Meet the Acoustic Beatles

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YesterdayHelp!, 1965

The most-played song in modern history was conceived with the absurd working title “Scrambled Eggs.” To the accompaniment of stirring violins and cello (scored by producer George Martin), Paul McCartney’s approximation of chamber music is propelled by his plaintive, insistent-as-a-heartbeat guitar. This landmark recording is also notable for what it doesn’t include: the three other Beatles.

Across the UniverseLet It Be, 1970

John Lennon penned this transfixing ode to Zen-like contentment and bliss amid the personal and professional turmoil that would ultimately unravel the Beatles. Fittingly, the song’s stark, fingerpicked opening guitar figure, deceptively simple yet sinewy, sounds like the stuff of which the most enduring lullabies are made.

Norwegian Wood(This Bird Has Flown)Rubber Soul, 1965

Lennon composed this narrative ballad as a veiled attempt to own up to an extramarital affair. Delivered in 12/8 time and sung in an almost off-hand manner, Lennon’s delicate guitar work, alternately picked and strummed, is punctuated by George Harrison’s precise and melodic sitar playing.

Here Comes the SunAbbey Road, 1969

Who would’ve thought that Harrison, the “serious” Beatle, could come up with something so light, joyful and, er, sunny? Introduced with a capo-ed, shimmering I-IV-IV guitar progression, this folky masterpiece gallops effortlessly, driven by Ringo Starr’s gymnastic drums and Harrison’s frisky yet fluid guitar triads.

BlackbirdThe Beatles("The White Album"), 1968

McCartney’s sweetness could sometimes be too sticky, but on this near-solo performance (he’s joined by the recorded sounds of birdcalls, captured by miking a group of feathered friends outside his home window), he nails the aura of quiet solitude with restraint and taste. The main open-chord guitar line, steadied by McCartney's tapping foot, is a classic, working as both musical root and counterpoint.

JuliaThe Beatles(“The White Album”), 1968

Inspired by two of the most important women in Lennon's life (his mother, Julia, who died in a car accident a decade earlier, and new love, Yoko Ono), “Julia” is a fascinating piece of raw art that manages, miraculously, to draw blood as it soothes. Lennon’s dark, curlicue guitar pattern is positively haunting.

MichelleRubber Soul, 1965

Performed in the sentimental style of French cabaret, with dollops of verse sung in that language for good measure, McCartney’s second “big ballad” (a Lennon term) is an engrossing mélange of contrasting musical modes—minor, relative minor, augmented, they‘re all there. Starr’s graceful sidestick playing helps glide the acoustic guitar melody along, but it is Harrison’s bass-heavy solo that lifts the song into true Parisian splendor.

I’ve Just Seen a FaceHelp!, 1965

Fueled by McCartney’s 12-string acoustic playing, this song sprints out of the gate as the always-amorous McCartney giddily proclaims that he’s “Fal-liing/and they keep cal-ling me back again.” And when Harrison makes his mark with a spirited 12-string solo, you can practically see the rest of the band smiling in unadulterated awe.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love AwayHelp!, 1965

By 1965, Lennon was looking out at the world haltingly from under a protective curtain of hair. Here, guided by his ragged, muted acoustic guitar, he shields himself from the people who “stare each and every day.” The song is a sonic bookend of sorts to “Norwegian Wood”—though with flute, rather than sitar, providing a nice counterpoint to the acoustic strums. Lyrically, it sees Lennon looking inward, as he increasingly would, and feeling “two-foot small.” Sobering and riveting.

Mother Nature’s SonThe Beatles(“The White Album”), 1968

Whether McCartney is assigning the role of the “poor young country boy” to himself or affectionately sending up then-folk-hippie star Donovan is still anybody’s guess. But Paul’s warm acoustic ballad is as carefree as a walk down a dirt road on a spring day. Halfway through, his unassuming, fingerpicked guitar yields to George Martin’s marching band-inspired horns, but in the end the song rests on McCartney, strumming happily in a proverbial field.