By the time The Beatles began recording sessions at Abbey Road in late 1966 for what would become Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band their instrumental palette had swelled to proportions unimaginable to the band that recorded Please Please Me back in 1963. Indeed, the music on Sgt Pepper represents a peak for The Beatles in terms of instrumental variety; the albums that followed, by and large, saw the group gradually return to basics, back to the guitars and drums they carted around Liverpool and Hamburg.
For Sgt Pepper George Martin was called upon to commission whole orchestras, to recreate fairground sound effects and to seek out a note whose pitch could be heard only by dogs. But whatever demands their soaring imagination placed on their long-suffering producer, the humble guitar remained at the foundations of their music. Photographs taken during the sessions show Paul using a newly acquired Fender Esquire (right handed – upside down) with his Epiphone Casino never far away, and for the increasingly complex bass parts he almost certainly turned to his Rickenbacker.
         George, meanwhile, was also using his Casino, and sometime around 1967 he opted to repaint his blue Stratocaster in psychedelic colours with a nod to Jamaica; red, green and yellow in various patterns with an Indian motif and adding the motto Be Bop A Lula. John, too, opted to redesign some of his guitars, spray-painting the back of his Epiphone, but for the most part during the Sgt Pepper sessions John played electric keyboard instruments mostly supplied by the studio.
         In February 1968 all of The Beatles headed off to Rishikesh in India to study meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a relaxing experience that allowed them plenty of time to work uninterrupted on songwriting. John and Paul brought along their Martin D-28s and, individually now, composed several of the songs that would appear on the ‘White Album’, as the double album The Beatles is generally known. Under the tuition of Donovan, another meditation guest at Rishikesh, John learned to play the ‘claw hammer’ finger style he utilises on ‘Dear Prudence’.
         Back in the UK, work started fitfully in May on the ‘White Album’ with the first version of John’s song ‘Revolution’ which was deemed too slow for a single. In the meantime, the trend for modifying guitars continued with all three guitar-playing Beatles taking their instruments to be sanded down in the belief that a natural finish produced a better tone. This process was applied to their Epiphones, John’s Gibson J-160E and Paul’s Rickenbacker bass.
         In between tracks for ‘The White Album’ the group also recorded the single, ‘Hey Jude’, featuring John on acoustic guitar and Paul, who added his bass part later, on piano. Not until the Love album release in 2005 could the virtuosity of Paul’s high-end bass work on this song – particularly on the fading chorus – be fully appreciated. ‘Hey Jude’, of course, was the perfect single for the group to launch their Apple label so ‘Revolution’ was consigned to the B-side, and a faster version was laid down with Paul on Rickenbacker bass and John playing his Epiphone Casino through a fuzz box.
During the ‘White album’ sessions George was presented with a dark red Gibson Les Paul by his friend Eric Clapton, the same instrument on which Clapton played the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Clearly taken with it, George used this Les Paul for much of the rest of 1968 and into 1969, and can be seen playing it on the promo clip for ‘Revolution’, alongside John with his now blonde Casino and Paul on one of his old Hofner violin basses.
         It was round about this time that Paul somehow got it into his head that The Who were embarking on the heaviest rock music ever recorded and, not to be outdone, wrote and sang ‘Helter Skelter’, perhaps the most controversial Beatle song. Leaving aside the regrettable Charles Manson connection, ‘Helter Skelter’ is among the most rowdy, unrefined songs the group ever recorded, with wildly distorted guitars, John plucking a Fender VI six-string bass, and a false ending before a resumption that sounds not unlike The Who climaxing their stage act, with Ringo complaining loudly about the blisters on his fingers. In complete contrast ‘Blackbird’ features Paul solo, softly finger-picking his Martin D-28 with casual precision.
         John too had demonstrated his versatility by shifting gracefully from Yellow Submarine’s ‘Hey Bulldog’, another slice of heavy Beatle pie, to more sensitive work on the ‘White Album’ like ‘Dear Prudence’ and the double-entendre filled ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. ‘Bulldog’, however, features John mainly on piano but George crunches in with the recurring ascending riff, and contributes a suitably heavy solo, on his Gibson SG.
         With the ‘White Album’ sessions concluded the group was in a state of disarray, uncertain about their future, and only Paul’s enthusiasm held them together. The sessions for what became Let It Be were fractious and unfulfilled and, ultimately, the tapes were shelved until after the release of Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded together. Only two songs from the Let It Be sessions escaped early and were released as a single in April 1969, the toe-tapping rocker ‘Get Back’ for which Paul resurrected one of his Hofner violin basses – the set-list from the Beatles last concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park still taped to it – while John played the solo on his sanded down Epiphone and George strummed the chugging rhythm on his dark brown Telecaster, as he did on the single’s emotional roller-coaster B-side ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.
         Unusually, only John and Paul appear on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, John’s diary-like song about his eventful marriage and honeymoon. John plays acoustic and electric guitars, probably his Martin and Epiphone, while Paul plays bass on the Rickenbacker and, not for the first time, drums. The highlight of the B-side, ‘Old Brown Shoe’, is the rumbling bass riff on which Paul’s line is doubled up by George playing his Telecaster through a Leslie speaker.
         The Beatles convened as a group for the final time at Abbey Road during July and August 1969. For the most part Paul returned to his Rickenbacker for bass playing, and Martin and Casino when he played regular guitar, as did John, while George used his Les Paul and two Fenders. On ‘I Want You’, John’s cri de couer for Yoko, he and George overdubbed their electric guitars over and over again on the relentless, distorted arpeggio while John added the increasingly strident white noise on a Moog synthesiser.
         The Beatles’ swan song, at least in the UK, was the ‘Let It Be’ single, on which – surprisingly – John played bass on a Fender VI bass which Fender had given them around the time of the ‘White Album’ sessions, and George played his Telecaster. ‘Across The Universe’ was started back in early 1968 but had proved troublesome, and John was evidently unhappy with the way it turned out, initially offering it as a track on a charity album to benefit the World Wildlife Fund. In the end the song appeared on the Let It Be album, and features, predominantly, John strumming his Martin with George adding background touches on tamboura and sitar.
          In little under 15 years John, Paul and George had progressed from their earliest, poorly-made guitars on which they first learned to play to a vast arsenal of the very best American-made electric and acoustic guitars that money could buy. In many ways The Beatles lit the touch paper for the massive upsurge in guitar sales that occurred during the sixties and which, even today, makes the guitar the dominant instrument in all of rock music. The manufacturers of Fenders, Gibsons, Martins, Rickenbackers and the rest owe The Beatles a huge debt but the extraordinary music that the group produced was the product of their imaginations rather than the instruments on which it was performed. While they certainly couldn’t have made an album like Abbey Road with their Gallotone Champion, Zenith 17 and Egmond guitars, it takes more than simply great instruments to make music like The Beatles.

1 comment:

patrock said...

The thing I heard about John's first "blonde" Epiphone Casino was that it was actually black, and one night while frying on acid, John started scraping off all the paint with a flathead screwdriver. So I don't think it was a case of him spray painting the back of the guitar but him scratching off the front.