From Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton: George Harrison’s 8 favourite guitarists of all time
George Harrison may well be revered as one quarter of The Beatles, the biggest band the planet has ever witnessed, but what is often overlooked is his incredible guitar playing. Harrison’s unique style, first inspired by the rock and roll of old, then by the spirituality of Indian classical music, Harrison’s performances with the axe are too often forgotten. While he soon became one of the band’s most potent songwriters and would, while out on his solo travels, confirm that point time and again, underneath it all, George Harrison was a guitarist first and foremost.
Though we’ve done our best to highlight his subtle genius, Harrison’s playing comes in second to his songwriting but that didn’t mean he was a player at heart. Like most players who grew up in the fifties and sixties, Harrison loved the blues and his choice of ample players was huge in London’s swinging scene. But, as he was also a founding member of that scene and had his own hand in creating it, it makes a conjuring a list of the Beatle’s favourite guitarists of all time, pretty interesting. Below, we’ve done just that.
It’s a difficult thing to do, narrowing down literally hundreds of incredibly gifted musicians to pick just a handful that represents your favourite. It’s likely why most musicians tend to avoid drawing up such lists, Harrison too, largely refused to answer the question of who his favourite guitarist was. But, when you paw through the countless interviews Harrison gave over the years both with and without The Beatles, there are a few names that surface time and time again. Of course, as one might imagine, Harrison’s list is a little out of left field.
One such notable pick is the singer and all-round musical hero of Harrison’s George Formby. Now, we know what you’re thinking, didn’t he just play the ukulele? You’d be right to assume so and there was plenty of discussion as to whether that qualifies Formby as one of Harrison’s favourite guitarists. However, when you balance the pros and cons, Harrison’s huge devotion to Formby means he simply has to get a mention.
George Formby was a British music hall performer and he routinely used the small instrument as part of his act, which in itself slowly became a worldwide smash. While most of the guitarists on this list would likely snort in derision at being included alongside Formby, there’s no doubt of his importance to Harrison. The former Beatle even became a member of the George Formby Society.
At one such meeting in 1991, Harrison was asked about Formby’s influence on him by the BBC, to which he replied: “The best thing about it for me is that it’s just funny music. It’s very light-hearted and it’ hard to play a ukulele or banjo without smiling, y’know it tends to lighten life up a bit. This is one extreme, The Formby Society, where everybody is thrashing away — that is good fun.” Harrison has been a longtime supporter of the ukelele, often handing them out to his friends and family and providing nearly everyone who graced his residence with their own version of the instrument. A lot of what he thought was great about the small guitar came from Formby.
While other lists we have constructed have largely been dominated by Harrison’s peers and the fact that the ‘All Things Must Pass’ singer was at the forefront of such movement, it means his major influences can be found further back in history. Two such names on the list are the imperious Django Reinhardt and the wildly influential Chet Atkins. Known as ‘Mr Guitar’ it’s hard to imagine a world in which Harrison didn’t think of Atkins as one of the best with his influence being heard across The Beatles early catalogue, especially ‘All My Loving’. Equally, the Belgian jazz guitarist, Reinhardt, was a huge influence on most of the sixties players and Harrison was no different with many suggesting it was the axeman whom he and Paul McCartney first bonded over.
One player who many may not be as known as the others on this list is Robin Nolan. Known as a ‘Gypsy Jazz’ guitarist, in the wake of Reinhardt’s own style, Nolan is rightfully recognised as one of Harrison’s favourite players. “That happened from playing on the street, on the Leidseplein,” Nolan told Westword of how Harrison came to know of his music. “One of his ex-gardeners bought a CD and gave it to George, and then George called me up out of the blue. We played at a Christmas party, and then he loved this kind of music. We used to play together and just hang out at his place. That was awesome. He was very eclectic in his musical tastes. He really dug this kind of stuff.”
A more usual name expected to be seen on these kinds of lists is Carl Perkins. The famed country and western man soon became one of the idols of his day with his honest and authentic music. Much like Johnny Cash, Perkins operated outside the mainstream and so offered a huge dose of inspiration fro bands like The Beatles when they were starting out. When first conducting interviews in America, the band were routinely asked which US act they liked most and the answer invariably went the same way: “In the early days it was Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly. But there’s no one we tried to copy,” replied Harrison to such a question in ’64. Add to this that, in 1985, Harrison joined Perkins and Eric Clapton (more on him later) for a performance of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and you can guess that Harrison was a big fan.
Of course, no list surrounding The Beatles’ inspiration would be complete without mentioning Chuck Berry. The duck-walking granddaddy of rock is more rigorously associated with John Lennon’s major influences, and while that’s certainly correct, Harrison was a massive fan of Berry’s too. Like Keith Richards, Harrison was inspired by Berry’s unstoppable style. The Beatles’ guitarist had often pointed to Berry as one of his favourite artists and with the Fab Four first performing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ as their opening number on their TV debut, it seems only fitting that his name is mentioned in this list.
It leads us nicely onto yet another crucial musician involved in Harrison’s creative and personal life. With that, there’s nobody more important to George Harrison on this list than Eric Clapton. Undoubtedly Harrison’s best friend in music, Clapton not only provided the relief Harrison craved while he was in The Beatles, not only guided him through touring in his time after The Beatles, but he also provided Harrison with some of the most impressive moments of his songwriting career. It is Eric Clapton that can be seen as the major theme running through at least two of George Harrison’s greatest songs for The Beatles.
Both ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ are drenched in Clapton’s work. While the latter song arrived in Harrison’s head after he and Clapton took a break in the country, it’s the former where Slowhand makes the biggest impression. The song features Eric Clapton as a guest artist and the lead guitarist. Though hesitant to be a part of the Beatles-machine at first, Clapton eventually decided to come on board. “I was driving into London with Eric Clapton,” Harrison remembered, “And I said, ‘What are you doing today? Why don’t you come to the studio and play on this song for me?’ He said, ‘Oh, no – I can’t do that. Nobody’s ever played on a Beatles record and the others wouldn’t like it.’ I said, ‘Look, it’s my song and I’d like you to play on it.”
In a 1987 interview with Guitar Player Magazine, Harrison was asked whether it had bruised his ego to ask Clapton to play on the song. “No, my ego would rather have Eric play on it. I’ll tell you, I worked on that song with John, Paul, and Ringo one day, and they were not interested in it at all,” he said. “And I knew inside of me that it was a nice song.” Clapton did play on the tune and turned it into perhaps one of The Beatles greatest ever songs with his searing performance. It’s noted that Harrison regarded Clapton as not only a magnetic performer but also a dearly close friend.
But while there’s plenty of incredible musicians on Harrison’s list, there can only be one true favourite and that has to be Gary Moore. In comparison to some of the names mentioned already in this list, Moore is an unknown. Born in 1952, the Northern Irish musician is one of the finest players to ever come out of the country and begun his career as a teenager in the late ’60s when he joined Skid Row later joining Phil Lynott in Thin Lizzy for a brief stint before rejoining the band some years later.
If Moore was known for any kind of guitar playing it was the heavy rock noise he had created during the early years, not the technical brilliance he had in his locker. Moore was widely described as a virtuoso player, heavily influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and Eric Clapton and often featuring in the list of great players. Bob Geldof said that “without question, [Moore] was one of the great Irish bluesmen”.
When George Harrison was working with The Traveling Wilburys on the song ‘She’s My Baby’, despite being surrounded by huge talent, he found himself stuck with a guitar solo he just couldn’t reach. Much like he had done when struggling with The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, Harrison drafted in a friend, the brilliant Gary Moore, to take on the moniker ‘Ken Wilbury’.
Harrison was taking part in an interview when he was asked about the song and let slip his love for Moore. Asked who played the solo on the record Harrison replied: “That’s Ken Wilbury, I hope he’s listening in. Now, Ken Wilbury, you’re a very naughty boy, you didn’t play on the video, but we love him anyway—he’s an excellent guitar player.” Moore’s alias doesn’t hide Harrison’s admiration, from the Quiet Beatle, this is as good as a badge of honour.
After Moore worked with Harrison and the Wilburys, George stated that Moore was one of “the world’s best guitar players” a famed speed demon on the fretboard, it wasn’t the speed that impressed Harrison but his keen sense of improvisation and underlined melody. “He doesn’t flap around the note like a lot of players,” said Harrison. Considering the company he’s keeping, that’s quite some accolade.
Below, you’ll find the list of George Harrison’s favourite guitarists as well as an introductory playlist so we can all be as clued up as the Quiet Beatle himself.