George Harrison: Iconic Guitars, Iconic Guitarist
by PGS Fitz
An informal poll conducted on my personal Facebook page recently has concluded, definitively if not scientifically, that George Harrison is not only the Best Beatle but also the Greatest Guitarist and possibly even The Most Amazing Human Being of All Time*. Growing up, all I ever heard about was McCartney or Lennon—but as a grown up? All I ever hear about is Harrison and it’s completely justified. My favorite guitar heroes are the ones who stay as under-the-radar as possible just like George-- quietly devoting himself to music and to his guitars and writing some of what are arguably the finest songs the Beatles ever performed or recorded.
George never stopped evolving and he was unafraid of change—something that shows even in his choice of instruments over the course of his career. This week in Andy’s Corner, I’m taking inspiration from George by taking a look at some of his most iconic instruments—legendary guitars that are intrinsic pieces of the Beatles history and remain a ton of fun to learn about.
An 18-year-old Harrison bought himself his “first real decent guitar” in 1961—a secondhand ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet. Even though the Duo Jet was George’s primary guitar for only a couple of years, it has remained one of if not the most iconic of Harrison’s guitars because it was the guitar that accompanied the Beatles’ initial rise to stardom. In the mid 60s, George gave this guitar to a friend, who possessed it for the next 20 years, making a few mods to the guitar along the way. In the 80s, Harrison asked for the guitar to be returned to him for its sentimental value. The mods to the Gretsch were reversed and the guitar made an appearance, in its natural state, on George’s acclaimed ’87 solo work, Cloud Nine, because sometimes things just come full circle. This guitar is so iconic that it was the guitar used as the model for the Beatle’s Rock Band video game controller. (There’s no shame in having that guitar in your collection, by the way.)
As the Beatles star continued to rise, George added some new Gretschs to his stable: a Gretsch Tennessean and a Gretsch Country Gentleman—the very guitar he used to play “She Loves You” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Nearly any image of George playing guitar in the early days of the Beatles features a Gretsch, which nicely complemented Lennon’s Rickenbacker.
Not to be left out, in the mid 60s George picked up some Rickenbackers of his own, notably a 360/12 twelve string electric. George’s use of this instrument may very well have singlehandedly popularized electric 12-strings in pop—just ask the Byrds what inspired Roger McGuinn to pick up a 12-string (and we all know how that panned out). The electric Rick added a new dimension to the Beatles sound and can be heard on almost the entire A Hard Day’s Night album. Though the 12-string made a huge impact on the Beatles’ sound in the mid ‘60s, Harrison was never one to repeat himself; though he had started the electric 12-string revolution, he let others finish what he started (McGuinn and later Petty and Buck, etc) and moved on to find the next sound that would inspire him to grow and change as a player and musician.
George picked up a Fender Stratocaster during the Rubber Soul sessions, a guitar that would become his primary instrument for several years. Originally Sonic Blue, George eventually gave it a psychedelic makeover—using dayglo paint and his wife’s nail polish to turn the guitar into an instrument that was right at home in Magical Mystery Tour. This guitar, nicknamed “Rocky,” stayed with George through his solo career and, after some friendly tech advice from Ry Cooder, became his go-to instrument for playing slide.
In the late 60s, Fender sent George a rosewood Telecaster prototype for use in the movie Let It Be. This prototype was built by famed master builder Roger Rossmeisl and was built out of a thin layer of maple sandwiched between solid rosewood top and back, creating an extraordinarily heavy instrument. George used this guitar in the Beatles’ final rooftop performance in ’69, making it the guitar that saw: the end of the Beatles. Fender has reproduced the guitar from time to time and it remains a sought after model. Even *I* want one.
George’s son Dhani now has possession of the Harrison guitar collection—all the guitars that span the 12 years of the Beatles and George’s subsequent solo career and with the supergroup Traveling Wilburys (itself a group worthy of a “The Guitars of…” blog post!)—and is handling them with care, even going so far as to create an iPad app that gets you up close and personal with 7 of George’s most iconic instruments.
When I think of George as a player, he reminds me to take care to not get stuck in a pattern—swap your Gretsch for a Rickenbacker, your Rickenbacker for a Fender, your Fender for a Gretsch, your Gretsch for an SG, your SG for a Strat that you then repaint yourself to make it into exactly what you want at that moment. Don’t be afraid to change. Never stop evolving. Always explore.
Harrison fans in the house?! What’s your favorite of George’s guitars and what has he taught you as a player and musician? Sound off in the comments!
*scientifically unproven but I still choose to believe it.