A couple of years ago I was asked to write introductions to four Beatles sheet music books aimed at guitarists and decided to talk about about the instruments they used. The ‘guitar’ book was in two parts, one dealing with the period up to and including 1966, the second 1967 onwards. Then there was a bass book and finally a drum book. This is the first ‘guitar’ intro, which will be followed by the other three over the next few days.
First and foremost The Beatles was a band of guitarists. As a teenager John Lennon picked up the guitar because Elvis played one, and he learned a few rudimentary chords to front his skiffle group The Quarrymen. John invited Paul McCartney to join because Paul was more advanced on the guitar than him and knew how to tune the instrument properly. George Harrison arrived several months later because Paul, and eventually John, both recognised his superior guitar skills. The drums – and the band went through several drummers before Ringo arrived – seem in hindsight to have been an afterthought or at least a perpetual problem, just as they are with most bands of beginners.
John, Paul and George taught themselves to play. John might have picked up a banjo chord or two from his mother Julia, Paul probably inherited some musical talent from his father, who played trumpet in a Liverpool jazz band, and George had a lesson or two from an older player, but when they got together they learned to forge their own style, expanding the guitar’s rock vocabulary as they did so. Countless hours of honing their craft in Liverpool and Hamburg, much of it in front of demanding audiences, led to an instrumental fluency that not only matched their rivals but bred in them an instinctive sense of musical communication. Once they’d mastered these skills they were ready to take on the world.
John was a rhythm guitarist, one of the best ever. His speciality was not so much his encyclopaedic knowledge of chords, some of them his own invention, but his immaculate timing and a fearsomely powerful right hand strumming action that powered the group, the engine that propelled it forward. Paul learned to play a regular guitar first but took over on bass at the beginning of 1961 and, probably because he knew his way around a piano, became one of the most inventive, melodic bassists of his generation, the group’s harmonic core. George, a rockabilly fanatic, was simply in love with his instrument from the word go and determined to master every style he could, and to use his skills on any other fretted instrument he encountered, not least the sitar. He was the group’s instrumental backbone.
In the mid-fifties, when John, Paul and George first decided to learn to play guitar, the choice of instruments was very limited. Guitars were a novelty then and those that were available to British schoolboys were cheap and badly made, with poor actions and inaccurate fretting. Because of import restrictions, well constructed American models – Fenders, Gibsons and Gretsches – had yet to arrive in the UK so the three future Beatles split their fingertips on poor quality guitars bought for them by mums and dads who knew no better. This was not necessarily a bad thing: learning on an inferior instrument demands a greater degree of dedication and perseverance than learning on a quality guitar, and makes the eventual upgrade that much more satisfying.
Accordingly, John’s first guitar was a Gallotone Champion which was bought for him by Julia through mail-order, and which he is seen playing in the now famous photograph of The Quarrymen at the Woolton Church Fete on July 6, 1957, the day he met Paul. His future partner’s first guitar was a Zenith 17 which, because he was left-handed, Paul would have had to restring and play upside down, with the scratch plate above the soundhole and not below. Both subsequently acquired Hofner Club 40s, superior certainly and better looking but still far from ideal. George’s first guitar, meanwhile, was a second-hand Dutch-made Egmond but by the time he joined the Quarrymen he’d graduated to a Hofner President.
It wasn’t until the Beatles went to Hamburg in 1960 that they equipped themselves with anything approaching professional instruments. John went for a Rickenbacker 325, a short-scale solid body, and Paul’s first bass, after the Hofner he inherited from Stuart Sutcliffe, was the famous violin bass, also made by Hofner, the first of many similar models he would own. George’s first electric guitar was a Futurama III, an inferior Stratocaster copy made in Czechoslovakia by Resonet, but in 1961 he got his first Gretsch, a Duo Jet and, in 1963, a Country Gentleman designed for Gretsch by the country guitarist Chet Atkins. By now both John and George had also acquired Gibson J-160E acoustic guitars with single electric pickups at the base of the fretboard, which they are seen playing in early photos and TV appearances.
John had also taught himself to play the harmonica, an instrument he first picked up when he was 12. He can be heard playing it, in intros that establish the melody line, on The Beatles’ first three singles ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘From Me To You’, though from this point on it’s guitars to the fore, as it was for most of the songs on their debut album. Remarkably, ten of the 14 songs on Please Please Me were recorded at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London, in one day – February 11, 1963 – and for the two most upbeat songs on the record, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist And Shout’, it’s likely that John and George used the Rickenbacker 325 and Gretsch Duo Jet respectively. ‘Twist And Shout’ was the final song to be recorded that day, at 10 in the evening, and some reports have John – grappling with a cold and his voice raw from the day’s efforts – stripped to the waist to belt out what was, at the time, the most frenzied piece of pop music recorded this side of the Atlantic.
After a break for touring The Beatles reconvened at Abbey Road on 1 July to record ‘She Loves You’, the song most associated with that chaotic summer of Beatlemania. A photograph taken in the back yard at Abbey Road that day shows John with his Gibson acoustic and George with a new Gretsch Country Gentleman, a double cutaway model, on which he would have played the song’s descending arpeggios.
The sessions for The Beatles’ second album were spread out during the summer and autumn of 1963 but, all the same, only seven days from their hectic schedule were set aside for recording the songs. By now George was using his Country Gentleman in the studio for solos and fills, and for rhythm John alternated between his Gibson acoustic and the Rickenbacker which he used for the fast-paced, dense rhythm track on ‘All My Loving’. The final single of 1963, the one that broke them in America, was ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, on which the instrumentation was probably the same as ‘She Loves You’ and, indeed, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
The Beatles’ third album, A Hard Day’s Night, was the first on which all the songs were group compositions and by this time George had bought his Rickenbacker 360-12, the 12-string with the jangly tone that was to inspire Roger McGuinn’s Byrds, and which can be heard on the title track and ‘You Can’t Do That’. In the studio George was also using a José Ramírez Spanish guitar, as heard on ‘And I Love Her’.
For ‘I Feel Fine’ both John and George doubled up on the tricky riff, with John using the Gibson acoustic which was prone to feedback, hence the iconic burst of electronic whine at the beginning of the record. It wasn’t until they learned something about studio techniques that The Beatles realized a song could fade out at the end instead of coming to a natural climax, and for ‘Eight Days A Week’ they reversed the effect, fading in at the beginning with George’s chiming Rickenbacker and John’s acoustic Gibson playing in unison.
In 1965 The Beatles expanded their guitar collections considerably, with John, Paul and George all buying – or more likely being given – Epiphone Casinos, and Paul adding a Rickenbacker 400IS bass to his array of Hofners. John and George also got sonic blue Fender Strats – John played his on ‘Ticket To Ride’ – and George added a Tennessean to his collection of Gretsches. Paul also acquired an Epiphone Texan acoustic for writing in the studio and performing ‘Yesterday’ live.
As a result of all these acquisitions it becomes increasingly difficult to state accurately what instruments were played on what songs, especially as Paul was inclined to play the odd guitar part himself as well as bass. George had bought his first sitar in time for the sessions for Rubber Soul, and can be heard playing it on ‘Norwegian Wood’. During 1966 he acquired a Gibson SG Standard and can be seen playing it in the promotional films for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’, both of which were shot at Abbey Road.
Photographs taken by Robert Freeman in Studio 2 at Abbey Road during the Revolver sessions show all manner of guitars racked up behind the group. The more successful they became the more they were inclined to experiment, and more instruments were used. Sooner or later – like all superstar rock musicians – they were given guitars as presents by other musicians, though the evidence suggests they didn’t give many away themselves. Those they did have become extremely desirable collectors’ items which fetch astronomical sums at auctions of rock and roll memorabilia.