By Tom Beaujour | Photography by Kevin Scanlon
George Harrison’s guitars are as iconic and important as any instruments in the history of popular music. But for Dhani Harrison, they are also family heirlooms that have always been a fixture in his life and home. Now thanks to the new The Guitar Collection: George Harrison iPad app, they can hold a place of pride in your abode as well.
George Harrison played many a classic guitar during the course of his career, popularizing some models so extensively that he is inextricably linked with them. In the Sixties, during his time with the Beatles, he helped make famous the Rickenbacker 360/12 electric 12-string, a rosewood version of the Fender Telecaster, and the Gibson J-160 acoustic/electric, among others, while his solo years saw him in possession of guitars by famed luthier Tony Zemaitis.
These instruments, and many others, have remained in his private collection, but thanks to his son, Dhani Harrison, they will be available for all to see and hear in exquisite detail, courtesy of The Guitar Collection: George Harrison, a new iPad app developed by Dhani.
The younger Harrison (who is the spitting image of his father) developed the concept shortly after work had concluded on 2009’s The Beatles: Rock Band video game, a project he had largely spearheaded. He was restless and looking for a new tech initiative to sink his teeth into when inspiration struck. Considering that Harrison has an engineering degree from Brown University, it’s not surprising that his muse came from the world of hard science.
“I ran across a really good app based on the periodic table of elements,” he recalls. “It’s kind of Star Wars-ey: you click on an element, like gold, and a photo of a bit of gold comes up and spins around. It’s super compelling compared to when we were kids and learning the periodic table from a book. I thought to myself, We should do this with guitars—the guitar table of elements. We just have to photograph the guitars and have them spinning around and be able to play them, you know? I want to be able to go on 3-D TV and strum it. We can’t do that with this iteration of the app, of course,” he says, with a laugh. “But it will be fully feasible with the next generation.”
And while The Guitar Collection: George Harrison app is not yet fully 3-D, it comes close. Users can spin the guitars and zoom in on them at will, providing a dynamic, interactive experience that one could never hope to achieve in print or by peering at the guitars through glass in a museum exhibit. The technology, developed by Tom Hartle of app developer Bandwidth Publishing, is flawless, and the guitar images, by famed fashion and music photographer Steven Sebring, are both vivid and detailed.
The process of capturing the guitars for the app, however, was nothing short of grueling. “There was no way the guitars were leaving the house,” Harrison explains. Instead, he, Sebring, Beatles archivist Richard Radford, and guitar tech to the stars Alan Rogan decamped to Harrison’s Friar Park Estate in Henley-on-Thames, where the guitars reside.
“Everyone moved in, and we took all the furniture in the living room and put it aside and built the 3-D rig in there,” Harrison says. Subsequently, each guitar was placed on a custom-built Plexiglas stand on a rotating platform and photographed hundreds of times. The project, although ultimately successful, was also fraught with unforeseen technical difficulties, some of them quite comical. “We had a light underneath illuminating the base and the guitars. And, of course, as the turntable spun, it wrapped the power cord around itself,” Harrison says, laughing. “So then every time you did it, you had to reset the thing. We were like, Okay, massive design oversight!”
Creating stands that would allow the guitars to rotate perfectly on their own axes was another obstacle. “We started with a generic stand, and the rotation looked all wobbly and made you seasick,” Harrison says. “I quickly realized that we were going to have to build new stands and custom fit everything to each one. The center of symmetry is different for every guitar design. Some of them rotate like on a loop, some of them rotate about one point, and some of them rotate about their neck. Some of them work better than others.”
Harrison, who plans to expand the Guitar Collection app to document other players’ instruments as well, is quick to note that the task of designing stands that conform to a variety of guitars’ rotational symmetry will continue to yield dividends as the project continues.
“The ultimate goal is to have the whole system contained in a road case that we can bring from one place to another, and just open it up and start shooting,” he explains. “I want to do Eric Clapton’s and Tom Petty’s collections as well as many others. And now we have all of the kinks worked out and stands made for a variety of instruments like Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, Rics, and all the other guitars that we might encounter. Except for Gibson Explorers. When we encounter one of them, we’ll be in trouble!”
The visual and interactive aspects of the Harrison app are immediately impressive, as are the detailed descriptions of the seven guitars included in the first iteration of the app: the 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet used during the Beatles’ earliest recordings, the ubiquitous 1962 J-160 acoustic/electric, the “A Hard Day’s Night” 1963 Rickenbacker 360/12, the 1961 “psychedelic” Stratocaster, the 1968 rosewood Telecaster, a 1974 Zemaitis Lotus 12-string acoustic, and a rare Thirties-era Gibson UB-2 ukulele/banjo hybrid. More guitars, including Harrison’s “Sweet Cherry” red Les Paul will follow in subsequent updates.
Included, too, are image galleries that feature photographs of George Harrison playing the guitars, as well as comprehensive lists of the songs on which the instruments were used. These link seamlessly with your device’s iTunes library, so that if you already own the songs in question, they will play from within the app when you select them.
But what makes this app a must for diehard fans is the audio content that accompanies each instrument, recorded by Dhani in the late Nineties before his father’s death. In it, George talks about and plays several instruments. The recordings are so intimate as to be disconcerting at first, as if George were in the room talking directly to you about the guitars.
“Back in 1999 or so while we were preparing the 30th anniversary reissue of All Things Must Pass, I got the idea that we should do a web site that would document all of the guitars,” Dhani explains. “It never got built, because the technology at the time was not yet up to snuff, but I had gone through all of the guitars with my dad and had him announce and play each one. I just had a Dictaphone, and we had an amp and all the guitars on the wall. I’d just go, ‘Play this one,’ and, ‘What’s it called?’ And he’d say, ‘This is the psychedelic Stratocaster,’ then play a bit. I took all of these little clips and put them in this web site that never came to fruition. I forgot about them, so no one’s ever heard them. When David Zhonshine, my manager, mentioned that we needed someone to introduce each guitar in the app, I remembered that I had the stuff.”
When pressed to pick his own favorite guitar in the collection, Harrison selects the 1968 rosewood Telecaster that his father most notably played on the Beatles’ legendary rooftop performance of “Get Back,” captured in the documentary Let It Be. “Other than the fact that it weighs seven times more than a normal Tele, it’s so nice to play. It’s like having a golden AK-47 or something. It’s something that you know so well and you wouldn’t be afraid to beat up, but this one is like the golden gun.”
But even legendary guitars are made out of wood, not steel, and they can crack, dry, and chip. Having immortalized the guitars in 360-degree detail also allows Harrison to rest a little easier knowing that, from now on, they will not have to travel, as they did recently to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, to be seen in minute detail. Even if the physical manifestations of the guitars decay, future generations, and perhaps, civilizations will still be able to study them.
“I’m really happy to know that those models exist,” Harrison says. “Like, if the world is wiped out and an alien finds a disc somewhere, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s what those guitars looked like. Why didn’t everyone have 3-D models of their guitars? Why is it only George Harrison? I’d like to see all of Keith Richards’ guitars as well!’ ” Perhaps so. But as you’ll see over the next pages, George Harrison’s guitars are an excellent place to start.