To call George Harrison an influential figure in popular music would be underselling it by quite a bit. As the lead guitarist of the most popular band in the entire world, Harrison would take centre stage during each song’s solo break, integrating the styles of country, blues, and classic rock and roll.
As the band’s style had a less direct focus on verse-chorus-middle eight-solo structures, Harrison established himself as a songwriter and continued to embellish songs with a wide range of six-string tones.
What made Harrison such a talented guitarist was his versatility. Initially picking up the string bends and country licks of players like Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore, Harrison’s ability to adapt to nearly any style of music meant that he could add tasteful flamenco solos to ‘And I Love Her’, melodic emotional turns on ‘Something’, rough-edged runs on ‘Helter Skelter’, and magnificent slide work on ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Harrison’s initial role as an accompanier to the Lennon/McCartney canon made him multifaceted by necessity, but his own interest in Indian music, rockabilly, and lush orchestration meant he could be instantly recognisable.
Harrison’s influence is vast, both with and without The Beatles. Contributing to bands like Cream, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, all while spearheading the Traveling Wilburys and maintaining a solo career, meant that Harrison could keep his music in the public eye for a number of years.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s playing with The Beatles only became more and more revered. Due to his immense dispersion within pop culture, it would be almost impossible to find a guitar player or musician who wasn’t influenced by Harrison.
Here are five of the most acclaimed guitar players and musicians of all time, talking about the influence that Harrison’s playing and arranging had on their own respective styles.
Five guitarists influenced by George Harrison:
As a key contributor to the indie and alternative rock scene of the 1980s, Johnny Marr made his name with clean tones, technically difficult arpeggios, and intricate picking patterns. Marr wasn’t trying to be a flashy guitar hero, instead, he looked to serve the song rather than highlight himself. According to Marr, he learned that style from Harrison.
“George Harrison has always been one of my favourite guitar players,” said the dynamic guitarist. “His approach to the song and creating little parts and moments in records is more something that I can relate to, and along the lines of how I see myself, sure. Out of respect to the guitar greats who came out of the blues rock boom in the ’60s, you have to hold your hands up and show that respect.”
Adding: “But unfortunately for them, the legacy they started somewhat mutated throughout the 1970s, when I was growing up, into other stuff that wasn’t really about my age group. But George Harrison’s more musical, composed kind of approach, rather than being particularly bluesy, was more my thing really.”
While he’s found major acclaim as a drummer and songwriter, Dave Grohl will be the first to admit that his technical prowess as a guitarist isn’t necessarily anything special. But in terms of using the guitar as a means to build up songs and convey feeling, Grohl has cited Harrison as a major influence. He even referenced Harrison and paid tribute to his style on the Foo Fighters debut LP.
“Beyond being an amazing player, his ability to convey such emotion with just his guitar played a huge part in the Beatles’ music for me,” Grohl confessed when reminiscing about the icon.
“He was the secret weapon,” he continued. “One of the first guitar leads I ever learned was from the song ‘Something,’ when I was about 11 years old. I paid tribute to him on our first record with the song ‘Oh, George,’ a reference to the slide lead. He was always my favourite… and always will be.”
Upon joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the late ’80s, John Frusciante brought an entirely different sensibility to the funk-punk rockers. Whereas the previous guitarist Hillel Slovak favoured rhythm and groove, Frusciante added a new melodic sensibility that allowed the band to create songs with greater pop sensibilities.
When looking for figures who excelled at playing exactly what was needed over a song’s basic structure, Frusciente pointed to Harrison as someone who never put his own playing above the song’s natural roots.
“One of the few guitarists whose solos I would always listen to was George Harrison,” confirmed Frusciante. “His solos were always wonderful melodies and very intelligent. He always kept the chord changes in the back of his mind and played on top of them in a very clever and tasteful fashion. Before this album (By The Way) I did have a very good look at George Harrison because I wanted to understand why he plays the way he does and what he does and how he plays around those chords.”
Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago played a relatively similar role to Harrison in his band: creating riffs, melodic ideas, and solos that would elevate Black Francis’ strumming patterns and bare-bones songs. On tracks like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘The Holiday Song’, Santiago utilises much of the same rockabilly picking styles that Harrison himself used early in The Beatles career.
According to Santiago, it was all about intention with Harrison, and it wasn’t just restricted to The Beatles early songs. Lessons could be found on lesser known tracks as well, with the guitarist citing ‘Savoy Truffle’ as a guitar part that related specifically to the themes and imagery of a song’s lyrics.
“On [Savoy Truffle], everything was descriptive and had a purpose,” claimed Santiago. “They were talking about a drill to take your teeth out… I forgot the lyrics, but the idea is too many sweets means you will need to get your teeth pulled out. So I always associated that guitar sound with a drill and I wanted that same drilly sound, which probably explains why I like playing like that.”
Tom Petty had the rare honour of befriending George Harrison and viewing his guitar playing up close and personal. As a member of the Traveling Wilburys, Petty deferred to Harrison by instead picking up the bass within that band while his fellow band members mostly stuck to rhythm and acoustic guitar.
According to Petty, what Harrison always focused on was pitch, no matter what kind of song he was attempting. That became crystal clear when Harrison increased his use of the slide guitar in the late-period Beatles albums.
“When he moved over to the slide guitar later in the Beatles’ career, it was a really beautiful thing to hear him play that,” said the late, great Petty. “He once said to me, ‘I think modern guitar players are forgetting about pitch,’ and that was something he really cared about. He was very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise, and just a beautiful vibrato on it. It really sounded like a voice, like a very distinct, signature voice that came out of him. Just listen to those records. They’re so immaculate, so inventive. He was a guy who could just add so much.”