with some country-inflected double-note runs on his Gretsch 6122 Country Gentleman. America was hooked.
Did you know?
All My Loving was one of the few Paul songs to be written lyric-first, as he told Barry Miles in Paul McCartney: Many Years From No, “I never wrote words first, it was always some kind of accompaniment. I’ve hardly ever done it since either.”
14. A Hard Day’s Night (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
The Beatles’ first movie, and their first LP of completely original tracks, is heralded by one of the most famous opening chords in pop history. The odd-sounding detonation of perplexing notes has bamboozled guitarists for years. Though it was confirmed by George Harrison to be the result of an Fadd9 with a G bass played on his 12-string Rickenbacker 360 in an online chat in 2001, he caveated that, “You’ll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.” – it was later revealed (as documented by beatlesbible.com) that McCartney played a D note on the fifth fret of his A string, while Lennon plays the same Fadd9 chord using his 6-string Gibson J-160 acoustic.
It was producer (and the oft-labelled ‘fifth Beatle’) George Martin, who added the most harmonic confusion, playing a cluster of simultaneous piano notes that resonated interestingly. It resulted in a spellbinding monster of a chord. The song-proper is a rollocking, effortless gem, and the perfect whirlwind of invigorating energy to serve as the signature song of The Beatles first multimedia project. The track culminates with Harrison unravelling an arpeggiated sequence of notes between Am7 and F major, elements of which are packed into that elusive opening chord.
Did you know?
The folky construction of A Hard Day’s Night was written in the ancient mixolydian mode. As Albert Goldman explained, in The Many Lives of John Lennon “It was abandoned in the beginning of the 17th century, but is maintained in English and Irish folk music.”
13. Dear Prudence (The Beatles, 1968)
With its delicate, arpeggiated picking pattern slowly emerging from the crescendo of blistering album opener, Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence is The White Album’s first moment of real magic. Meeting on their Rishikesh meditation retreat, Lennon was enthralled by folk troubadour Donavan’s unique ‘clawhammer’ fingerpicking technique. “It wasn’t just fingerstyle. It was chord structures that maybe they hadn’t learned.” Donavan later explained in an interview with Westword, “They hadn’t learned the A minor descending to the D minor 9 — all the stuff Bert Jansch was doing and the flamenco guitar players were doing. And all they had were their acoustic guitars. Paul was walking around while John was doing his lessons with me, and out of the picking came Dear Prudence.”
The story goes that the idea for the song came when the group were trying to entice actress Mia Farrow’s reclusive sister, Prudence, out of her meditation-obsessed isolation. The dreamy lull of the D major-oriented picking part – actually recorded with Lennon’s crystalline-sounding Epiphone Casino in drop-D – matches the song’s free and innocent mood, while George layers the arrangement with golden rays of intricate lead on his Gibson SG Standard. In support, McCartney unfurls one of his most divine bass parts, colouring the dreamy mood with shifting throbs of emotion.
Did you know?
At the time of the recording of Dear Prudence, Ringo had abruptly decided to leave the group for a two-week period, before being convinced by the other members to return soon after. Therefore the track’s unconventional drum track was laid down by Paul.
12. Blackbird (The Beatles, 1968)
On a double-album filled with arrangements of innovative complexity, it’s arguably the clutch of more straightforward compositions that stick in the mind longer. As with the timeless Yesterday, Blackbird is a Paul song through-and-through, and was recorded alone with his left-handed Martin D-28 acoustic. The song’s strict 4/4/94 BPM rhythm was kept by both metronome and McCartney’s (mic’ed) tapping foot – a mix element the Beatle specifically requested. The sweet back-and-forth swing of Blackbird’s central acoustic motif, rooted in G major, was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s lute-piece, Bourrée in E minor – a flashy showstopper that the young McCartney and Harrison would often perform to their pals in the days when they were first learning their instruments.
This foundation was re-drawn and augmented by the application of a newly learned picking style, (again, thanks be to Donavan). The part’s hypnotic flow calmly builds a gradual array of ascending chord shapes before resolving into a higher octave G on the 10th fret of the A string, following this comes a descending part – a reflective sounding crawl that leads back up to the opening G major. While bass and melody notes are hit on the 6th/5th and 2nd string, an open G maintains the rhythmic flow. One of McCartney’s most beloved songs, the tender simplicity and nuanced sophistication of its skilful, unmistakable guitar part is central to Blackbird’s cherished status.
Did you know?
While Blackbird was still being written, an acoustic-toting Paul performed an early version of it to a group of fans on Abbey Road at 3am one morning in June 1968. “He took his guitar and positioned himself in the small cone of light from the lamp and sang this haunting song about a blackbird with a broken wing. It was a lovely still night and just listening to my talented friend singing this beautiful song made me glad to be alive.” remembered Apple Records Office Manager Alistair Taylor, in his book, With The Beatles.
11. Day Tripper (Single, 1965)
One of the most recognisable riffs ever laid down, the laid-back cool of the mid-sixties soundtracking Day Tripper verified the band’s shift from craftsmen of chart-targeted tracks for a perceived pop-buying market, to bold developers of their own new norms – and everyone would just have to catch up. Day Tripper’s electrifying two-bar riff in E Major is thorny, tough and seductively demands listener attention, before the band kicks in to propel it into a robust rock groove.
This riff would (along with other contemporary examples from the likes of The Kinks‘ You Really Got Me and The Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)) set a new precedent for a lead guitar riff being as fundamental to a rock song’s hooky appeal as the vocal melody, becoming the central spine around which the other instruments in the arrangement orbit. Though this potent riff and other song elements were written by Lennon, on the recording and during live performances, it was George who took it on, using his Sonic Blue Fender Strat, while Lennon sticks to some tightly-structured rhythm chords with his trusty Rickenbacker 235. Harrison also constructed the slick lead part over the thundering rhythmic build during the middle eight, which drives us right back to the arms of that sleek opening riff. Solid gold stuff.
Did you know?
The Beatles’ hectic schedule meant they couldn’t always fulfil their television appearance obligations, therefore promotional videos were made for both Day Tripper and joint A-side We Can Work It Out. Though borne out of necessity, these promotional clips are widely recognised as important progenitors of the music video.
10. Yer Blues (The Beatles, 1968)
A knowing pastiche of a blues arrangement in E major, Lennon’s Yer Blues brings another flavour to the White album’s assortment of styles, this time we’re locked into the tight grasp of heavy electric blues. It’s a style that was growing in popularity during the late 60s, thanks to the likes of Cream and Fleetwood Mac. Recorded in a tiny room next door to Abbey Road’s Studio 2, Lennon and Harrison indulge in some vibrant riff play, toting a newly sanded-down Epiphone Casino and hollow bodied, red Gibson Les Paul Standard respectively.
Engineer Ken Scott recalled how the track’s small-room sound acoustic came to be decided upon, in an interview with MusicTech he said, “I made a joke to John Lennon one day about recording in this tiny little closet-room by the side of number 2 control room, when I mentioned it he just looked over, stared at it and didn’t say anything. Then the next day he came in and said ‘Right we’re going to record a new number, it’s called Yer Blues and we’re going to do it in there” and he pointed to the small room. That track was recorded there, all completely live with no separation between anything. You can imagine how much spill there was with them all just in this tiny room.” With its central anguished lead line, and dazzling excursions into a full-scale blues rock jam providing riveting elements to savour, Yer Blues reveals The Beatles can be just as competent heavy bluesmen as their contemporaries.
Did you know?
Though The Beatles had stopped playing live a couple of years earlier, a mighty live version of Yer Blues was performed by Lennon for the ill-fated Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus TV show. Lennon was backed by a ‘supergroup’ (dubbed ‘The Dirty Mac’) consisting of Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums
9. I’m Only Sleeping (Revolver, 1966)
1966’s Revolver made good on The Beatles’ suggestions of musical expansion, with its 14 multifarious tracks shoving open the conventional boundaries of pop production, and revealing a vast ocean of new sounds to play with. I’m Only Sleeping is a notable track for many reasons – the apathy of its weary lyric is peak Lennon, while its lumbering, minor-key chord sequence, nonchalantly lurching between Em, Am and G on a Gibson J-160E, is far removed from the spritely pop The Beatles had been best known for a mere 12 months earlier.
But most importantly, I’m Only Sleeping marks a big event in the story of guitar recording, momentously featuring the first use of backwards guitar on a pop record. We have an unnamed tape operator to thank for triggering this moment of inspiration, after accidentally threading a tape the wrong way, the band were mesmerised by the resulting surreal effect and began to work out an intentionally backwards guitar sequence. Harrison was keen to get a clear melodic part rather than settling for a happy accident, and studiously built out a complimentary melodic lead line, before writing it down back-to-front, and playing it as written (reversed), so the notes are clearly played with the effect of them being sucked back into the guitar.
After a full day solely perfecting this sequence, George was joined by both Paul and John who replicated the same carefully plotted notes (as well as peppering additional sprinkles of backwards-guitar throughout the verse). The result was a glorious, blissful new sound, one that proved that sublime rewards could be gleaned from the instrument by subverting technology.
Did you know?
Astonishingly, it wasn’t until Revolver that the band first started using headphones when overdubbing their mixes, with the backing track played out in the studio and captured again while the four recorded their vocals. This caused all kinds of headaches for the engineers. “At that time it was totally alien to any other producer or pop band to wear headphones for work.” Engineer Geoff Emerick remembered (as quoted in Beatles Gear.”
8. Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969)
While the sessions for the album that would become Let It Be were fraught with tensions, the band’s final work Abbey Road found the four contentedly closing the book on their recording story. “It was a very happy record. I guess because everybody knew it was going to be the last one.” producer George Martin recalled, in The Beatles Anthology. This more harmonious feeling is manifest across the record’s runtime, with Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun something of a central optimistic beacon.
The opening riff, recorded by Harrison on his Gibson J-200, around D, G and A7 shapes (with a capo on the 7th fret) establishes an un-cynically child-like motif that runs throughout the arrangement, before a confident descending bassline and quickfire arpeggiated sequence emboldens the song. As the track progresses, various time signature changes, and further cascades of shimmering arpeggios reflect Harrison’s fixation with Indian music, with the 7/8 time of the final refrain absolute confounding Ringo, “I had no way of going, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…’ It’s not in my brain” the drummer remembered on Living in the Material World.
A song that could quite easily have come across as a saccharine, sentimental piece if recorded slightly differently, the beauty of Harrison’s arrangement choices place Here Comes The Sun in the upper echelons of Abbey Road‘s finest moments.
Did you know?
Harrison recorded a solo for Here Comes The Sun, but was dissatisfied with the results, and opted to leave it off the final studio recording. It was later re-discovered by George Martin, Giles Martin and Dhani Harrison during the filming of a bonus feature for the Living in the Material World DVD in 2011.
7. Helter Skelter (The Beatles, 1968)
A proto-metal piledriver, the exhilarating power of Helter-Skelter’s darting riffs, its brutal rhythmic pound (which famously, gave Ringo ‘blisters’) and McCartney’s fierce rock vocal made it an inarguable – and somewhat marmite – standout on the band’s 1968 double-album. This is The Beatles taking a few investigative steps into the then-rising tide of heavy rock, and is a far cry from…well, pretty much anything else in the band’s repertoire. Beginning with an insistent D-C♯-C note sequence on the B string, while ringing an open top E, the panicked energy is released by an explosion into a morass of guitar sounds that drive on G major, before hastily snapping to the song’s central root of E major, played intentionally sloppily. The occasional intrusion of an F bass, provides a sense of wavering turbulence.
The only other chords here are a swerve back to G and the resonating A major, while the chorus is punctuated by the searing spidery riffs fluidly running through a simple A and E major scale. McCartney had just one instruction in the studio: everything needed to be as loud as possible. Despite the air of spontaneous energy, it actually took a great deal of studio carving to get into shape, with 21 takes of the song before it was locked. It also featured a switch-up of instrumental duties, with McCartney taking the central guitar performance with his Epiphone Casino, through a driven-up Selmer Thunderbird amp, Lennon provided the chugging, octave-bounding bass with a Fender Bass VI and Harrison developed the guitar sound with the wiry Les Paul lead that darts across the mix.
Did you know?
McCartney was triggered to build Helter Skelter by The Who’s recent statement that they had just written ‘the raunchiest, loudest and most ridiculous rock’n’roll record. “I said to the guys, I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.” McCartney recalled in Anthology.
6. Revolution (Single B-side, 1968)
On the subject of The Beatles’ heavier side, 1968’s trailblazing Revolution was lightyears away from the single’s flip-side, the anthemic ballad Hey Jude. While the A-side’s arrangement foregrounded McCartney’s stoic piano chords and yearning vocal, its B-side was a fuzzed-up clarion-call for the new wave of political protestors, while also warning earnest change-seekers to not slide down the road of violence and radicalism. The most pointedly political piece The Beatles’ had ever penned, its grizzled, distorted guitar tones were also a striking contrast to the chiming Rickenbackers and sparkling, family-friendly pop productions of yesterday.
This rockier single version was birthed from a more reflective arrangement (as heard on the ‘White’ album), following McCartney’s worry that it was too slow to be a single. While the track is grounded by a Chuck Berry-style rock ’n’ roll shuffle in B Major (as opposed to the album cut’s key of A), the overdriven tone was achieved by plugging directly into the REDD recording console and overloading the channel. Geoff Emerick, in Beatles Gear remembered that this pre-pedal process allowed a much richer saturation; “You had a full spectrum of frequencies distorted. So that’s why the guitars sound the way they do. Today you’d just have 5kHz distorting, or maybe 60kHz distorting.” This ear-decimating, angry guitar sound, coupled with Lennon’s ferocious howls and the urgency of its directly-targeted political lyric, yielded an early harbinger of the punk movement a decade later.
Did you know?
Upon first hearing the atypical distorted sound of Revolution’s guitars, many returned their records, assuming it the result of bad surface noise on their vinyl. Music journalist Jim Irvin recalled that a shop assistant at the time was so exasperated by people asking for a return, he called EMI to check that it was supposed to sound that way.
5. Taxman (Revolver, 1966)
Another signal of Revolver’s subversion of the norm, was agreeing to have a George Harrison-penned composition begin the album, luckily it was an absolute belter, Taxman. Tightly steered by McCartney’s energetic bassline, and Ringo’s solid central beat (A compact sound later to be pilfered by The Jam, for their single Start!) Harrison delivers his cynical but astute lyric, tirading against the obscene levels of tax that everyone (but particularly, those with wallets as bulging as The Beatles’) were required to pay.
While it’s an engrossing track, with its bluesy D7 shape (played around the fifth fret) repeatedly countering the beat and jabbing at our ears intrusively, it’s the rip-roaring solo that steals the show. Performed by Paul on his Epiphone Casino after George’s attempts at a solo were hitting a wall in the studio. Led by a furious attack on the 7th fret of the G string, Macca reveals that he’s way more than just ‘the romantic one’ and exhibits some burningly intense guitar chops. His feverish solo reveals a penchant for slick scale runs, hammer-ons, bends and a suitably red-hot tone, likely achieved by combining an early iteration of Vox’s Tone Bender with a cranked-up Vox AC30.
Did you know?
Though initially sniffy about McCartney taking the spotlight solo on his own song, Harrison later recanted, and was quoted by The Beatles Encyclopedia as saying “I was pleased to have him play that bit on Taxman. If you notice, he did like a little Indian bit on it for me.”
4. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles, 1968)
Written during one of one of the band’s most turbulent periods, Harrison channelled the rancorous studio atmosphere into his most graceful composition. While never being short of exemplary in his lead guitarist role, Harrison’s talents as a songwriter had grown tenfold by 1968. With Lennon and McCartney’s attention being focused on perfecting their own album cuts, George broke with convention and invited his friend Eric Clapton to add some coruscating lead to his new, melancholy song. While My Guitar Gently Weeps began as a tender acoustic piece (as can be heard on Anthology 3) before the final full-band version was cut for the record. Harrison’s gloomy verse chord sequence (actually a descending bass note sequence around a rigid Am) was augmented by McCartney’s austere piano part, and Clapton’s anguished leads.
The song’s central solo, and repeated quivering cries were played by Clapton on Harrison’s cherry red Les Paul (which he had dubbed ‘Lucy’ and was actually a recent present from Clapton himself). The sound was oscillated by varispeed to achieve a more unstable tone. A spine-tingling, contemplative piece that resonates with regret, grief and flashes of hope, the song is among Harrison’s finest. Fittingly, the story of its construction also resulted in a solution for the troubled studio mood, as Harrison learned that an additional musician could shake up everyone’s behaviour. “What happened when Eric was there on that day (and later on when I pulled in Billy Preston on Let It Be) is that it helped, because the others would have to control themselves a bit more. John and Paul mainly because they had to, you know, act more handsomely.” Harrison told Crawdaddy Magazine.
Did you know?
The recording of While My Guitar… was also notable for being the first song recorded on an eight-track tape machine at Abbey Road (the Trident Studios-recorded Hey Jude and Dear Prudence had both been 8-track). Harrison and engineer Ken Scott discovered one such new machine under lock and key in Abbey Road storage, and mischievously bust it out to record the song, without approval.
3. I Feel Fine (Single, 1964)
“What the bloody hell was that?” exclaimed engineer Geoff Emerick, upon first hearing the hair-raising feedback hum that opens I Feel Fine, “My first thought was that a cable had gone bad, or that a piece of equipment had failed.” Emerick remembered in his memoir, Here, There and Everywhere. Looking through the control room window, he was astonished to witness John kneeling before his amplifier, manipulating the resulting feedback squall by bringing his Gibson J-160E closer to the amp, “We knew that if you brought a guitar too close to an amplifier, it would squeal, but John was using it in a controlled way for the first time.” Emerick .
While I Feel Fine is a typically ebullient slice of high-spirited early Beatles pop, led by a central unison riff inspired by Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step, it was the then completely left-field decision to begin the recording with a feedback ring that set a stunning new precedent for its use as a creative sound. Feedback was later carved out in extensive depth by the likes of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix, before becoming a routine sonic texture for pretty much everyone recording in a rock context.
But, it was with I Feel Fine where it all started. “That’s me, including the guitar lick with the first feedback ever recorded.” Lennon proudly remembered in his 1980 interview with Playboy, “I defy anyone to find an earlier record – unless it’s some old blues number from the twenties – with feedback on it.”
Did you know?
While the feedback came out of John’s amp and was manipulated by him raising his volume, it was McCartney playing an A note on his Hofner bass that triggered its resonance.
2. The End (Abbey Road, 1969)
What better title for the last song on what was intentionally designed to be The Beatles’ final studio album, than The End. The four men conclude a decade of tremendous creativity – and vast cultural change – with a technicolour explosion of joyously performed music. Launched by one of those rarest of things; a Ringo drum solo, The End reels forward into an after-party of boisterous guitar solo one-upmanship, as Harrison, Lennon and McCartney take it in turns to showcase their skills, with a blitz of dynamic and characterful solos, all performed live in the studio, as the three reacted to each other spontaneously. “While they were practicing, I took great care to craft a different, distinctive sound for each Beatle, so it would be apparent to the listener that it was three individuals playing and not just one person taking an extended solo,” Geoff Emerick recalled in Here, There and Everywhere.
While both Lennon and McCartney’s frenzied assaults came via their Epiphone Casinos, Harrison used his Les Paul to provide the most lyrical lick, sandwiched between his two bandmates. McCartney’s luminous run has quite a similar flavour to his Taxman lead part, while Lennon’s heavy-rock tries to steamroller the pair, and becomes a dominating, alt-rock fuzz riff on the second band-pass. A thrilling climax to the tale, The End’s solo-duel demonstrates the effortless artistry of the three men’s differing guitar approaches, while also celebrating the essential joy of playing music with your friends.
Did you know?
Though the final released album was the salvaged Let it Be in 1970, Abbey Road was the last record The Beatles made together, and was designed to serve as the band’s swansong.
1. And Your Bird Can Sing (Revolver, 1966)
Revolver found The Beatles at their absolute apex of their powers, and in a fascinating step in their evolution into peerless innovators. The glorious And Your Bird Can Sing is one of the record’s soaring moments, and is dominated by the band’s most intricate and smile-inducing riff. That double-tracked lead motif, recorded by both McCartney and Harrison in two octaves (on the pair’s then brand-new sunburst Epiphone Casinos) is a dazzling harmonic construction. Working in tandem with a typically terrific bass line, and Lennon’s pounding rhythm guitar, the dual-octave riff’s triumphant tone leaps from the mix as an outpouring of melodic expression.
Rooted in the key of E, the swirling scale runs over the song’s intro, and interjects between verse sections. When the chorus switches to a minor key, beginning in G♯m and glides over B, C♯, E, F♯M and B7, the riff impressively helicopters through a series of carefully arranged arpeggiated patterns – the swirling unease countering the elation of the verse superbly. That main riff mutates into its final form as the song nears its close, which swells out further with a second section that satisfyingly resolves the vigorous note-sprint. Though it’s painful to read Lennon later describe this superb track as a ‘throwaway’, And Your Bird Can Sing is held up by many as Revolver’s jewel in the crown.
Did you know?
Allegedly, The Eagles’ Joe Walsh painstakingly learned to play both octaves of this song at the same time. Playing it to George Harrison, the former Beatle was stunned, and broke the news that in fact, the recording had featured two guitars.