George Harrison’s legendary status knows no bounds. Dubbed ‘The Quiet Beatle’, he was lead guitarist in the iconic Liverpudlian hit machine along with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. His musicianship helped to broaden the scope of contemporary popular music and his incorporation of Indian culture, instrumentation and Hindu-aligned spirituality bled into the Beatles’ work, thus pushing the musical and cultural boundaries.
It is well known that the majority of the Beatles’ songs were written by Lennon and McCartney, however, that does not detract from the impact Harrison had on the band’s sound. Besides, from 1965 onwards, most of the group’s albums contained at least two Harrison compositions, work that is now quanitfied as some of their greatest ever creations. These include ‘Taxman’, ‘Within You Without You’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘Something’ and, featuring the untouchable Eric Clapton on lead guitar, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
Harrison would expand his artistic repertoire throughout his career, embarking on a highly successful solo career and becoming a film producer – without whom we would not have classics such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Withnail and I – but it is his primarily his guitar work that made him so legendary.
As we have noted, in the latter stages of the Beatles, world music would have a massive impact on his playing as he brought Ravi Shankar and the sitar into the western public domain, though his earliest influences were markedly different. Lancashire’s very own ukulele-toting, cheeky-chappie George Formby, and one of the most pioneering guitarists of all time, Django Reinhardt, were two key players in informing the teenage Harrison’s taste.
Subsequently, the influences of Carl Perkins, Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry would permeate his work, and tied with his contemporary interest in the folk-rock of Bob Dylan and The Byrds, Harrison would create a unique guitar style in the 1960s, augmenting the Beatles sound, and pushing his solo work to new echelons. This encapsulated in the sonic boom caused by the release of his third solo album All Things Must Pass in 1970.
This masterpiece can be regarded as a key moment in hailing the dawn of the ‘70s, a decade characterised by the “supremacy of the singer-songwriter”. 1970 also spawned other long-playing titans such as Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush and Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. However, the “startling effect” of All Things Must Pass was unmatched, and at the time, propelled him far ahead of his three former bandmates. This period was critical as it also marked the start of “George Harrison: slide guitarist” which would influence the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Todd Rundgren.
Harrison would gain critical and commercial success on his own. Showing the status he had reached, in 1988 he co-founded the gargantuan supergroup The Travelling Wilburys, whose ranks consisted of Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison. In addition to this, as a prolific recording artist, he would feature on tracks by Badfinger, Ronnie Wood, Billy Preston and Belinda Carlisle. He also added his signature tone to some of Ringo Starr’s solo work, and John Lennon’s opus, Imagine.
Harrison was the type of musician the world no longer develops today. Although times have changed, and he has long since passed, his nature as a person and musician will not be forgotten, and his guitar licks will continue to inspire.
Yes, not all of his major hits are represented below, but join us as we list his ten greatest guitar playing moments, showing his prowess as an axe-man.
Disclaimer: This list does not contain ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Yes, Harrison wrote it, but it was an uncredited Eric Clapton who played the lead guitar. With that out the way, let’s get to it.
George Harrison’s 10 greatest guitar moments:
10. ‘Gimme Some Truth’ – John Lennon (Imagine, 1971)
John Lennon’s Imagine was one of the only occasions where he and Harrison would unite after the break-up of the Beatles in 1970. Harrison can be heard throughout the album, on tracks such as ‘Oh My Love’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’. Showing his technical proficiency, and harking back to his bluesy roots, Harrison plays a resonator to great effect on ‘Crippled Inside’. Regardless, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ represents Harrison at some of his best. The effect of his playing is supported by the fact the song was one the Beatles had briefly played during the Let It Be recording sessions.
Furthermore, it is fantastic in displaying Harrison’s essence as a thoughtful guitarist. It is well known he wasn’t a shredder, however, his sonic magic is displayed in his choice of notes, structure and delivery. This new way of playing was shared by contemporaries David Gilmour, Peter Green, and to a lesser extent, B.B. King.
His solo is slightly angry-sounding, matching the feel of the song. It starts at 0:49 and he effectively uses his trademark slide, achieving a sustained, piercing sound. It is also a classic example of Harrison utilising open tunings and stacked major triads to outline the lyrical melody. There’s also the use of the vibrato, a technique rarely used by Harrison.
9. ‘Real Love’ – The Beatles (Anthology 2, 1996)
After Lennon’s tragic death, in the mid-nineties McCartney, Harrison and Starr reunited under producer Jeff Lynne to finish up two Lennon demos from the late ‘70s. Together, ‘Free As a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ created two brand new Beatles songs – more than 25 years after their break-up. Both songs are great in their own way, but ‘Real Love’ is a great ballast for Harrison’s guitar playing, allowing space for him to riff.
It’s also interesting as it represents Harrison going back to his roots. He plays without a slide, something that had become intrinsic to his post-Beatles playing. There also exists the 2015 remixes of the songs, which are denser than the originals, featuring completely different vocal and guitar takes.
8. ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ – The Beatles (Revolver, 1966)
Harrison’s reverse guitar is not only one of the greatest guitar moments on Revolver, but one of the greatest guitar moments of all time. In the previous year, Harrison had experimented with an expression pedal to create a volume-swelling sound, similar to what is now known as the reverse-tape effect, which can be heard on tracks such as ‘Yes It Is’ and ‘I Need You’.
However, unsatisfied with the sound of these, for ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, Harrison wanted to truly hear his guitar in reverse. This had also been inspired by Lennon’s retrograde vocals on ‘Paperback Writer’ B-side to ‘Rain’, which had been recorded earlier that same month, April ’66. It is worth noting that this album marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, reflecting their interest in LSD, Eastern philosophy and the avant-garde.
Instead of improvising the guitar lines while the track was played backwards, in his characteristic, calculated way, Harrison prepared the notes as a five-bar solo and then had producer George Martin transcribe them in reverse for him. Then, Harrison performed the lines as the tape was played back to front.
The result was remarkable. The solo rises from the depths of the mix, adding that surreal feeling that would mark the Beatles later work. Consequently, Harrison’s idea would be imitated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Electric Prunes, and it would become a staple of the psychedelic rock acts of the day. Furthermore, showing the groundbreaking nature of Harrison’s idea, the reverse setting can be found on almost every delay and echo pedal on the market today.
7. ‘The Light That Has Lighted The World’- George Harrison (Living in the Material World, 1973)
A much slower, melancholic tune, this composition embodies Harrison’s intelligence as a composer and a guitarist. The solo, which comes in at 1:42, consists of informed note choices which augment the raw emotion conveyed by the rest of the instrumentation. In the closing bars of the solo, Harrison’s guitar sounds as if it is actually crying.
There is not much else to say apart from his playing on this beautiful number is from deep within. Capturing its essence perfectly, Harrison biographer Simon Leng claimed: “George finally made his guitar gently weep.”
6. ‘Learning How To Love You’ – George Harrison (Thirty Three & ⅓, 1976)
From his first Dark Horse Records album Thirty Three & ⅓, ‘Learning How To Love You’ demonstrates Harrison’s technical ability on the six-string. The song was originally written for jazz legend Herb Alpert and is a hazy, late-night ode to love, sounding not too dissimilar to what would become Sade‘s signature sound.
His emotional, acoustic guitar solo floats in at 2:24 and fittingly dances over the rhythm, showing his advanced understanding of music. The solo is as complex as the song’s chord progression and he accurately matches the moving tones of the chords, effectively supporting the vocal melody. The influence of Django Reinhardt permeates ‘Learning How To Love You’. He uses quick, jazzy finger slides reminiscent of the gypsy-jazz pioneer.
Furthermore, Harrison was acutely aware that most music fans generally preferred his chops on ‘Something’ by the Beatles to anything he recorded as a solo artist, simply because ‘Something’ was a Beatles song. However, he always maintained ‘Learning How to Love You’ was on par with the Beatles classic.
5. ‘My Sweet Lord’ – George Harrison (All Things Must Pass 1970)
‘My Sweet Lord’ is more synonymous with George Harrison than anything else. The lead single from All Things Must Pass, it features that classic twin-slide motif and that sublime guitar solo that is possibly the most technically challenging thing Harrison ever recorded. If the album hailed the arrival of George Harrison the slide guitarist, this is the track that truly captures it.
When the solo commences at 2:47, Harrison’s technique is impeccable. He is very tidy in intonation and muting. He also shows his genius by reprising the iconic intro lick a step higher, in F#, highlighted by using his brighter sounding bridge-pickup. The guitar melody is stark and slippery based on major and minor arpeggios, elevating the emotive effect of the vocal melody.
4. ‘Something’ – The Beatles (Abbey Road, 1969)
Finally, we come to the song that Harrison thought everyone preferred to his solo work. The nature of ‘Something’ is ironic, it came from the fractured Beatles environment of ’69 but actually represents Harrison finding his true footing as a songwriter and guitarist. This contribution to Abbey Road ranks among his very finest songs. His guitar here is masterful and sums up his playing on the album. His lead lines are mellifluous and are more expressive than anything he’d done before – demonstrating his newfound confidence as an axe-wielder.
Performed on ‘Lucy’, the 1957 Gibson Les Paul that was gifted to him by Eric Clapton, it is played through a Leslie speaker and musically represents the culmination of all of his influences. He tampers with the song’s temperature through the use of melody and dynamics, cooled down by the restraint of the blues.
Geoff Emerick, who engineered some of the Abbey Road sessions said: “George came into his own on Abbey Road,” he recalled, before adding: “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.”
3. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ – The Beatles (Abbey Road, 1969)
Harrison’s playing on ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is second to none. His jangly chord melody, using a capo on the seventh fret, supports the catchy, syncopated vocal melody. He does this by using what was called, in a highly technical fashion, the “picky-strummy” technique. This would later be employed by Neil Young on ’72’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’.
This involves the pick hand gently swinging back and forth over the strings in a continuous down-up-down movement, like a sideways pendulum. The effect of this was Harrison selectively hitting the strings on various downbeats, making it seem a highly-casual mix of full-chords, two-note clusters and single notes, marking it out as an iconic instrumental performance.
The effect of using the capo on the seventh fret gives it a high register and makes Harrison’s guitar sound as if it were a mandolin – similar to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Furthermore, the arpeggio breaks that punctuate the song after the first verse following the lyric “It’s all right” and during the bridge/interlude section, “sun, sun, sun” are plain genius.
2. ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ – The Beatles (Revolver, 1966)
From the LSD drenched, Beatles middle-period, ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ features beautifully crafted and performed harmony-lead guitar lines. This was so ahead of its time. It would become a pop-rock arranging approach that would be employed by the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy, Boston and even Iron Maiden. Furthermore, this technique can be heard in contemporaries Weezer and The Cribs.
The rapid half and whole-step string bends that Harrison and McCartney utilise just hit the sweet spot. Together they sound as if they had been played by pedal-steel pro native to the deep south. The speed of the riff is also ahead of its time, feeling like a precursor to the speed drenched guitars of the nineties with Swervedriver et al.
1.‘The End’ – The Beatles (Abbey Road, 1969)
An ironically titled song to have in poll position. It is a trade of riffing blows between Harrison, McCartney and Lennon. ‘The End’ presents Harrison’s emotive, thought-out playing at its electrified peak. The song represents the last stand of the Beatles and is straight from the time period where Harrison was coming into his own as a legendary guitarist.
Harrison’s dirty, muscley guitar packs the desired emotional punch, backed up by the prowess of Lennon and McCartney. It also represents all three going back to their Blues roots, the form of music that had inspired them so much as children. Truly showing the nature of Harrison’s amazing guitar work, the song was recorded in one take.