Paul McCartney was a versatile musician. Nominally The Beatles‘ bass player, McCartney also shared lead vocal duties, hopped over to the piano, added tape effects, blared out some trumpet, and briefly stepped in behind the drum stool on a few notable occasions. But McCartney’s first love was the guitar, an instrument that he still favours to this day.
Even before The Beatles became a studio-only band, McCartney began to contribute guitar lines to the band’s catalogue. Although credited with acoustic guitar in the liner notes to Beatles For Sale, the first verifiable contributions from McCartney as a six-string player came on Help!, with the bass guitarist providing the lead lines for songs like ‘The Night Before’, ‘Another Girl’, the ending solo on ‘Ticket to Ride’, and the acoustic strums of ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ and ‘Yesterday’.
By the time the band arrived at Rubber Soul, McCartney was frequently overdubbing guitar lines to give the band a newfound three-guitar attack. His solos and lead lines began to add a unique flavour to the arrangements of songs, acting as a sort of middle ground between Harrison’s fluid and dynamic leads and Lennon’s ragged and primal slashes. McCartney had an edge, but also a keen sense of melody, finding the centre in all of his lead lines.
Since he only started playing electric guitar live during his solo career after Wings, only the most devoted of album-note nerds could decipher just how prominent McCartney’s guitar playing is to some of The Beatles’ best songs. Now that the internet makes this information handy, McCartney is getting some renewed respect for the instrument he originally trained on. We’ve compiled five of McCartney’s best, most important, and most impressive guitar contributions to The Beatles catalogue here.
Some are impressive lead lines, some are brief solos, some are just rhythmic acoustic strums, but all are foundational to McCartney’s legendary prowess and a six-string legend.
Paul McCartney’s best Beatles guitar songs:
It’s worth mentioning right away that this is McCartney’s least impressive and least accomplished acoustic guitar figure. When The Beatles befriended British folk icon Donovan, he taught Lennon and McCartney his Travis Picking technique that they subsequently utilised on songs like ‘Julia’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. ‘Blackbird’ is perhaps McCartney’s finest moment on acoustic, but ‘Yesterday’ was the precursor to them all. None of those songs would exist without yesterday.
McCartney’s fingerpicking technique on ‘Yesterday’ is fairly rudimentary, but it serves to propel the song forward and keep a steady beat for the strings to float over.
McCartney set a lot of precedents with his playing on ‘Yesterday’, not only for playing the guitar but for playing without any of his other bandmates on a song. It would not be the last time McCartney recorded a track solo.
‘Drive My Car’
McCartney staged another coup on ‘Drive My Car’ by taking up the role of musical arranger and handling most of the instrumentation himself. Ringo Starr still got to play the drums, but McCartney dictated to George Harrison what he should be playing on electric guitar — a line that closely mirrored his bass playing. He completely took the guitar away from Lennon, leaving him just a tambourine to contribute outside of their shared lead vocal (of which McCartney easily overpowers him in the mix).
It’s hard to fault him when you hear the result: a high energy rocker that adds stinging opening guitar and a solo showing off the kinds of bends and fluid ascending lines that would become McCartney’s signature. But ‘Drive My Car’ also became an important precursor to the overbearing approach that McCartney would take as the band became a studio-only entity.
If ‘Drive My Car’ found McCartney flirting with edgy bends and classical Indian influences, ‘Taxman’ was the song where he fully embraced them. Unlike ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Taxman’ was largely a Harrison production, with the guitarist taking on most of the six-string work throughout his composition. However, Harrison didn’t have any ego when it came to who played the solo, and so McCartney stepped up to provide the searing guitar line.
“I was pleased to have him play that bit on ‘Taxman’,” Harrison recalled later. “If you notice, he did like a little Indian bit on it for me.” With a ton of fuzz and just the right amount of aggression, McCartney blew the doors open to a heavier, more experimental sound that was almost port-metal. The group liked the solo so much that they sliced it onto the song’s fadeout as well, making it an essential part of the classic arrangement.
McCartney would explore heaviness to a greater extent in just a few short years.
‘Good Morning, Good Morning’
Once again stepping into his role as a hired gun, McCartney makes a strong case for himself taking on an alternate career path as a session musician on ‘Good Morning Good Morning’. Complementing Lennon’s psychedelic take on everyday minutia, McCartney a lead solo that practically explodes out of the speaker.
Just like his work on ‘Taxman’, his lead contributions are brief but essential, riding the line between contained fury and reckless abandon. McCartney excelled at those guitar solos that largely disposed of coherent rhythm and structure, instead simply going for it in a Gonzo fashion that is almost impossible to replicate.
Lennon himself might have been down on the song, but McCartney does a wonderful job of elevating the track with a perfectly simpatico solo.
The original heavy metal track, McCartney famously sought out a challenge from The Who’s Pete Townshend on ‘Helter Skelter’, who told a reporter that the band’s new single ‘I Can See For Miles’ was the loudest and dirtiest song the band had ever recorded. McCartney wanted a piece of that action and decided to turn his previously bluesy dirge into a frenetic freak out.
Even by the modern standards of heavy rock music, ‘Helter Skelter’ retains a manic edge that few other songs can touch. McCartney and Harrison trade lead lines like a couple of escaped mental patients, with McCartney’s bends and runs never sounding more diabolical. Even when he’s just playing rhythm, McCartney is completely unhinged, attacking his guitar like it’s a feral animal that needs to be put down.
McCartney likes to cite ‘Helter Skelter’ whenever he’s accused of being a twee balladeer, and it’s hard to argue with the completely frenzied results he and the band get.