Paul McCartney was a guitar player first and foremost. Although his first instrument was actually the family piano, it was only after he traded in a birthday gift of a trumpet as a young teenager for a guitar that McCartney started taking music seriously. This period coincided with a few notable events, most importantly the incoming popularity of rock and roll music and his friendship with a young schoolmate named George Harrison.
By the time he was 16, McCartney had met John Lennon and impressed him enough with his guitar skill that he got offered a place in Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen. McCartney subsequently brought in Harrison, and the groundwork for what would eventually become The Beatles was born. By the time they solidified their lineup in Hamburg, Germany, also along for the ride were drummer Pete Best and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.
During their Hamburg days, McCartney occasionally played guitar but often had difficulty finding a suitable instrument or a spare amplifier to plug into. Instead, McCartney often sat at pianos that were littered across the bars and speakeasies at which The Beatles frequently played. There were even periods when McCartney played drums with the band when Best was ill or out of commission.
But McCartney still considered himself a guitar player. That was always meant to be his role in the band until Sutcliffe surprised the other members by quitting the group. Sutcliffe’s skills on the bass were rudimentary at best, but they had improved enough to keep up with the rest of the group on their rock and roll covers throughout the end of his tenure in The Beatles. With Sutcliffe’s departure, the need for a bassist was immediate. Lennon refused and Harrison had already locked down the role of lead guitarist, so McCartney was forced to pick up the bass.
That’s all he played on the first three Beatles records, apart from an occasional overdubbed piano part or percussion line. McCartney still composed songs on guitar and played the instrument frequently while fleshing out arrangements, but when the red light came on in the studio, he was still being relegated to the bass. That was until Beatles for Sale, when McCartney got his first opportunity to play guitar on record.
‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ was one of the earliest songs that McCartney had ever written. “I wrote that in my front parlour in Forthlin Road. I was about 16,” McCartney later explained. “’I’ll Follow the Sun’ was one of those very early ones. I seem to remember writing it just after I’d had the flu and I had that cigarette. I remember standing in the parlour, with my guitar, looking out through the lace curtains of the window, and writing that one.”
It was a rare Beatles recording that had no recorded bass part. Lennon doesn’t even play an instrument on the track, providing only overdubbed harmony vocals. This was during the infamous session where The Beatles recorded eight songs in one day, so it makes sense that not a lot of time was spent trying to perfect the song or fine-tune the arrangement.
Following this recording, McCartney increasingly got the chance to perform guitar in sessions. At first, it was just another acoustic performance on ‘Yesterday’, but that soon blossomed into lead guitar parts for songs like ‘Another Girl’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Taxman’ and ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. When The Beatles retired from the road permanently in 1966, McCartney could suddenly play as many instruments on recordings as he wished without having to worry about recreating them live. The guitar player was now back on the guitar, with McCartney recording guitar for nearly every album he played on for the rest of his career.