John Lennon was never the greatest guitar player in The Beatles. When you had both George Harrison and Paul McCartney in your band, there was no need to blow anyone away with flashy licks or fiery lead lines. Instead, Lennon focused on solid rhythm guitar playing, emphasising simplicity and attack in his chords and inversions. He showed off his lead guitar skills on songs like ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Get Back’, but by and large, Lennon was dedicated to his rhythm playing.
Although he became a skilled rhythm guitarist, Lennon soon grew bored of the responsibility. To combat this, he began exploring ways to spice up the role with less-conventional rhythm parts. This is probably best heard in the rapid triplets of ‘All My Loving’, but Lennon himself cited another early-period Beatles track as being the perfect showcase for his non-standard rhythm playing.
“I’d find it a drag to play rhythm all the time, so I always work myself out something interesting to play,” Lennon told Melody Maker in 1964. “The best example I can think of is like I did on ‘You Can’t Do That’. There really isn’t a lead guitarist and a rhythm guitarist on that, because I feel the rhythm guitarist role sounds too thin for records. Anyway it drove me potty to play chunk-chunk rhythm all the time. I never play anything as lead guitarist that George couldn’t do better. But I like playing lead sometimes, so I do it.”
Lennon was specifically inspired by the drive of American R&B on the A Hard Day’s Night album cut. “That’s me doing Wilson Pickett. You know, a cowbell going four in the bar, and the chord going chatoong!” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. R&B records had more prominent and full-sounding instrumentation compared to the sterile pop records that The Beatles’ record company EMI were producing at the time. Along with producer George Martin and engineer Norman Smith, The Beatles sought a way to beef up their sound.
Additional percussion, namely the cowbell in ‘You Can’t Do That’, helped to widen the scope of The Beatles’ arrangements, but Lennon also opted to expand the role of the rhythm guitar. While Harrison plucks away at the song’s central riff on his Rickenbacker 12 string, Lennon plays a jumpy rhythm part and takes a crack at the song’s solo, bringing a twangy spontaneity and ragged intensity to the final recording.
Check out ‘You Can’t Do That’ down below.