From the earliest days, the Beatles prominently featured the acoustic guitar on their recordings. Whether used as a rhythm instrument ("Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away") or in a more ambitious context ("And I Love Her," "Michelle," "Norwegian Wood"), the acoustic was always an integral and interesting part of the group's sound. But on The Beatles, the 1968 double album universally known as the White Album, the band elevated the acoustic guitar to an even higher plane.
In addition to such bona fide acoustic masterpieces as "Blackbird" and "Julia," the record features a whole slew of songs that contain no electric guitar whatsoever. How did the White Album come to be so "unplugged"? Many of its songs were written in April 1968, when the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India, to study with the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
During their month-long stay, the group—along with a contingent of prominent Westerners that included film actress Mia Farrow, folk-pop singer Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love—meditated and attended seminars on spirituality. They also wrote a lot of new music. Using acoustic guitars they'd brought along for the occasion, John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed at least a dozen new songs between them, including "Dear Prudence," "Revolution," "Mother Nature's Son," "Wild Honey Pie" and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill."
When it came time to record the new material in London, the Beatles in many instances simply laid down the acoustic accompaniments they'd worked out in India. Even songs that in their final form feature electric guitar, such as Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Lennon's "Sexy Sadie," were originally demoed with acoustic guitars.
Below, we take a close look at some of the great acoustic guitar-based tracks on the White Album—how they were written and the process they went through to become finished tracks.
Recorded May 30 & 31 and June 21, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
On May 30, recording sessions for the White Album commenced in Studio Two with the slow, acoustic guitar-driven "Revolution 1." At this point called simply "Revolution," this version of the Lennon-penned song didn't receive its numeric designation until the group recorded a faster, electric rendition, released as the B-side to the single "Hey Jude" in August of 1968.
"Revolution" was John Lennon's response to counterculture groups who advocated violence to overthrow the status quo. "I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution," Lennon said after the "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" single's release. "I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this 'God will save us' feeling about it. " Even at this first session, it was obvious that the Beatles were taking their music and recording methods in a new direction. As presented on the White Album, "Revolution 1" is a slow blues-style tune propelled along by a standard boogie riff played on an acoustic guitar.
The original session tapes reveal tl1at although the song was trimmed to 4:15 for the album, the Beatles continued jamming on the tune for another six increasingly raucous minutes, with Lennon repeatedly screaming "All right" and Yoko Ono—Lennon's new love, who was already becoming a regular presence at the group's recording sessions—uttering non sequiturs. Such scenes were repeated throughout the White Album sessions, largely because the Beatles had adopted a new method of recording. Previously they would rehearse a song and then record it, usually getting the basic tracks to tape within ten takes and adding overdubs afterward.
For the White Album, the band recorded all of their rehearsals and then selected a "best" version, to which they subsequently added overdubs. One consequence of this change is that many of the album's recordings sound much looser than anything the group had previously committed to tape. "Revolution 1," for example, actually features recording engineer Geoff Emerick announcing the take number within the song's intro, an interjection which, had it occurred during the Beatles' previous sessions, would have been cut from the final recording. And what became of those wild final six minutes of "Revolution 1"? They were hived off and adapted by Lennon for his White Album experiment in musique concrete, "Revolution 9."
Recorded June 11, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Said to have been inspired by news of race riots in America, Paul McCartney's "Blackbird"—rivaled, among Beatles songs, only by George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" for sheer acoustic guitar virtuosity—was recorded in a single session. The recording was especially efficient, with McCartney simultaneously fingerpicking his flowing counterpoint lines and singing while a metronome ticked away in the background. After 32 attempts (11 of them complete), McCartney nailed the perfect take. As a crowning touch, he dubbed onto the recording the sound of chirping blackbirds, courtesy of the Abbey Road taped sound effects collection. George Martin was kept particularly busy during this session: While producing "Blackbird" in Abbey Road's Studio Two, he was also overseeing John Lennon's work on "Revolution 9" in Studio Three.
"CRY BABY CRY"
Recorded July 16 & 18, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
In a conversation with Beatles biographer Hunter Davies in 1967, John Lennon speculated on the source of the lyrics to a song he'd written. "I think I got them from an advert—'Cry baby cry, make your mother buy:" Lennon, who changed the word "buy" to "cry" in the song's infectious refrain, transformed a crass bit of advertising copy into a charming song full of nursery-rhyme imagery about the King of Marigold, the Duchess of Kirkcaldy and a séance in the dark. "Cry Baby Cry" shows Lennon striking a balance between the nonsensical wordplay of "I Am the Walrus," from 1967's Magical Mystery Tour EP, and the mawkish sentimentality of "Good Night," the closing track on the White Album.
On July 16, the group recorded ten takes of the song, the final version of which features Lennon's vocal and acoustic guitar (flanged in remixing), bass, drums and organ. Added to the mix on the evening of the 16th was a harmonium played by George Martin and a piano part played by Lennon. The song was completed two days later with the recording of a new Lennon vocal, backing vocals, a new harmonium track, a tambourine and sound effects.
"MOTHER NATURE'S SON"
Recorded August 9 & 20, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Written by Paul McCartney during the Beatles' trip to India, "Mother Nature's Son" was yet another White Album recording to feature only one Beatle. McCartney cut the song's acoustic guitar and vocal tracks on the night of August 9, after the other Beatles had left the studio. Overdubs were recorded during another evening session on August 20, with McCartney adding drums (they sound like bongos on the record), tympani and a second acoustic guitar. The song's brass arrangement, scored by producer George Martin, was also recorded that night. A description of this session is offered by Alan Brown, at the time an Abbey Road technical engineer. "It was quite late at night, the whole building was quiet, and there was Paul playing this enchanting song. We were all moved by it."
Recorded August 15, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Another McCartney song conceived in Rishikesh, "Rocky Sassoon" (as it was originally called) was begun while McCartney, Lennon and folk singer Donovan ("Mellow Yellow," "Sunshine Superman," et al) were playing acoustic guitars on the roof of a chalet at the Maharishi's camp. Retitled "Rocky Raccoon," the song was recorded in a single session, with McCartney on acoustic guitar, Ringo on drums and Lennon on bass. Harrison was present in the control room for the instrumental recordings and, along with Lennon and McCartney, contributed backing vocals.
After mixing down the ninth take to free up new tracks on the four-track recorder, Lennon added harmonica and George Martin overdubbed a honky-tonk piano solo. As recounted by Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, McCartney was, even at this late date, still uncertain of the song) lyrics. Early takes included such ultimately rejected lines as "It's okay, doc, it's just a scratch, and I'll be okay when I get home," and "This is the story of a young boy living in Minnesota ... fuck off!"
"WILD HONEY PIE"
Recorded August 20, EMI studios, Abbey Road
In a dramatic demonstration of his extreme diversity as a composer and singer, Paul McCartney recorded the manic track "Wild Honey Pie" just hours after completing the delicate "Mother Nature's Son." McCartney, who wrote "Wild Honey Pie" during his stay in India, recorded the song solo, playing acoustic guitar and bass drum and handling all vocal duties as well. Although McCartney had not intended the song for inclusion on a Beatles album, he changed his mind when both his then-girlfriend Jane Asher and Patti Harrison, George's wife, expressed their fondness for the tune.
Just 53 seconds long, it's the shortest track on the White Album—and appears to be the only instance of a Beatle playing slide acoustic guitar on one of the group's songs. Interestingly, "Wild Honey Pie" was recorded some six weeks prior to "Honey Pie," the old-timey White Album track with which it shares part of its title and little else.
Recorded August 28-30, Trident Studios, London
Beginning with "Norwegian Wood," from 1965's Rubber Soul, John Lennon drew increasingly from his personal experiences in crafting his lyrics, a trend that culminated in the confessional songwriting style of his first solo album, 1970's Plastic Ono Band.
The White Album features two narratives inspired by Lennon's adventures in Rishikesh: "Sexy Sadie," his poison pen letter to the Maharishi, who had allegedly attempted to seduce some of the women attending his camp; and "Dear Prudence," inspired by Prudence Farrow, who had accompanied her sister, actress Mia Farrow, to the Maharishi's camp. As one of the Maharishi's more devoted followers, Prudence would spend her days meditating while the others engaged in group activities, leading to Lennon's sung invitation for her to leave her tent and "greet the brand new day."
The distinctive fingerpicked guitar line played throughout the recording, sometimes doubled by a second guitar, is both haunting and lovely. Whether the first guitar is acoustic or electric is difficult to discern, and the studio notes detailed in Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles: Recording Sessions make no such distinction. Nevertheless, the folky Travis picking employed by Lennon is very much associated with the acoustic guitar, and Lennon most likely began composing the song on an acoustic during his stay in Rishikesh. "Dear Prudence" is one of several White Album tracks recorded at Trident Studios, an independent London facility whose eight-track equipment represented a marked improvement over Abbey Road's four-track machines. (The Beatles had originally used Trident for the recording of "Hey Jude," the group's first single for their own Apple label, on July 31.)
Little did the group know that Abbey Road had already acquired its own eight-track machine, but was keeping it under wraps until the studio's technicians could work out a few bugs. When the Beatles learned of Abbey Road's eight-trade recorder, they promptly "liberated" it, putting it to use on September 3 for the recording of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
"WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS"
Recorded September 5 & 6, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
One of George Harrison's finest songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was remade not once but twice on the way to becoming a White Album track. The group originally rehearsed the song on July 25, at which time they recorded several takes for Harrison to listen to at home. On that same day, however, Harrison also recorded the first "proper" take of the song by himself, laying down vocal, acoustic guitar and organ tracks for what was regarded as a completed recording. (At this stage, the song even included an additional verse, later cut by Harrison.) By August 16, Harrison had decided to remake the song as a full-band performance. On this day, the Beatles recorded 14 takes of the song, featuring guitar (Harrison), organ (Lennon), bass (McCartney) and drums (Starr).
The track languished on the studio's shelf until September 3, when the group transferred the four-track recording onto Abbey Road's new eight-track machine. Work on the tape continued on September 5, at which point Harrison decided to scrap the whole thing and start fresh. The song was completed the following day when Eric Clapton, at Harrison's request, came to Abbey Road Studios and overdubbed his distinctive electric guitar part. Although no longer the quiet acoustic song Harrison had originally recorded, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" prominently features George's acoustic guitar on its backing track, where, along with McCartney's bass, it provides the song's fundamental driving rhythm.
Recorded September 16 & 17, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Progress on the White Album proceeded at such a leisurely pace that nearly all of the September 16 session was devoted to recording this deceptively simple Paul McCartney love song. During the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. session, "I Will" was subjected to 67 takes, with McCartney playing acoustic guitar and singing, John Lennon tapping a rhythm with wood on metal and Ringo Starr playing maracas and cymbals; George Harrison was not present. Grueling though it was, the session was anything but tiresome, with McCartney spicing things up by occasionally slipping a few ad-libbed songs into the proceedings.
The impromptu moments included a brief performance of "Step Inside Love," a song he wrote for British pop vocalist Cilia Black; "Los Paranoius," a spontaneous composition in which the word "paranoius" rhymes with "come and join us"; and "The Way You Look Tonight," whose lyric is derived almost entirely from "I Will."
Of these fragments, only one has been released, an untitled and uncopyrighted song with the lyrics "Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back?" Two minutes and 21 seconds long, the track was edited and inserted into the master tape of the White Album between "Cry Baby Cry" and "Revolution 9." As for "I Will," after determining Take 65 as the "best," McCartney completed the track on September 17 by overdubbing a second acoustic guitar track and a clever baritone backing vocal that impersonates the sound of a bass guitar.
"LONG LONG LONG"
Recorded October 7-9, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Easily the quietest song on the White Album, this George Harrison composition follows the album's noisiest track, "Helter Skelter." Originally titled "It's Been a Long Long Long Time," the song was recorded without John Lennon, its basic tracks laid to tape during a marathon 16-1/2-hour session on October 7. With Harrison on acoustic guitar, McCartney on organ and Ringo on drums, 67 takes of "Long Long Long" were recorded before George was satisfied with the results.
One day later, McCartney recorded his bass part for the song while Harrison added an additional acoustic guitar part and a double-tracked vocal. Interestingly, the song's unusual conclusion came about as the result of a happy accident. Recalls Chris Thomas, who was George Martin's assistant on the sessions, 'There's a sound near the end of the song, which is a bottle of Blue Nun wine rattling away on the top of a Leslie speaker cabinet. Paul hit a certain organ note and tile bottle started vibrating. We thought it was so good that we set the mikes up and did it again."
"THE CONTINUING STORY OF BUNGALOW BILL"
Recorded October 8, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Group sing-alongs were routine at the Maharishi's camp, and it was for one such gathering that Lennon composed "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." According to Lennon, the song "was written about a guy in Maharishi's meditation camp who took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers and then came back to commune with God. There used to be a comic character called Jungle Jim, and I combined him with Buffalo Bill. It's a sort of teenage social comment song, and a bit of a joke." To achieve the effect of a group sing-along for the recording, the Beatles invited Yoko Ono and Maureen Starkey, Ringo's wife, to join in on the chorus; Ono also sang a line in the third verse.
Recorded October 13, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Written by John Lennon for his late mother, the elegant and wistful "Julia" was the last track recorded for the White Album. Lennon recorded the song solo, playing acoustic guitar and singing a guide vocal. The basic track was completed in three takes, after which Lennon added two lead vocals, which can be heard together at various points throughout the song. The session tape reveals that Paul McCartney was present in the control booth during the recording.
McCartney, whose own mother had died when he was 16, can be heard offering his bandmate encouragement when, late into the second take, Lennon loses his rhythm in the midst of what is an otherwise flawless fingerpicked performance. "You were doing great," McCartney says reassuringly to Lennon, who laughs with embarrassment at his fumble. "That one was perfect, wasn't it?" he asks McCartney. "Yes, it was," replies Paul, inviting Lennon to give the song another try.