Paul McCartney’s guitar style cultivates the methods of his heroes, skills that he has moulded together to create a unique sound and forge a career like no other. While his effortless songwriting talents will be McCartney’s lasting legacy, his guitar playing is another admirable asset, one which finds itself overlooked due to his extraordinary success in other areas.
Despite his relentless chart-topping material propping up popular music as we know it, McCartney has never found himself in the conversation for the greatest artists to ever pick up a four-string — but what he did with the instrument was revolutionary. Along with Ringo Starr, he formed a world-beating rhythm section that was up there with the best of them and provided us with some of the most pulsating sounds known to man.
Originally, McCartney didn’t join The Beatles as a bass player and only started on the instrument after Stuart Sutcliffe left the band. Unfortunately for McCartney, he pulled the short straw, and he had to swap his six-string dreams behind to take one for the team as George Harrison led the way.
“None of us wanted to be the bass player,” McCartney explained in a 1995 interview with Bass Player. “It wasn’t the number one job; we wanted to be upfront. In our minds, it was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be upfront singing, looking good, to pull the birds.”
During his formative years, Chet Atkins played a pivotal role in helping McCartney discover his own style of playing, accompanying the young hopeful musician as he figured out the kind of guitarist he wanted to be. Even though Atkins wasn’t a bassist, through him, Macca learned the art of fingerpicking, which would eventually pay dividends when he switched instruments.
“Well, my interest in fingerpicking came from Chet Atkins,” McCartney admitted to Classic Rock in 2007. “I remember a lot of us tried to learn ‘Trambone’, an instrumental that’s on an album of his called Down Home. Otherwise I loved Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and [skiffle great] Lonnie Donegan’s guitarist, Denny Wright, who was fantastic. I liked acoustic folk playing by Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.”
His love of Atkins even directly inspired The Beatles’ Rubber Soul effort ‘Michelle’, which McCartney revealed in Barry Miles’ biography Many Years From Now: “‘Michelle’ was a tune that I’d written in Chet Atkins’ finger-pickin’ style. There is a song he did called ‘Trambone’ with a repetitive top line, and he played a bass line whilst playing a melody,” he said.
Adding: “This was an innovation for us; even though classical guitarists had played it, no rock ‘n’ roll guitarists had… Based on Atkins’ ‘Trambone’, I wanted to write something with a melody and a bass line on it, so I did. I just had it as an instrumental in C.”
In 1966, Atkins dedicated his 28th studio album to the Fab Four. His record, Picks on the Beatles, captured the guitarist taking on 12 different Beatles efforts, which included the aforementioned ‘Michelle’. Of course, it is not easy to know if Atkins was aware of the fact that, without him, the song would not have the same success. That said, I have my suspicions that he was quietly aware of how influential his work was in helping The Beatles form their sound.