By Christopher Scapelliti, Damian Fanelli, Jimmy Brown
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.
With that in mind, Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado decided to celebrate the 10 best guitar moments from the band’s hit-making history.
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!
If you’d like to delve much more deeply into this topic, be sure to check out The Fab 50: The Beatles’ 50 Greatest Guitar Moments.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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’ 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.”