Tuesday, February 10, 2009

George Harrison's Guitar Style

There are many little-known Beatles facts concerning George Harrison's evolution as a guitarist. Harrison owned a cheap acoustic, as did most Liverpool youth interested in the skiffle craze, but his first electric guitar was a Grazioso. Few people know that, like Lennon, Harrison formed a skiffle group in his youth. Harrison's group was called The Rebels.

Harrison joined Lennon's Quarreymen as that band's youngest member--someone who could play better than McCartney or Lennon in the late 1950s. As the years passed and the Quarreymen/Beatles played Hamburg, the long hours onstage helped shape Harrison's playing. It is reported by some that he also received tips on playing lead guitar from Tony Sheridan, for whom the Beatles recorded while in Hamburg.

As the Beatles became more famous, Harrison was regarded as competent, although he is not known for being a virtuoso in the vein of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. He was influenced in his youth by the music of Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins. He played Gretsch guitars in the early days of the Beatles (as did Atkins), using both a Tennessean and a Country Gentleman. He moved on to a Rickenbacker twelve string shortly before the making of A Hard Day's Night, and the sound was so distinctive that it heavily influenced David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.

Beginning with All Things Must Pass, Harrison became more and more enthusiastic about the slide guitar, which he used heavily until his death in 2001. The slide guitar is evident on all his solo recordings to a greater or lesser degree, and he also used the slide during his days with The Traveling Wilburys.

Harrison also became an accomplished player on acoustic guitar, playing acoustic or classical guitar on several tracks for the Beatles and his solo records. Most memorable of his acoustic work perhaps are the songs "Here Comes the Sun" and "My Sweet Lord." For both songs (and many others), he used a Gibson Hummingbird, although he also used a Martin D-28 frequently, as did the other Beatles.


  1. A couple of corrections are in order: George Harrison started playing slide guitar prior to All Things Must Pass. One can hear his elegant slide playing on the classic, "Something," for example. Among serious guitarists, Harrison was considered far more than merely "competent," as his solos versatile, varied, harmonically sophisticated, and beautifully crafted: Til There Was You, Can't Buy Me Love, She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing, Hey Bulldog, Dear Prudence, Yer Blues, Octopus's Garden, Let It Be, etc.

    These are iconic solos, richer in texture than Clapton's pentatonic explorations, and a complementary response via composition and melody to contrast the great Hendrix's sonic bravado.

  2. Thanks for your comments, anonymous. Actually, the post says that Harrison became "more enthusiastic" with slide guitar during ALL THINGS MUST PASS, not that he began slide with those sessions.

    As for the rest of your comments, there is no doubt that George became more accomplished as the group became more popular. It is a fact corroborated by numerous sources, however, that he simply could not handle some lead guitar parts cleanly on various tracks. It is also fact that McCartney and Lennon assumed more lead duties in later years because they thought they could do them better.

    McCartney and Harrison once attended a Hendrix concert, and they both turned to each other and admitted that neither could come close to reproducing what they were hearing.

    Some of what you say hinges on taste and style of playing. Regardless, there are numerous rock and roll writers who have said over the years that while George's playing will remain legendary, he was not the consummate lead guitarist that many would like to believe. Whether this is true is, again, a matter of opinion and taste. You'll get no argument from me that he did superb work, and I personnaly make no judgment either way.

    Thanks for the comment. ~Mr. Mustard.

  3. I've played guitar for 30+ years and I can tell you that George's playing was top notch. He wasn't the fastest or showiest, however, he never played a bad note. He could play Country, Rockabilly, Classical, Jazz, Pop, Heavy Metal etc....

    The fact that John and Paul played lead on some songs and George didn't, doesn't mean that George couldn't play the leads. Only that John and Paul could play the instrument very well in their own right. (John is extremely underrated as well)

    I agree that it's a matter of taste, but as a player, the truth is that it's generally easier to play fast and noisy, it hides your mistakes. For instance, BB King can get more out of one clean note than Eddie Van Halen can in 64 phase drenched notes (which he typically can play in one four beat measure!!) With George it was always less is more...I personally think he is unjustly underrated as a lead and rhythm guitarist. I can listen to him, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton all day long and never tire of it. Three different styles, but all great in their own right. Hendrix, on the other hand, I have to be in the mood otherwise it can get somewhat tiresome....

    Also, on "Something" he doesn't use the slide....review the "Concert for Bangladesh", I don't see him playing the slide on that song and the guitar sheet music that I have doesn't indicate one either...this shows his mastery of vibrato, string bending, pull offs and hammer ons and, in general, his ultra smooth playing...

    Last, when I hear people state that he wasn't a virtuoso I cringe....If I want to listen to a virtuoso I'll listen to Andres Segovia, and quickly fall asleep....To borrow a phrase from the Stones..."Its Only Rock n Roll".

  4. As a guitar player of 40+ years, I will reiterate what I said above. I would not presume to debate the greatness of George's playing. I was merely chronicling what has been written over the years in Beatles biographies about how George was regarded by rock critics, musicians, and the Beatles themselves at times. It's a perception that's been out there a long time--and maybe a misperception. Me--I think he was amazing. As for someone's comment above, you are of course correct. There is no slide on "Something." In general, there are many opinions out there. I'm not the message, just the messenger.