There are some musicians who are able to speak through their instruments; George Harrison was one such musician. Always regarded as the shy counterpoint to Lennon and McCartney, when it came to playing the guitar, Harrison shouted louder than all the rest. His obsession with the electric guitar started in childhood when he would doodle Gretsch hollow bodies in his school exercise books.
His style is perhaps the most individualistic aspect of The Beatles. It is also the most elusive. Whilst many musicians have succeeded in replicating Paul McCartney’s bass sound, John Lennon’s vocals, and Ringo Starr’s drum solos, no one has come close to capturing the tactile and subtly virtuosic style of George Harrison.
According to his son Dhani, Harrison’s style was largely the product of a surprising lack of confidence. In an interview, Dhani once recalled: “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear.’ He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what’s left’.”
As a result, Harrison’s guitar solos and lead lines fill out the blank patches of the sonic landscape with a rich and vibrant colour. It’s no wonder Harrison became so obsessed with classical Indian music. Similarly to his tutor, Ravi Shankar, Harrison treated his musicianship like a game of chess. For Harrison, it was a game in which each move had to be made in reaction to that which had preceded it. Below, we’ll look at some of George Harrison’s best guitar solos of all time, with and without The Beatles.
George Harrison’s six best guitar solos:
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964)
The iconic opening chord played on Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker 360 is enough to cement this song’s place on the list. But it’s Harrison’s double-tracked guitar solo towards the end of the track which really shoots the song into the stratosphere.
It might be short, but the solo is an absolute masterclass in precision. Harrison’s circular melody is the crowning glory of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but it took time to get right. Harrison struggled with the solo for so long that The Beatles nearly considered getting Paul to play it. Luckily, Harrison worked on the solo and eventually bought it to producer George Martin who was so pleased with the result that he decided to layer it with an identical piano line played by his own fair hand.
‘Old Brown Shoe’ (1969)
One of Harrison’s most technically challenging solos, his rip-roaring guitar line in the middle of ‘Old Brown Shoe’ showcases his stunning virtuosity. Interestingly, Harrison initially wrote the song on the piano before moving on to the guitar. This might be why the track’s rhythm is reminiscent of the honky-tonk style of piano playing common in ska music.
Although hidden away on the B-side of ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, the solo on ‘Old Brown Shoe’ is perhaps one of Harrison’s most raucous. It is infused with a furious blues drive, helped by the distortion pedal which Harrison employs to great effect.
‘Beware Of Darkness’ (1970)
The solo in this track from Harrison’s seminal solo album is proof of Harrison’s knack for choosing precisely the right notes in precisely the right order. Whilst it isn’t the flashiest solo on this list, it is perhaps the most characteristic of Harrison’s style.
Making heavy use of the slide, the influence of Ravi Shankar is clear in this solo. Harrison moves fluidly between notes in a strikingly melodic yet ambient style, adding to the song’s meditative quality.
‘How Do You Sleep?’ (1971)
Whatever you think of the lyrics, musically, this track is simply astonishing. Recorded with the help of George Harrison during a brief hiatus preceding The Beatles breakup, ‘How Do You Sleep’ comes from John Lennon’s Imagine album.
Harrison’s solo in the middle of the song is often overlooked, but it’s the absolute pinnacle of the track. The quiet aggression behind Harrison’s solo may have been encouraged by his attitude towards Paul at the time. Being away from the all-consuming ego of McCartney allowed Harrison to transform his feelings of frustration into one of the most rhythmically complex and intricate solos of his career.
‘I’m Only Sleeping’ (1966)
Written by a particularly dozy John Lennon for The Beatles’ 1966 studio album Revolver, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ features one of Harrison’s best reverse guitar solos of all time. It came about by accident when a studio technician played a tape backwards by mistake. Every Beatle in attendance loved the sound, and so George laid down one of his first reversed solos.
Instead of simply reversing a pre-recorded take, George wrote a normal solo and retraced his steps from the end to the beginning. But he didn’t get far after a few hours. As studio engineer Geoff Emerick remembered, it was this moment that the band decided to take a different approach: “So it was with great trepidation that we all settled in for what turned out to be an interminable day of listening to the same eight bars played backwards over and over and over again.” By the time they finished, nine hours had passed.
‘Let It Be’ (1970)
Although the production of The Beatles’ final album was a tense process, Harrison still managed to provide one of the best solos of his career for its title track, or should that be two of the greatest solos? There are actually two separate versions of ‘Let It Be’. One was released as a single on March 6, 1970, and the other appeared just under three weeks later on the album of the same name.
Whilst both start from the same take, they contain completely different solos. This was a consequence of the band having to return to the studio to put the finishing touches on the album, even though they were practically broken up. The opportunity allowed Harrison to re-record a solo he’d never been entirely happy with. Whilst the original solo was recorded by feeding Harrison’s beloved Telecaster through a Leslie speaker, Harrison used ‘Lucy’, his Les Paul Standard for the second solo.