The Fab 50: The Beatles' 50 Greatest Guitar Moments
Check out Guitar World's guide to the Fab 50 — the Beatles' 50 finest guitar moments!
Abbey Road (1969)
Ironically, while the Beatles were breaking apart in 1969, George Harrison was coming into his own as a songwriter and guitarist.
His Abbey Road contribution “Something” is among his finest songs, and his guitar playing here and throughout the album is masterful. Harrison’s mellifluous lead lines, in particular, are more expressive than anything he’d done before, demonstrating his newfound confidence and evolving connection to his instrument and creative muse.
Performed with his “Lucy” 1957 Gibson Les Paul played through a Leslie speaker, the solo simmers as Harrison turns up the heat on his melody and dynamics, then cools it down with bluesy restraint.
“George came into his own on Abbey Road,” says Geoff Emerick, who engineered this and other Abbey Road sessions. “For the first time he was speaking out and doing exactly what he wanted to do. And of course he wrote these beautiful songs and we got a great new guitar sound.”
09. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Abbey Road (1969)
John Lennon was composing some of the heaviest rock and roll in the Beatles’ catalog in 1969, and this song—true to its title—is among the most crushing, thanks to an abundance of doubled and overdubbed guitar lines that give it some serious sonic heft.
Lennon wrote the song for Yoko Ono, with whom he was newly in love, and the result is a spellbinding exercise in obsessive repetition, from its lyrics—consisting almost entirely of the title and roughly five other words—to the ominous guitar lines that recur throughout it.
Clocking in at 7:47, the song is also one of the Beatles’ longest.
And although it consists of nothing more than a verse and a chorus repeated several times, it is rhythmically one of their most intricate tunes, switching between 12/8 meter and 4/4 rhythms alternately played bluesy and with a double-time rock beat. Few other artists could have made so much with so little.
08. I’m Only Sleeping
Harrison’s startling backward guitar solo on this Lennon-penned song is one of his greatest guitar moments on 1966’s Revolver.
Over the previous year, he had used an expression pedal to create a volume-swelling sound, similar to a reverse-tape effect, on several tracks, including “Yes It Is” and “I Need You” (see entry 19).
But for “I’m Only Sleeping,” Harrison wanted to hear his guitar truly in reverse, a decision undoubtedly inspired by Lennon’s own retrograde vocals on “Rain,” recorded earlier the same month, April 1966.
Rather than simply improvising guitar lines while the track was played backward, he prepared lead lines and a five-bar solo for the song and had George Martin transcribe them for him in reverse. Harrison then performed the lines while the tape was running back to front.
The result is a solo that surges up from the song’s murky depths, suffusing it with a smeared, surreal, dreamlike ambience. Within a year, Harrison’s idea would be copied by such psychedelic rock acts of the day as the Electric Prunes, who employed it on their 1966 hit “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” and Jimi Hendrix, who used it to great effect on “Castles Made of Sand.”
07. And Your Bird Can Sing
This middle-period Beatles gem, written primarily by Lennon, features Harrison and McCartney on impeccably crafted and performed harmony-lead guitar melodies, a pop-rock arranging approach that was still in its infancy in 1966. (It would later be employed extensively in the southern rock genre by bands such as the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as hard rock and metal acts like Thin Lizzy, Boston and Iron Maiden.)
Together, Harrison and McCartney’s individual single-note harmony lead guitar parts form, for the most part, diatonic (scale-based) third intervals in the key of E. (Lennon performed his rhythm guitar part as if the song were in the key of D, using a capo at the second fret to transpose it up a whole step, as he did on “Norwegian Wood,” “Nowhere Man” and “Julia.”)
The quick half-step and whole-step bends that Harrison and McCartney incorporate into their parts here and there in lock-step fashion are particularly sweet sounding. Heard together, they have the precise intonation of a country pedal-steel part performed by a seasoned Nashville pro.
The harmonized lines that the two guitarists play over the “minor-drop” progression during the song’s bridge section, beginning at 1:05, reveal their musical depth and sophistication and command over harmony beyond the basic “I-IV-V” pop songwriting fodder.
06. A Hard Day’s Night
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
It lasts all of roughly three seconds, but the sustained opening chord to this classic Beatlemania track is one of rock and roll’s greatest and most recognizable musical moments.
Bright and bold as a tolling bell, it loudly announced in 1964 not just the start of the Beatles’ latest album but also the dawning of a cultural transformation that owed nearly everything to the group’s influence.
The song was written to order for the Beatles’ feature-length film debut, A Hard Day’s Night. According to George Martin, “We knew it would open both the film and the soundtrack LP, so we wanted a particularly strong and effective beginning.”
The dense harmonic cluster that Martin and the group created is the result of four instruments sounding simultaneously: Harrison on his 12-string Rickenbacker and Lennon on his Gibson J-160E acoustic, both strumming an Fadd9 chord (with a G on the high E); McCartney on his Hofner 500/1 bass, plucking a D note (probably at the 12th fret of his D string); and Martin on grand piano, playing low D and G notes.
The resulting chord has been described as, technically, G7add9sus4, but to millions of eager listeners in 1964, it was simply the sound of an electrifying new era.
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