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Watch Ravi Shankar teach George Harrison sitar in 1968


George Harrison had a relatively short journey to find classical Indian music. Without ever knowing the form for his first 22 years in the material world, Harrison suddenly got a large dose of the raga in 1965.

While filming Help! in April of 1965, Harrison came across the sitar thanks to a hired Indian band that was in the background of one of the film’s scenes. Harrison’s curiosity was piqued, but it was only after David Crosby engaged Harrison with the works of Ravi Shankar during The Beatles’ American tour in August of that year that The Beatles guitarist truly began seeking out the form.

“Ravi Shankar was the first person who ever impressed me in my life,” Harrison said in archival interview soundbites from the Martin Scorsese documentary Living in the Material World. “He was the only person who didn’t try to impress me.” Instead, Harrison found Shankar’s mastery of the instrument, directly connected to his religious and philosophical devotion, to be a completely new avenue for artistic expression. No longer wishing to be “fab”, Harrison decided to learn how to play the sitar.

Harrison had fumbled around with the instrument in order to play the notes for ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, but amateur note picking wasn’t what Harrison had in mind. Instead, he asked Shankar to teach him how to properly play the instrument. It was an atypical request, but Shankar saw the dedication that lad from Liverpool was willing to provide to his studies and accepted him as a student.

From September to October 1966, Harrison spent six weeks in India studying with Shankar and his protege Shambhu Das. Before this, Harrison had already remarkably improved his technique and understanding of the instrument, as demonstrated on the Revolver track ‘Love You To’. But his studies with Shankar gave Harrison a greater understanding of working outside the traditional western musical form. Classical Indian music often contained drones and rarely utilised chord changes. Harrison took these lessons and sought to employ them in his own songs, beginning with his contribution to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, ‘Within You Without You’.

Harrison continued to study with Shankar off and on until 1968. During that time, he often composed on keyboards instead of guitar, having grown disillusioned with the instrument. It was only after he had been playing the sitar for two years that Harrison decided he was never going to truly master the instrument, and while he retained his friendship with Shankar and continued to practice Hinduism for the rest of his life, Harrison returned to the guitar as his main instrument.

Watch Harrison and Shankar during a sitar lesson in 1968 down below.