“I Saw Her Standing There”
George Harrison’s immense contribution to rock & roll guitar starts here. Half of the single (with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) that fired the Beatles to Number One in America in February 1964, “I Saw Her Standing There” features Harrison’s first guitar solo on an official Beatles release, recorded on February 11th, 1963, during the daylong session that yielded the bulk of the British LP Please Please Me. Harrison’s tightly wound phrases are dunked in cavelike echo and set in a growling register, an ingenious contrast to the high-pitched vocals of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“She Loves You”
Harrison’s Gretsch Country Gentleman punctuates the frantic vocal magic with big, rippled chords and choked-riff interjections bearing strong traces of Chuck Berry. Harrison’s most memorable contribution, however, is his closing chord, played under the last “Yeah!” Producer George Martin recalled hearing the Beatles run through the song on acoustic guitars at the July 1st, 1963, session: “I thought it was great but was intrigued by the final chord, an odd sort of major sixth … like a Glenn Miller arrangement.” It became the unorthodox icing on the Beatles’ first million-selling single.
“Don’t Bother Me”
The first Harrison song to appear on a Beatles album – With the Beatles in Britain; 1964’s Meet the Beatles in America – is also Harrison’s first song about suffocating celebrity. Written on tour in August 1963, while Harrison was bedridden with illness in a hotel, “Don’t Bother Me” is, on the surface, about getting over a departed lover. But Harrison italicizes his real sense of loss (“I know I’ll never be the same”) with a brief fierce solo that sounds like he’s spitting nails through his guitar.
“Can’t Buy Me Love”
The Beatles rushed through “Can’t Buy Me Love” in a Paris studio on January 29th, 1964, on a day off of sorts from a three-week grind of shows at the city’s Olympia Theater. Harrison added his guitar solo a month later, on February 25th, at EMI’s Abbey Road studios. He repeatedly spears the same note. But double-tracking, with one take a hair out of phase with the other, gives the break a unique watery quality, as if it’s coming from a wobbly old Sun Records 45.
“A Hard Day’s Night”
Outtakes of the Beatles working on the title song from their first feature film show Harrison fighting his way to excellence: jabbing at half-formed ideas, even fumbling notes, on his twelve-string Rickenbacker. But by 10 P.M. on April 16th, 1964, after a three-hour session at Abbey Road, Harrison had made this Lennon-written raver his own: with his harmonic rain in the opening chord; the pearly ring of his guitar in the circular fade-out; and that solo, an ascending run of notes with a runaround flourish, doubled on piano by George Martin.
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”
The Beatles covered more songs by Carl Perkins than by any other artist, and they played this Harrison vocal specialty – taken from Perkins’ 1958 Sun LP, Dance Album for Carl Perkins – the most, from 1961 to 1965. Skip the one-take version on Beatles for Sale. The November ’64 blitz on Live at the BBC finds Harrison emulating Perkins, his top guitar hero, with concentrated flair. Harrison packs his Tennessee-farmhouse picking with Merseyside snarl, and the tumble of chords at the end of his first solo is a minimalist thrill.
“Yes It Is”
A year before the Beatles uncorked the mind-bending wonders of backward-tape recording, Harrison fell in love with the reverselike sustain of the volume pedal, a kind of proto wah-wah. He got that sound manually on 1964’s “Baby’s in Black”; Lennon turned the volume knob on Harrison’s Gretsch Tennessean as he played. Harrison employed an actual pedal on his own “I Need You” in February 1965, then used it again the very next day on “Yes It Is,” putting a subtle Nashville spin on Lennon’s ballad with gentle sobs of pedal-steel-like guitar – three years before the advent of country rock.
“The lyric was as good then as it is now,” Lennon said of “Help!” in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “It was just me singing help, and I meant it.” The title song of the Beatles’ second movie was bristling autobiography, but Harrison’s guitar fills in the chorus, appended to the twelfth and final take on April 13th, 1965, answer Lennon’s desperation with reverberant elegance: booming triplets that hang in the mix like heavy beads of sweat, followed by a warm spray of arpeggios that bathe the song in rays of hope.
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
Harrison discovered the sitar in the spring of 1965 while shooting a scene in Help! with several Indian musicians. By mid-October, he was playing a sitar on this Rubber Soul waltz. His part merely echoes Lennon’s vocal melody. But with this self-taught performance, Harrison introduced the instrument to the Beatles’ audience while initiating his own lifelong passion for the sitar and its twentieth-century master, Ravi Shankar. The Beatles recorded the song at the first Rubber Soul session on October 12th but redid it on October 21st because of difficulties in capturing the sitar’s sharp, buzzing timbre on tape.
“Drive My Car”
This song is notable for two things: It was recorded at the first Beatles session to run past midnight (12:15 A.M. on October 14th, 1965); graveyard shifts would be the norm after this. Also, “Drive My Car” is as tight in its lock-step rhythm as anything that came out of Motown or Memphis that year. The Rolling Stones were considered the blacker band for their blues chops, but the doubling here of McCartney’s bass and Harrison’s throaty guitar shows the heavy soul in the Beatles’ sound. The rubbery whine of Harrison’s solo implies that he played it with a beer-bottle neck; actually, it was a tape-speed trick.
“If I Needed Someone”
In 1964, Byrds guitarist Jim McGuinn – now Roger – bought a twelve-string Ricken-backer after seeing Harrison play one in A Hard Day’s Night. By 1965, the Byrds were the Beatles’ first serious American competition; the bands were also friends and an inspiration to each other. For this folk-rock diamond, recorded in October 1965, Harrison adapted his riff from McGuinn’s lick in the Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney,” then sent the Byrds an advance copy of the track with a thank-you note: “This is for Jim.”
The unison chime of Fender Stratocasters, played by Harrison and Lennon, provides the sunshine in this confessional gem, written by Lennon in the third person about his own frustrations with Beatle life. Harrison had craved a Strat for years; he nearly bought one in Hamburg in 1962 but was beaten to it by a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Harrison finally got a Strat in ’65 and started playing it all over Beatles recordings. The melody in this break is surely a Harrison invention; it has his mark of luxuriant pith. Note, too, the glassy class of his single harmonic ping at the end.
“And Your Bird Can Sing”
The Beatles first attempted this Revolver number on April 20th, 1966, then entirely recut it on April 26th. The difficulty the band had in establishing a balance between the song’s folk-rock air and its brusque lead guitars was evident in Lennon’s droll count-off at the start of the second session: “OK, boys, quite brisk, moderato, fox trot.” Nevertheless, Harrison navigates his harmonized, rococo guitar vamp with breezy aplomb.
Harrison landed the plum spot on Revolver – Side One, Track One – with this sarcastic rebuttal to British tax rates. And rightly so: Harrison’s psych-garage cruncher is a crucial, often overlooked bridge between the Beatles’ straight quartet sound and their first dives into LSD-fried pop. McCartney plays the screeching-raga guitar solo, but the eccentric force of the song is in Harrison’s hydraulic-R&B rhythm guitar, which future mods the Jam hijacked with love for their 1980 U.K. hit “Start!”
“I’m Only Sleeping”
To Harrison, psychedelic guitar was not just a matter of peeling off a wigged-out solo and running the tape backward to approximate the mystical whoosh of the acid state. For this Lennon meditation on somnolent bliss, created over four days for Revolver, Harrison spent the third – May 5th, 1966, from 9:30 P.M. until three the next morning – composing a solo he literally recorded backward, playing George Martin’s reverse transcription of the notes. The tape was then run backward, or forward in the case of the solo itself. Harrison actually taped two solos, superimposed on each other for extra-drowsy effect.
“Within You Without You”
“Forget the Indian music and listen to the melody,” McCartney once remarked about another Harrison Indo-pop song, “The Inner Light.” The same should be said of Harrison’s sole composition on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his purest excursion on a Beatles record into raga. Harrison’s sitar solo in the middle actually sings and swings with the clarity and phrasing of his best rockabilly-fired guitar work. The entire song, in fact, can be played on the guitar with transportive force: Sonic Youth recorded an impressive version for a 1988 Sgt. Pepper tribute album.
“It’s All Too Much”
Written by Harrison while flying on LSD, this psychedelic romp – vocal and instrumental anarchy atop a pulsing drone – evolved over three days as the Beatles rush-recorded new songs in the late spring of ’67 for the cartoon fable Yellow Submarine. “George Harrison was in charge of the session,” recalled trumpeter David Mason, who played on the track. “I don’t think he really knew what he wanted.” Harrison just piled on a feast of distorted Harrison-Lennon guitars and long peals of feedback clearly inspired by Britain’s overnight sensation of that season: Jimi Hendrix.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”
The Beatles spent two days – June 26th and 27th, 1968 – on this White Album explosion of blistering guitars and barking vocals. And that was just to get the rhythm track right. The song is a Lennon salute to the joys of 1950s rock & roll animalism. But its locomotive heart is Harrison’s whirl-around guitar figure, played with ferocious attitude against Lennon’s crisp strum and the incessant clang of a hand bell.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
Eric Clapton played the magnificently pained electric solo on the White Album reading of this doleful classic; Harrison plays only acoustic guitar. He first taped the song, however, as a solo demo (with discreet McCartney organ) on July 25th, 1968. Available on Anthology 3 with an extra verse that didn’t make it to the White Album, that performance has its own heart-stopping melancholy – a whispered admission of distress by a man who identifies so closely with his instrument that it shares his hurt.
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
The Beatles’ first stab at Lennon’s half-Latin, half-metal blues took place at their own Apple Studios on January 29th, 1969, the day before their performance on Apple’s rooftop. But Harrison and Lennon didn’t pour on their guitars until early on April 19th, back at Abbey Road. Harrison contributes the cat’s-meow fills and chiming arpeggios. The huge fun, though, is in hearing so much Lennon-and-Harrison guitar at once amid the white noise from Harrison’s Moog synthesizer – played by Lennon.
Lennon said this Harrison ballad was the best song on Abbey Road. Much of its majesty comes from the way Harrison colors his sentiments with rapturous guitars. The arrangement, developed between February and August 1969, is a tribute to Harrison’s orchestral gifts – and perfectionist streak. Rejecting a previous solo, he cut another at the last session on August 15th, live with the strings. His blend of bluesy grace and concise melody was “almost the same solo [as before] – note for note,” says engineer Geoff Emerick. “The only reason I feel he wanted to redo it was emotion.”
“I Me Mine”
“It’s about the ego, the eternal problem,” Harrison said of his song, the last new number recorded by the Beatles – on January 3rd, 1970 – before their breakup in April. Only three Beatles showed up for work; Lennon was vacationing in Denmark. There wasn’t much of a song, either: a mix of waltz-tempo and hot-boogie segments, running a minute and a half. (Producer Phil Spector stretched the track by repeating the first verse.) But Harrison signed off in style; his angry, grinding guitar is the honest sound of exhaustion and hard-won freedom.
“My Sweet Lord”
The emphasis on prayer and transcendence in Harrison’s solo records – particularly on this Number One single from his 1970 debut, All Things Must Pass – obscures the pivotal subtlety of his guitar playing. In 1971, Harrison was accused of cribbing three notes from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord.” (He lost the case in 1976.) Yet the defining charm of Harrison’s hit is his silvery shots of dobrolike guitar, which pierce the creamy grandeur of Spector’s co-production like cries of country-blues joy.
“What Is Life”
Harrison Wrote this exultant song of surrender for Apple Records act Billy Preston but wisely kept it for All Things Must Pass. Spector matches the galloping rhythm with echo-drenched theater: brass, strings and a choir of multitracked Harrisons. The-real ignition, though, is Harrison’s pumping fuzz guitar in the intro and knockout choruses. “As a kid, I used to sing harmonies with my mom in the car to Harrison songs like ‘What Is Life,'” says Dave Grohl, ex-Nirvana drummer and head Foo Fighter. That singalong magnetism sent this single into the Top Ten.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”
Harrison’s second number one single in America was a soft, intimate hymn, a small-combo reaction to the Wagnerian spectacle of All Things Must Pass. Harrison’s guitar is characteristically sweet and direct: the beaming harmony of doubled slide. “Gandhi says create and preserve the image of your choice,” Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1974. Within the Beatles and after, Harrison imagined himself not as a star but as a musician, a man of questions and expressive craft. That image is preserved in these songs and performances for all time.