In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the United States (and legendary February 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show), Guitar World celebrated the 50 best guitar moments from the band's hit-making history.
The Beatles were such talented songwriters that it’s easy to overlook the fact that their music has some great—and occasionally groundbreaking—guitar work.
In assembling this list, we looked beyond our personal favorite songs and reflected on where John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney showed their talents as guitarists, whether in a solo, a riff, a technique or by their astute selection of instrument and arrangement.
For some songs, we’ve gone a step further and analyzed the guitar work to give you insights into the magic that makes these moments so special. Enjoy! And be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook!
50. Across the Universe
Let It Be… Naked (2003)
John Lennon considered the Beatles’ recording of this 1967 composition “a lousy track of a great song,” dismissing even his own work on it.
He was too hard on himself: his imperfect acoustic guitar work and vocal delivery effectively work in service of the song’s sincere devotional message, though overdubs of strings, background vocals and electric guitar obscured the delicacy and intimacy of his performance.
The release of Let It Be… Naked in 2003 set the record straight, offering a bare-bones acoustic mix of the track that even Lennon might have approved of.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
The strongly pulsing tremolo on the rhythm guitar makes the instrument sound as if it’s riding slightly behind the beat, giving the song a druggy languor appropriate to its title. (In the film Magical Mystery Tour, “Flying” accompanies scenes shot high above the clouds).
The crystalline acoustic guitar that appears about 13 seconds in lends the song a country vibe, culminating in a tasty double-stop lick that lazily meanders down the fretboard. Heavenly.
48. Helter Skelter
The Beatles (1968)
It’s not a stretch to say the Beatles prefigured heavy metal’s doomier side with this 1968 Paul McCartney track.
For this recording, McCartney set aside his bass duties and strapped on his Fender Esquire to deliver the track’s brash rhythm work, while Harrison performed the searing leads on Lucy, the 1957 Les Paul Standard gifted to him by Eric Clapton.
But the best work here is performed by Lennon on, of all things, a bass (either a Fender Bass VI). His sloppy but inspired playing propels the song along and provides its main rhythmic interest.
McCartney’s melancholy, acoustic guitar–driven ballad marked a symbolic, pivotal point in the Beatles’ career as a band in that it was their first song in which any of the members—three in this case—did not participate in the performance.
McCartney tuned his guitar down one whole step for this song (low to high, D G C F A D) and performed it as if it were in the key of G, with the detuning transposing it down to the concert key of F.
This may have been made for the sake of putting the vocal melody in a more optimal key for McCartney; it certainly made the bass notes sound deeper and richer, while the slackened string tension contributed to the thicker texture of the chord voicings.
46. For You Blue
Let It Be (1970)
Written by Harrison, this seemingly straightforward blues workout in D stands out as a bouncy oddball in the Beatles’ catalog.
Not only is it one of the band’s few forays into 12-bar-blues territory; it also finds Lennon stepping into the uncommon role of lead guitarist, supplying a spirited solo and fills on a Hofner Hawaiian Standard lap-steel guitar in open D tuning.
To make things even weirder, he uses a shotgun shell as a slide. In addition, there’s no bass on the recording; McCartney performed on piano and the song received no overdubs.
45. Free As a Bird
Anthology 1 (1995)
Released in 1995 as a post-mortem Beatles track built upon a John Lennon home demo, “Free As a Bird” makes a valiant attempt to resurrect the spirit of the group’s glory days.
While some will quibble about the lackluster songwriting, it’s hard to find fault with Harrison’s stinging slide work. Starting off with a few restrained lines, Harrison lets his playing soar on the solo, the one moment in which the song truly takes flight.
44. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Recorded quickly in a single session, this rocking reprise of the album’s opening track features some fiery lead guitar work from Harrison.
Written as a bookend to the album-opening title track, the reprise is both faster and a whole step lower than the original, although halfway through it modulates up a whole step. (Modulation is a technique rarely found in the Beatles compositions, “And I Love Her” being another example from the group’s catalog [see entry 30].)
43. I Will
The Beatles (1968)
This quiet love song, written by McCartney, features only him on lead and harmony vocals, two acoustic guitars and scat-sung “vocal bass,” with Lennon and Starr providing percussion.
McCartney overdubbed, on top of his main, strummed guitar part, a second, melodic part played in a rockabilly lead style reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist Scotty Moore, picking out syncopated, ringing melodies built around a first-position F6 chord shape with decorative, bluesy hammer-ons from the minor third to the major third.
Years later, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton played a similar line on the chorus tags to “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend.”
42. The Ballad of John and Yoko
In this 1969 musical telling of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s wedding and honeymoon, Lennon’s acoustic strumming sets up the song’s infectious rhythm, while his electric guitar fills play call-and-response with his vocals.
The track was written and recorded in April of that year, fresh off the sessions for Let It Be, in which the group attempted to get back to their rock and roll roots. That might have inspired Lennon’s musical direction with this track, which he closes with an electric guitar riff reminiscent of Dorsey Burnett’s “Lonesome Tears in My Eyes,” which the Beatles covered early in their career.
41. Yer Blues
The Beatles (1968)
Lennon wrote this 1968 song as a rude sendup of the electric blues boom that had taken London by storm, but the suicidal feelings he expresses were a sincere articulation of how he felt trapped both in his unhappy first marriage and in the Beatles.
Likewise, his primitive two-note solo could be regarded as mocking disdain for the genre’s slick white imitators, but he plays the riff until it’s as raw as his emotions. He would pursue this protopunk style of guitar playing further on his 1970 solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
The Beatles’ mix of acoustic rhythms and electric guitar leads from 1964 through the end of 1965 helped greatly to define the sound of folk-rock. Written in the midst of his “Bob Dylan phase,” “Help!” shows Lennon continuing to divulge the vulnerability express on previous songs like “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser,” with the acoustic guitar providing the requisite balladeer instrumentation. Here, Lennon robustly strums out the rhythm on his 1964 Framus Hootenanny 5/024 acoustic 12-string, with Harrison contributing jangly lead lines and three-note descending passages on the choruses with his Gretsch Tennessean.
39. Dear Prudence
The Beatles (1968)This 1968 composition is arguably one of Lennon’s greatest achievements as a guitarist and demonstrates his development at the time into a bona fide acoustic fingerpicker. Having recently learned a basic eighth-note Travis-picking-like pattern from British pop star Donovan, Lennon put the newly learned pattern to great use in compositions like “Julia,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and, most brilliantly, “Dear Prudence,” applying it to an ethereal modal chord progression he invented, which he performed in drop-D tuning (low to high, D A D G B E), using the two open D strings (the fourth and sixth) as ringing drones, or pedal tones throughout the majority of the song. The thumb-picking pattern goes fifth string, fourth string, sixth string, fourth string and repeats consistently through the changing chords, interrupted briefly at the end of each verse.
38. If I Needed Someone
Rubber Soul (1965)Although the Beatles were rock’s foremost trendsetters, they still were influenced by other artists. Case in point: George Harrison’s 12-string riff on “If I Needed Someone.” Played in a second-position D-chord shape with a capo on the seventh fret, the line was based on Jim McGuinn’s chiming guitar work in the Byrds’ mesmerizing 1965 track “The Bells of Rhymney.” In the mid Sixties, Harrison and McGuinn had formed a mutual-admiration society: “If I Needed Someone” featured Harrison’s second Rickenbacker 360/12, a rounded-off 1965 model that resembled McGuinn’s 1964 Rickenbacker 360/12, which McGuinn bought after seeing Harrison’s first Rick in the film A Hard Day’s Night.
37. Day Tripper
1962–1966 (1973)Lennon and McCartney’s hip-shaking 1965 hit is a thinly veiled ode to “weekend hippies” who embrace the drug counterculture when they’re not pursuing their careers. McCartney referred to this song and “Drive My Car” (recorded just days earlier) as “songs with jokes in” them, but there’s nothing laughable about this track’s swaggering guitar riff, borrowed from the Temptations’ 1964 hit “My Girl” and given a liberal dose of self-assured attitude. Lennon reportedly plays the solo, most likely using his Sonic Blue Fender Strat, while Harrison’s guitar parts were probably recorded with his Gretsch Tennessean.
36. Think for Yourself
Rubber Soul (1965)The Beatles had been interested in creating distorted guitar tones since at least 1964, when they attempted unsuccessfully to use a Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone on “She Loves You” and “Don’t Bother Me” (see entry 23). They were more successful with Harrison’s excellent 1965 composition “Think for Yourself,” for which McCartney plugged his Hofner bass into an early version of the Tone Bender fuzz pedal, created by electronics designer Gary Hurst and eventually marketed by Vox. The result is the harsh-sounding “lead bass” tone that bobs menacingly—and memorably—alongside Harrison’s lead vocal.
35. Mother Nature’s Son
The Beatles (1968)Throughout this song’s verses, McCartney fools you into thinking that he’s playing more than he actually is by filling out the harmony with his vocal melody. For example, while the ear hears a very strong D-to-G movement in the first two bars of the verse, all McCartney is actually playing is D to Dsus4; his vocal melody intimates the G chord by moving to B, that chord’s third. The verse also features, in the third and fourth bars, brilliant oblique motion—where one voice moves up or down while one or more other voices remain stationary. By moving the root of a B minor chord, B, down to the minor seventh, A, and then down to the sixth, Gs, while keeping the notes D and F# constant above this descending line, McCartney implies a slick progression of Bm D (or Bm7) E9. He does the same thing at the very beginning of the song.
Rubber Soul (1965)Lennon conjures up this song’s dreamy, Gypsy-like reverie by capoing his Gibson J-160E at the eighth fret, making the guitar sound similar to a mandola. Harrison furthers the vibe on the third verse, playing a mandolin-like melody on Lennon’s Framus Hootenanny 12-string acoustic. But the crowning touch comes at the coda, when a third acoustic guitar enters, playing a Greek-style melody that’s plucked at the bridge with sharp strokes, making it sound like a bouzouki and further emphasizing the song’s smoky, old-world aura. The British group the Hollies would copy the effect on their hit “Bus Stop,” recorded at Abbey Road some six months later.
The Beatles (1968)Like “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper” (see entries 12 and 37), “Birthday” delivers a classic and memorable guitar riff. Whereas those previous two songs veered from the traditional 12-bar blues formula, “Birthday” hews closely to it during its verses. McCartney and Lennon wrote the song in the studio during an evening session, which included a recess during which the band went back to McCartney’s house to watch a TV broadcast of the 1956 teen film The Girl Can’t Help It. The soundtrack—which included performances by Little Richard, Gene Vincent and other Beatles’ favorites—undoubtedly contributed to the song’s raucous vintage rock-and-roll vibe.
32. One After 909
Let It Be (1969)This tune had been in the Beatles’ song bag for years, surfacing first as a rickety blues-style shuffle at a March 1963 recording session.By the time they tackled it again during their January 1969 rooftop performance at Apple, the Beatles were nearly finished as a group, but they were at long last able to breathe life into the tune, revving it up with a rock and roll beat and laying into it like the seasoned performers they were. Harrison delivers a stellar country-rock solo, using his rosewood Telecaster.
31. Norwegian Wood
Rubber Soul (1965)This acoustic-rock masterpiece, written by Lennon, is not unlike “Here Comes the Sun,” in that it’s a folky chord-melody type of accompaniment that could easily stand on its own as a solo instrumental, with the vocal melody conveniently woven into the chords.However, unlike “Here Comes the Sun” (see entry 4), the melody sits in the middle, rather than on top, of the chord voicings, and is performed with more full strumming in a flowing 6/8 meter. Lennon performed “Norwegian Wood” as if the song were in the key of D, the verses being in D major and the bridge sections switching the parallel minor key of D minor, and used a capo at the second fret to transpose everything up a whole step, to E major and E minor, respectively.30. And I Love Her
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)It’s overshadowed by the Beatles’ more innovative songs, but “And I Love Her” demonstrates a leap in the group’s harmonic sophistication and musical arrangement skills. Harrison performs delicate arpeggiations on his 1964 Ramírez nylon-string classical acoustic, while McCartney subtly propels the song along with his soul-inflected bass work. A modulation from the key of E to F on the solo ramps up the drama and keeps the song from flagging. The final chord, D major—the relative minor of F—delivers surprise and emotional uplift that allows the song to end hopefully, in keeping with the optimism of the lyrics.
29. Not Guilty
Anthology 1 (1995)Recorded for 1968’s White Album but unissued until the release of Anthology 1 in 1995, this Harrison track was a lyrical response to his fellow Beatles, who felt that their trip to India at his urging to study transcendental meditation had been a waste of time. It’s hard to understand why this track was abandoned, especially after the group devoted more than 100 attempts to the rhythm track. Harrison’s guitar work is especially superb, from his sinewy lead lines to his sizzling tone, achieved by placing his amp in one of Abbey Road’s echo chambers and cranking it up for maximum effect, while he performed, safe from the volume, in the studio control room. Harrison eventually re-recorded this song for his self-titled 1979 album.
28. Old Brown Shoe
1967–1970 (1973)Dishonorably relegated to the B-side of the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (see entry 42), this 1969 Harrison composition is one of his best. His stinging guitar work is at times reminiscent of Clapton, especially on the solo, where he plays his rosewood Telecaster through a Leslie cabinet, his preferred effect of the period. In addition to guitar, Harrison plays organ and, by his own account, the buoyant bass line. “That was me going nuts,” he said of the bass work in a 1987 interview. “I’m doing exactly what I do on the guitar.”
Rubber Soul (1965)Another great example of McCartney’s innate gift for songwriting/composing, “Michelle” features, in its intro and elsewhere throughout the song, the previously mentioned standard “minor-drop” progression heard in “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “All My Loving” (see entries 7 and 16). The song also includes some rather clever and original harmonic twists and turns, such as the use of, in the second bar of the verse progression, the dominant-seven-sharp-nine (7#9) chord pointed out earlier in regard to Harrison’s “Till There Was You” solo, which, in both songs, is voiced “widely,” low to high: 1(root)-5-3(10)-b7-#9. Lennon, by the way, would later also employ this same chord voicing in “Sexy Sadie,” a chord that he, McCartney and Harrison all learned early on from a friend and local guitar-hero in Liverpool named Jim Gretty and dubbed “the Gretty chord.”
26. Cry for a Shadow
Anthology 1 (1995)In 1961, unknown and looking for a break, the Beatles supported British rock and roll singer Tony Sheridan on a recording date in Hamburg. While there, they recorded two tracks of their own, including this Harrison-Lennon guitar-instrumental written in the style of U.K. pop group the Shadows (hence, the title). The recording provides early evidence of Lennon’s steady and dynamic rhythm guitar work, as well as McCartney’s melodic skills on the bass, which he had just begun playing. But it’s Harrison who shines, making the most of the trite melody with double-stop licks and generous use of the whammy bar on his Strat-style Futurama electric guitar. He ends the song with a major sixth—C6, specifically—a voicing that would become a signature Beatles coda on songs like “She Loves You,” “No Reply” and “Help!” (see entry 40).
25. Hey Bulldog
Yellow Submarine (1968)McCartney’s lead guitar work had characterized most of the great solo guitar moments on the Beatles’ records during 1966 and 1967. But with “Hey Bulldog,” recorded in February 1968, Harrison came charging back with a guitar solo that’s heavier and hairier than just about anything in the group’s catalog. For the song, he played his red 1964 SG Standard, using a fuzz box (most likely his Tone Bender) to give his sound a snarl befitting the song’s title. Recalls engineer Geoff Emerick, “His amp was turned up really loud, and he used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream." Equally outstanding is Paul McCartney’s buoyant bass work, which is practically a lead instrument on its own.
24. I’ve Just Seen a Face
Rubber Soul (1965)Written by McCartney and musically inspired by the skiffle movement that was popular in the U.K. in the late Fifties and early Sixties, this up-tempo knee-slapper features Lennon, Harrison and McCartney all playing acoustic guitars, with Ringo Starr providing percussion (brushed snare drum and overdubbed maracas). The lyrical instrumental intro features a bass-line chord-melody, played (most likely by Harrison) on a 12-string, which serves to octave-double the bass-line melody, over which McCartney and Lennon flatpick a single-note melody based on double-stops, mostly sixth intervals, played up and down the G and high E strings in a quick, unbroken triplet rhythm, beautifully outlining the underlying chords with ascending and descending note pairs.
23. Don’t Bother Me
With the Beatles (1963)Harrison’s first solo songwriting effort for the Beatles sounds like nothing else in the group’s catalog. With its moody minor chords, propulsive drum beat and tremolo guitar, this 1964 track has more in common with California surf music than it does the American rock and soul that inspired the Beatles’ music at the time. The tremolo—provided by Harrison’s Vox AC30—gives the song an air of menace appropriate to the song’s title, and its use here marks the first time the group used an electronic effect on a finished recording.
22. Octopus’s Garden
Abbey Road (1969)By 1969, George Harrison had put down his sitar to focus on his first love, the guitar. The results are apparent on Abbey Road, which features his most fluid and confident playing to date. On “Octopus’s Garden,” one of Ringo Starr’s rare Beatles-era tunes, Harrison calls on his country/rockabilly influences for the first time since the band’s pre-psychedelic days. The intro is a slick masterpiece in the major pentatonic scale, the same territory Dickey Betts would later visit on “Blue Sky.” The song’s fun, twangy solo could sit snugly among James Burton’s work on Merle Haggard’s late-Sixties albums.
21. Till There Was You
With the Beatles (1963)With this charming early cover of a love song from the popular 1957 Broadway musical play and 1962 feature film The Music Man, the Beatles demonstrated their stylistic versatility as they authoritatively breeze through the song’s harmonically sophisticated, jazz-like chord progression. Harrison’s solo break conveys a musical savvy on par with that of a veteran jazz improviser, as he strongly outlines the underlying chord progression, producing a perfect melodic counterpoint with the bass line by using arpeggios and targeting non-root chord tones, such as the third or ninth, on each chord change. Also impressive is his incorporation of two-, three- and four-note chords into what would otherwise be a predominantly single-note solo to create jazz-guitar-style chord-melody phrases, as well as his superimposition over the five chord, C7, of a daringly dissonant Gb7#9 chord (voiced, low to high, Gb Db Bb E A), a trick known in the language of jazz as a tritone substitution. 20. Good Morning Good Morning
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)Let’s face it: There aren’t many ferocious, brash and screaming guitar solos in the Beatles’ catalog. That said, Paul McCartney’s razor-sharp solo on “Good Morning Good Morning” is all that and a bag of chips. The 13-second-long treble fest, played on a Fender Esquire through a Selmer amp, features a strong East Indian vibe, perhaps a nod to George Harrison’s burgeoning fascination with Indian religion and music. Like its stylistic predecessor, McCartney’s “Taxman” guitar solo (see entry 3), “Good Morning Good Morning” incorporates open-string drone notes and rapid-fire descending hammer-pull slides, mostly along one string, in this case, the B string.
19. I Need You
Help! (1965)By 1965, the Beatles were making noticeable strides in their arrangements and instrumentation. A prime example is “I Need You,” one of two George Harrison compositions to appear on Help!The recording represents Harrison’s first use of a volume pedal. The guitar’s dramatic, almost pedal-steel-like volume swells—which frame Harrison’s curt, suspended chords—only add to the song’s wistful lyrical content. The volume pedal was a step up for the band; the guitar swells heard on “Baby’s in Black,” which was tracked the previous summer, were the result of John Lennon turning the volume knob on Harrison’s 1963 Gretsch Tennessean as Harrison played it.
18. You Can’t Do That
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)On February 25, 1964, the Beatles entered the studio with an exciting new piece of gear: a Fireglo 1963 Rickenbacker 360/12. George Harrison had received the guitar only 17 days earlier when the band was in New York shooting its initial Ed Sullivan Show appearance.The song’s chiming intro riff, with its middle-finger hammer-ons from a minor third to a major third within the chord, offered a taste of what lay ahead for the guitar, which would see heavy action onstage and in the studio through 1965. John Lennon performed the guitar solo on his new Jetglo 1964 Rickenbacker.
17. Let It Be
Let It Be (1970)As Beatles obsessives know, there are three versions of George Harrison’s solo for this track: the original, recorded in January 1969 with his rosewood Telecaster (available on 2003’s Let It Be… Naked); the second, recorded the following April with his Tele through a Leslie rotary speaker (released on the single “Let It Be” in 1970); and a third version recorded in January 1970 using his “Lucy” Gibson Les Paul through a Tone Bender (released on Let It Be). Nice as the first two are, they have nothing on the third, a blistering performance that raises the song’s drama to a higher level of emotion.
16. All My Loving
With the Beatles (1963)For this pop song’s thumping, quasi–jump blues, rockabilly-style groove, Harrison crafted a convincingly authentic Chet Atkins/Carl Perkins–like solo break that clearly demonstrates his familiarity with that Fifties Nashville style of electric guitar soloing. Employing hybrid picking (pick-and-fingers technique), the guitarist acknowledges and gravitates toward the underlying chords in his melodic phrases, employing country-style “walk-ups” and “walk-downs” and plucking double-stops (pairs of notes) to sweetly and effectively outline the chord changes with a pleasing thematic continuity. Lennon contributed an energetic rhythm guitar part, one that he later expressed being rather proud of, which propels the groove with tireless waves of triplet chord strums, similar to those heard in the Crystals’ song “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
15. Ticket to Ride
Help! (1965)This proto-heavy-metal track was the first Beatles recording to feature McCartney on lead guitar and the last on which George Harrison used his Rickenbacker 12-string. McCartney plays the note-bending fills at the end of the bridges and on the outro, while Harrison plays the song’s arpeggiated riff and Lennon handles rhythm guitar. But the heaviest part might just be the droning open-string A notes that Harrison overdubbed on the verses, suggestive of the classical Indian music he would begin to explore later that year.
14. Dig a Pony
Let It Be (1970)The song’s driving, bluesy riff is as durable as any that Muddy Waters ever wrote, but the 1969 recording is also notable for Harrison’s smoky guitar work on his rosewood Telecaster—from the double-stop licks on the verses to his confident and impeccably developed solo. You can hear Harrison’s signature style beginning to develop here, with the smoothness of his lines pointing toward the fluid slide style he would develop over the following year. His guitar tone is also very similar to that of “Octopus’ Garden” (see entry 22) recorded later that year, for which he may have also used the rosewood Tele.
13. Nowhere Man
Rubber Soul (1965)According to Harrison, he and Lennon perform the song’s bright, chiming solo together in unison, using their matching Sonic Blue Fender Stratocasters. Lennon also revealed to guitarist Earl Slick, during the making of Lennon’s 1980 album Double Fantasy, that the solo was recorded through a pair of small amps with a single microphone positioned between them. The Strats’ trebly nature was further accentuated on “Nowhere Man” by boosting the high frequencies via the mixing console. “We wanted very trebly guitars,” McCartney says. “They’re among the most trebly guitars I’ve ever heard on record.”
12. I Feel Fine
1962–1966 (1973)Audio feedback was just an annoying electronic phenomenon until the Beatles used it as an attention-getting way to start “I Feel Fine.” The song itself is a rather standard riff rocker inspired by Bobby Parker’s 1961 R&B hit, “Watch Your Step,” but its distinctive intro came about by accident when McCartney played a low A note on his bass as Lennon was leaning his Gibson J-160E acoustic-electric against his amp. The note set Lennon’s guitar vibrating, and its proximity to the amp caused the sound to feed back. “We went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ” McCartney recalls. Yes, that too.
The Beatles (1968)McCartney recorded this beautiful song’s gentle, fingerstyle acoustic accompaniment on his Martin D-28. He creates an elegant, classical-guitar-style chord movement by using two-finger chord shapes exclusively, most of which form 10th intervals on the A and B strings, in conjunction with the open G-string note, which he picks in opposition to the chord shapes and employs as a droning common tone. His unique fingerpicking technique relies largely on his thumb, which he uses to pick bass notes, and index finger, which he uses for pretty much everything else, employing brushed downstrokes and upstrokes and often brushing across two or more strings. This often results in notes that are “ghosted,” or barely articulated, a “flaw” that is a testament to his innate musicality—McCartney’s touch is charming and greatly contributes to the overall feel of the song. 10. “Something”
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
Revolver (1966)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
Revolver (1966)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.05. Revolution
1966–1970 (1973)At the time that this 1968 track was recorded, distortion was well established as an electronic effect for guitarists, but no one had ever used it to the extreme that the Beatles did here. According to Geoff Emerick, Lennon had been attempting to create distortion by cranking up his amp during sessions for “Revolution 1,” the slower version of the song, which the Beatles recorded in May and June of 1968. Emerick had abetted his efforts by overloading the preamp on the microphone used to record Lennon’s guitar, but even this wasn’t enough for Lennon, who told the engineer, “ ‘No, no, I want that guitar to sound dirtier!” By the July recording of “Revolution,” Emerick determined that he could distort the signal even more by patching Lennon and Harrison’s guitars directly into the mixing console via direct boxes, overloading the input preamp and sending the signal into a second overloaded preamp. “I remember walking into the control room when they were cutting that,” recalls Abbey Road engineer Ken Scott, “and there was John, Paul and George, all in the control room, all plugged in—just playing straight through the board. All of the guitar distortion was gotten just by overloading the mic amps in the desk.” As Emerick himself notes in his 2006 memoir Here, There and Everywhere, it was no mean feat: the overloaded preamps could have caused the studio’s tube-powered mixer to overheat. “I couldn’t help but think: If I was the studio manager and saw this going on, I’d fire myself.”
04. Here Comes the Sun
Abbey Road (1969)Harrison’s jangly chord-melody playing on this song is exemplary. Using first- and second-position “cowboy” chords with a capo at the seventh fret, the guitarist loosely doubles and supports his catchy, syncopated vocal melody by working it into the top part of his acoustic-guitar accompaniment. He does this by using a “picky-strummy” technique (similar to what Neil Young would later employ in his song “The Needle and the Damage Done”), in which the pick hand gently swings back and forth over the strings in an unbroken down-up-down-up movement, like a pendulum viewed sideways. In doing so, Harrison selectively grazes certain strings on various downbeats and eighth-note upbeats, resulting in a seemingly casual mix of full-chord strums, single notes and two-note clusters that form a pleasing stand-alone guitar part that could easily appeal as a solo instrumental performance. The high register achieved by using the capo so far up the neck—the song is played as if it were in the key of D but sounds in A, a perfect fifth higher—makes the guitar sound almost like a mandolin, an effect similar to that achieved by Bob Dylan on “Blowin’ in the Wind” (also performed capo-7).Also noteworthy are the ringing and musically compelling arpeggio breaks that punctuate the song in various spots, such as after the first verse (immediately following the lyric “It’s all right”) and during the bridge/interlude section, behind the words “sun, sun, sun, here it comes.” Harrison employs a highly syncopated “1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2” phrasing scheme in the first instance and “1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2” in the latter, creating a rhythmic “hiccup” that resets the song’s eighth-note pulse.
Revolver (1966)Bassist Paul McCartney had first demonstrated his six-string talents on 1965’s Help!, where he played lead guitar on several tracks and performed on acoustic guitar for his song “Yesterday.” But McCartney would truly come into his own as a guitarist with this cut from 1966’s Revolver. His stinging solo, performed on his 1962 Epiphone Casino through his cream-colored 1964 Bassman amp, is a stunningly sophisticated creation, drawn from an Indian-derived Dorian mode and featuring descending pull-offs that recall Jeff Beck’s work on the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” released earlier that year. How the solo came to be played by McCartney—and not Harrison, who wrote the song and was the Beatles’ lead guitarist—is a story in itself. According to Geoff Emerick, Harrison struggled for two hours to craft a solo before producer George Martin suggested he let McCartney give it a try. McCartney’s solo, Emerick says, “was so good that George Martin had me fly it in again during the song’s fadeout.” Portions of it, played backward, were also applied to the Revolver track “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Apparently, Harrison didn’t feel slighted. At the time of making Revolver, he was ambivalent about his musical ambitions and pondering Indian mysticism, to which he would eventually convert. “In those days,” he said, “for me to be allowed to do my one song on the album, it was like, ‘Great. I don’t care who plays what. This is my big chance.’ 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.”
02. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
The Beatles (1968)“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has become one of George Harrison’s signature tunes, but when he wrote the song in 1968, he couldn’t get his band mates to take an interest in it. Frustrated, he asked his pal Eric Clapton to sit in on the recording session for the track, hoping his presence would put the group on its best behavior. Clapton accepted the invitation and delivered a performance that remains a high point in the Beatles’ catalog. For the session, Clapton played a 1957 Les Paul “Goldtop” that had been refinished in red. He’d purchased the guitar in New York City sometime in the Sixties and in 1968 gifted it to Harrison, who nicknamed it Lucy. The guitar was already in Harrison’s possession at the time of this recording. When he picked up Clapton to take him to the studio for the Beatles session, the famous guitarist was empty handed. “I didn’t have a guitar,” Clapton recalls. “I just got into the car with him. So he gave me [Lucy] to play.”Harrison was concerned that Clapton’s solo was “not Beatley enough,” as the group was by the time of this recording well known for its sonic innovation. During the song’s mixing stage, the group had engineer Chris Thomas send Clapton’s signal through Abbey Road’s ADT—Automatic Double Tracking—tape-delay system and manually alter the speed of the delay throughout Clapton’s performance, making the pitch sound chorused. (The effect is especially noticeable in the final measure of the second middle-eight, after the line “no one alerted you.”) Ironically, while the solo is one of Clapton’s most famous, he was never credited on the recording.
01. “The End”
Abbey Road (1969)A song called “The End” might seem an ironic place to start a list of the Beatles’ 50 greatest guitar moments. But the round-robin solos that bring the track to its exhilarating peak are without question the group’s most powerful statement expressed through the guitar.Here, for a mere 35 seconds, three childhood friends and longtime band mates—Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon—trade licks on a song that represents, musically and literally, the Beatles’ last stand as a rock group before they broke up the following year. “The End” is the grand finale in the medley of tunes that make up much of Abbey Road’s second side. As such, it’s designed to deliver maximum emotional punch, and it succeeds completely, thanks in great part to the sound of McCartney, Harrison and Lennon rocking out on their guitars, as they did in their first, embryonic attempts to make rock and roll some 12 years earlier. “They knew they had to finish the album up with something big,” recalls Geoff Emerick, the famed Abbey Road engineer who worked on the 1969 album. “Originally, they couldn’t decide if John or George would do the solo, and eventually they said, ‘Well, let’s have the three of us do the solo.’ It was Paul’s song, so Paul was gonna go first, followed by George and John. It was unbelievable. And it was all done live and in one take.”Much of the song’s power comes from the sense that the Beatles are making up their solos spontaneously, playing off one another in the heat of the moment. As it turns out, that’s partly accurate. “They’d worked out roughly what they were going to do for the solos,” Emerick says, “but the execution of it was just superb. It sounds spontaneous. When they were done, everyone beamed. I think in their minds they went back to their youths and those great memories of working together.”