The guitar prowess of John Lennon is one of the most underrated aspects to one of the world’s most highly rated musicians. Sure, he had a great voice, a knack for funny quips, and top-shelf songwriting talent, but Lennon’s guitar contributions often go unheralded. Most of the time it’s simply a pleasant surprise when it gets pointed out that Lennon played lead guitar on ‘Get Back’ or ‘Revolution’.
But even his rhythm playing in The Beatles’ earliest days was praiseworthy. The rapid-fire triplets of ‘All My Loving’, the insistent chug of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and the swirling acoustic guitar of ‘This Boy’ all elevate their respective songs beyond simple background chords. Lennon occupied his own sonic space, and he knew how to make the most out of the least.
At least part of his signature rhythm style can be attributed to his guitar of choice, the Rickenbacker 325. Early on in his playing days, Lennon had to make do with budget guitars: the Dallas Tuxedo, the Hofner Club 40, the Hofner Senator. These relatively cheap and easy to find models were necessities for a young band with little income, but when The Beatles began playing for multiple hours a night at Hamburg clubs, Lennon needed something more sturdy.
Every young musician in England wanted the guitars of their heroes: Buddy Holly’s Fender Stratocaster, Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES-350TN, Chet Atkins’ Gretsch Country Gentleman. The only problem was that, for much of the 1950s, an embargo on American made musical instruments meant that these guitars were out of reach. Instead, approximations from companies like Hofner had to be used. Despite being an American company, Rickenbacker managed to get a few guitars across the Atlantic, and a strange-looking guitar eventually landed in a German shop that Lennon happened to be visiting when The Beatles first arrived in Hamburg in 1960.
The strangest part of the guitar’s design was just how small its neck was. Roughly 3/4ths the size of a standard guitar neck, Lennon had greater access to the chunky rock and roll patterns that were favoured by the group in their early days. Tracks like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Twist and Shout’, and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ benefitted from the smaller design, and Lennon developed a signature style from the compact neck length.
On a purely aesthetic level, the Rickenbacker was also distinctive. The axe wasn’t popular, and it’s said that only 28 models of the 325 left the Rickenbacker factory in 1958, most of which were stranded on store shelves. The second that Lennon appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with the guitar, that all changed. Rickenbacker became a hot commodity, with the company forging a strong allegiance with The Beatles, providing guitars and basses to George Harrison and Paul McCartney that would go on to define the band’s sound.
More than anything else, the 325 allowed Lennon to make the jump from amateur musician to professional. The Rickenbacker survived endless shows in Hamburg and was still sturdy enough to be played by Lennon all the way through 1964. Even when the original was retired, Lennon’s next three electric guitars would all be different 325 models. It was a comfort zone that Lennon only broke out of towards the end of The Beatles touring years, but by that point, the 325 was emblematic of Lennon during the band’s most Fab years.