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Paul on Drums, George on Bass: 10 Great Beatles Instrument Swaps

A look back at Fab Four’s most intriguing instrumental switch-ups

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Paul McCartney Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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With every single LP, the Beatles shed some creative skin. Decades later, it's still difficult to process their two-year leap from Revolver to Sgt. Pepper's to the White Album. The members also continuously expanded their own roles in the band: It's surprising how many classic Beatles songs feature Paul McCartney behind the drum kit, or John Lennon on lead guitar.  

These small details are crucial in the Beatles' evolution: McCartney's one-man-band performance on White Album gem "Martha My Dear"; Lennon experimenting with an obscure keyboard, the Mellotron, on psychedelic daydream "Strawberry Fields Forever." (Without his introduction of that crucial instrument, who's to say King Crimson would have cemented the prog-rock movement on In the Court of the Crimson King?)

To honor the Fab Four's enduring free spirit, let's look back at 10 of the band's most intriguing instrumental switch-ups.

Beatles

UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 04: READY STEADY GO Photo of BEATLES, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison (playing Rickenbacker 425 guitar) during rehearsals at Television House, Kingsway. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

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“Back in the U.S.S.R.”

The White Album sessions were tense and scattered overall: Yoko Ono's presence in the studio became a distraction for everyone not named John; meanwhile, longtime engineer Geoff Emerick, frustrated by the band's squabbling, quit midway through. But the recording of McCartney's Beach Boys homage "Back in the U.S.S.R." was especially complicated since Ringo Starr had temporarily quit the group, leaving the remaining trio to pick up the slack. Both Harrison and Lennon overdubbed additional bass to flesh out a composite track; they also contributed extra drums, with McCartney's tense kit work mixed loudest amidst the "ooh-ohh" harmonies.

You can hear the band attempting to emulate Ringo's signature tumbling fills, but the same sophisticated spark just isn't there. Ringo has always taken a lot of flak for being the Beatles' weakest link, but "Back in the U.S.S.R." proved just how important he was — ironically, through his absence. The drummer returned to the studio weeks later, finding his kit decorated with flowers. 

Beatles

Singer-songwriter Paul McCartney (left), of British rock group Wings, with session conga player Kenneth 'Afro' Williams, at Abbey Road Studios during the recording of the album, 'Venus And Mars', London, 15th November 1974. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

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“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

Few late-period Beatles tunes have suffered the derision of Abbey Road's whimsical murder sing-along "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," in which the elusive title protagonist slays his victims with the household tool. Lennon, per usual at this late stage, wrote off the track as McCartney's "granny music." (According to legend, he even showed his displeasure by mooning the singer as he sang the lyric "so he waits behind.") A pleasant but lightweight throwaway on an otherwise majestic send-off, "Maxwell" was actually a tease of future sonic possibilities: McCartney handles piano, guitars and a stormy Moog synthesizer, with Martin playing the organ, and either Ringo or assistant Mal Evans — depending on the source — clanging the death-knell anvil. 

Beatles

UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 04: READY STEADY GO Photo of BEATLES, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison (playing Rickenbacker 425 guitar) during rehearsals at Television House, Kingsway. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

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“She Said She Said”

McCartney's melodic bass work is a signature of the Beatles' oeuvre, but Harrison did a great job approximating it on the psychedelic Revolver meditation "She Said She Said" — one of the band's only tracks not to feature Sir Paul. "I think we'd had a barney or something, and I said, 'Oh, fuck you!' and they said, 'Well, we'll do it,'" McCartney told Barry Miles in the 1998 biography Many Years From Now.

The song was inspired by Lennon's 1965 LSD trip with Byrds members Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, during which actor Peter Fonda told a frightened Harrison that he knew "what it's like to be dead." And the result plays like both a celebration and a mockery of the acid movement, driven by Harrison's stoned guitar shrapnel and dextrous, Macca-styled bass runs. 

Beatles

UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 04: READY STEADY GO Photo of BEATLES, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison (playing Rickenbacker 425 guitar) during rehearsals at Television House, Kingsway. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Another Girl”

There's no better proof of the Beatles' instrument-switching innovation than Help!, the band's 1965 film. In one goofy scene, soundtracked by the country-rock jangle of "Another Girl," McCartney strums the mid-section of a random, bikini-clad woman; meanwhile, a confused Harrison doodles on the bass, as Lennon smiles giddily behind Ringo's drum kit.

The song itself is also revealing — though with more subtlety: Harrison attempted at least 10 takes on a tremolo-bar guitar lead, but McCartney's jagged fill was used instead. Even mid-decade, the bassist was itching to expand his role — and, arguably, assert his authority. 

Beatles

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 16: The Beatles at rehearsal in the Deauville Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida for THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Shown is Paul McCartney. Image dated February 16, 1964. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

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“Martha My Dear”

This jaunty White Album ditty is pure McCartney from start to finish, so it's no surprise he recorded everything but the orchestrations himself: music-hall piano runs, swooping bass, brash electric-guitar leads, minimal drums and handclaps. Still, "Martha" — an odd hybrid of detached love song and dedication to the songwriter's faithful Old English sheepdog — is a true collaboration with producer George Martin, who arranged the elegant strings and brass. 

"I remember George Harrison once said to me, 'I could never write songs like that,'" McCartney said in Barry Miles' Many Years From Now. "'You just make 'em up; they don't mean anything to you.' I think on a deep level, they do mean something to me, but on a surface level they are often fantasy like 'Desmond and Molly' or 'Martha My Dear.' I mean, I'm not really speaking to Martha. It's a communication of some sort of affection but in a slightly abstract way."

Beatles

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Paul McCartney Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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“Tell Me What You See”

Described by McCartney as "filler" and "not awfully memorable" in Many Years From Now, folky Help! throwaway "Tell Me What You See" captures the Beatles at their peak of boredom, but it also showcases their curiosity, pushing forward into new instrumental territory. The track, written primarily by McCartney, takes awhile to get off the ground: The first-verse vocals are awkwardly ahead of the beat, building to a chorus of bratty low notes. But the overdubs — Macca's bluesy electric piano, Latin percussion in the form of scraping guiro and clanking claves — preview the colorful developments of Rubber Soul. 

Beatles

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of George HARRISON; playing acoustic guitar, c.1970/1971 (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

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“Here Comes the Sun”

The grand "Fab Four" illusion had worn off by the late Sixties: The Lennon/McCartney writing credits were a meaningless formality, and it was rare to find the whole quartet hanging around the same studio. As their creative personalities continued to clash, the members frequently spearheaded their own tunes, recording more of the instrumentation themselves.

A good example is Harrison's Abbey Road lullaby "Here Comes the Sun," an optimistic mantra which he wrote in Eric Clapton's garden. Harrison dominated the sessions, tracking high-capo'd acoustic picking, electric guitar, harmonium and washes of Moog synth. An injured Lennon, recovering from a car crash, didn't contribute — but given his general Beatle disinterest of the period, it's unlikely he cared. 

Beatles

UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 24: ABBEY RD STUDIOS Photo of Paul McCARTNEY and BEATLES and John LENNON, Paul McCartney & John Lennon - posing for press before performing All You Need Is Love on 'Our World' satellite link up (Photo by Ivan Keeman/Redferns)

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“The Ballad of John and Yoko”

This bluesy 1969 lark, the band's final U.K. chart-topper, was written by Lennon during his Paris honeymoon with Yoko Ono, outlining the media circus that followed the couple across the globe. The lyric is pure Lennon, full of in-jokes and acerbic observations — but the arrangement is vintage McCartney, building on the template of his springy, nonsensical "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." The duo tracked "John and Yoko" without their bandmates (Ringo was busy filming his part, opposite Peter Sellers, in the comedy The Magic Christian) — Lennon handling the call-and-response lead guitar and McCartney adding a snappy drum track. It marked a rare return to creative intimacy for rock's all-time greatest songwriting duo.

Beatles

Ringo Starr playing drums on stage with The Beatles; circa 1970; New York. (Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images)

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“The End”

"The End" is a fitting climax for the Beatles — the swan song of their scattered Abbey Road medley, recorded during their last full-band session ever. Veering from hard-rock riffs to squalling guitar solos and orchestral balladry, it ranks alongside Lennon's hallucinatory "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" as the band's proggiest moment — all in barely over two minutes.

It's also a showcase for the band's individual talents, allowing not just Harrison — the Beatles' de facto lead guitarist — but also Lennon and McCartney to trade licks in a triple-guitar round robin. Midway through the track, the trio alternate mini solos in turn: Paul, then George, then John. While Lennon seizes the spotlight with his demented fuzz-tone runs, Paul's wiry segments drip with soul and point the listener directly back to the Fab Four's R&B roots.

Beatles

UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 04: READY STEADY GO Photo of BEATLES, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison (playing Rickenbacker 425 guitar) during rehearsals at Television House, Kingsway. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Strawberry Fields Forever”

George Martin never cared for the Mellotron, the ghostly keyboard first used by the Beatles on 1967's "Strawberry Fields Forever," describing the instrument's origins thusly: "…as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard." But that distinctive sound is the signature of "Strawberry Fields" — its drowsy opening flute fanfare beckons us into a childlike daydream, signifying the Beatles' transformation into a full-on psychedelic band.

The Beatles had experimented with instrument swapping before, but never to such hypnotic effect: McCartney adds Mellotron and booming timpani; Lennon supplements his inquisitive acoustic guitar progression with piano and bongos; Ringo pounds home decorative drum fills; and Harrison sneaks in descending lines with the swarmandal, an Indian harp, suggesting the passage from reality to fantasy. In an attempt to satisfy a frustrated Lennon, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick stretched their imaginations, splicing together two separate takes in a feat of surgical-sonic genius.