No matter who you are, no matter where you are, you can hum a George Harrison guitar line. Harrison was one of the few musicians in the world who could simply conjure up magic like it was nothing: the solo for ‘All My Loving’, the opening riff of ‘And I Love Her’, the central line to ‘Ticket to Ride’, the swooning slide part for ‘My Sweet Lord’. They all seem to have emanated out of the ether, just waiting to be placed in their songs.
Despite being one of the most highly regarded guitar players of all time, Harrison was remarkably resistant to flash or histrionics. Instead, an innate sense of melody was what drove him to great heights. Memorability was the main goal, and with every addition that he made to The Beatles catalogue, Harrison helped secure their place as the biggest band of all time. This was all without any fretboard fireworks or highly-technical show-off spots. When it was time to play, Harrison spent every note like it was valued currency.
To start playing like George Harrison, you have to first appreciate where he came from. That’s both the industrial streets of Liverpool, where a boom in skiffle music coincided with a young Harrison’s interest in the guitar, but also influences that he was taking in that mostly came from 1950s American artists. “George knew every obscure Elvis solo,” Tom Petty remembered. “His initial influences were rockabilly – Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore – but he always added something to it.”
That signature twang is a good place to start, and it can be heard all over The Beatles material. Especially on the group’s early material, like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, Harrison is building a bridge between the worlds of rock and roll and rockabilly. He also found a strong foundation in the lead guitar style of Chuck Berry, utilising his immediately recognisable runs in songs like ‘I’m Down’ and the band’s cover of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.
But Harrison was more than just a copycat. His lead lines for songs like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Every Little Thing’ are entire hooks onto themselves, and while they might recall the sounds of the past, they remain unmistakably Harrison. That also includes his innovations on the twelve-string Rickenbacker, which is essential for replicating Harrison’s signature sound.
When collecting equipment to emulate Harrison, there is a single amp-instrument combo that is essential: the Vox amp and the Rickenbacker 360/12. The Beatles had an exclusive partnership with Vox, who gifted the band with everything from amplifiers to Continental electric keyboards. Harrison most commonly used an AC30 and UL730 when in the studio, but an AC100 that was as tall as Harrison became a necessity when playing live in order to be heard over the screaming crowds.
The bright punch of Vox amps paired perfectly with the chime of the Rickenbacker. Used all over A Hard Day’s Night, this is the one sound that became forever associated with both Harrison and The Beatles. But as the group evolved past their initial mop-top phase, Harrison felt a strong need to grow and bring in new sounds. Although Vox amps were still being used through the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s, Fender Twin Reverbs became the go-to amps for the band during the latter part of their career, as can be seen in The Beatles: Get Back.
The switch to Fender wasn’t just for amps. In 1965, Harrison obtained a sky blue Fender Stratocaster, which can be heard on middle-period tracks like ‘Nowhere Man’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’. With refined gear came new techniques to play with: harmonics and octave runs began to come into play, opening up new sonic possibilities as The Beatles began using more sophisticated recording techniques. Harrison was never afraid to use new equipment to create new sounds: a Leslie speaker to replicate the underwater feeling on ‘Octopus’s Garden’, fuzz tones to make the roar of ‘Helter Skelter’ even more frantic, or volume pedals to swell in and out of songs like ‘Yes It Is’ and ‘I Need You’.
But for the most part, Harrison didn’t bother too much with effects or amp combinations. His biggest leap in sound came when he befriended guitarist Delaney Bramlett in the late ’60s. As a blues devotee, Bramlett taught Harrison a new technique that would also become a signature sound: slide guitar. Armed with this new ability, Harrison never stopped using it – songs like ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Isn’t it a Pity’ from his solo career, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ from John Lennon’s Imagine, and ‘Handle With Care’ for The Traveling Wilburys all contain the slide. Harrison even brought it back during the recording of ‘Free As A Bird’ for the Anthology series, showing how closely he was associated with the technique.
While Harrison never shredded, tapped, blew up amps, or smashed guitars, the impact that he made on all players who followed was massive. Through his iconic solos on ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Something’, Harrison made a mark on everyone from Andy Summers to Joe Bonamassa. His ability to always find the right notes left impressions on even those closest to him, with friends like Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne continuing to marvel at his abilities years later.
But if you want to play like George Harrison, the greatest asset to be had is to find your place in the song. Before he was a songwriter, Harrison was polishing songs with the perfect piece of accompaniment: a guitar solo that could be a hook all its own, a riff that could define a composition’s direction, a jump from electric to acoustic to change a song’s style, or putting a capo up on the neck to utilise new tones. As Harrison came into his own, he never forgot that guitar could catch the ear like nothing else, and he came back to it after his dalliances with everything from the sitar to the ukulele.
It helps to listen to rockabilly and skiffle, or to master techniques like high string bends and slide guitar, or to pick up equipment like Vox amps and Rickenbacker guitars. But in order to play the guitar like George Harrison, you have to give yourself over to the music. Tom Petty probably summed it up best: “The Beatles song ‘You Can’t Do That’ came on, with that great riff in the beginning on the 12-string. He goes, ‘I came up with that.’ And I said, ‘Really? How?’ He said, ‘I was just standing there and thought, ‘I’ve got to do something!’ That pretty much sums him up. He just had a way of getting right to the business, of finding the right thing to play. That was part of that Beatles magic – they all seemed to find the right thing to play”.