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George Harrison


As the youngest, shyest, and most introverted member of The Beatles, George Harrison was often overshadowed by the songwriting genius of Lennon and McCartney, and the down-home showmanship of Ringo. But the fact remains that he was a talented guitarist and composer in his own right. Coming in at #21 on Rolling Stones Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, Harrison is responsible for most of the lead-guitar work on the Beatles’ albums, and had the first successful solo act of all members of the Fab Four. Being a quality musician was always more important to Harrison than being famous. In fact, he was disappointed that The Beatles became as wildly popular as they did. He is quoted as saying, “I wanted to be successful, not famous.” The story of this introspective and intellectual artist is an interesting one, which can teach all of us some lessons about fame, talent, and music.
Born in Liverpool, England in February 1943, George Harrison was a member of a working class, non-musical family. He had two brothers who studied mechanics and landscaping, and it was their father’s dream that his sons would go into business together. George attended the same primary and high schools in Liverpool as Paul McCartney, and began an apprenticeship as an electrician when he was 16. He lost interest in that field, and his father allowed him to quit, thinking that he would get over his passion for guitar and “start over” in a real job later.
As a young teen, George was fond of Skiffle, a type of folk music that used homemade instruments such as washboards, kazoos and musical saws, as well as traditional acoustic guitars and banjos. In the 1950’s the genre was popular with young Brits, probably because of its rockabilly rhythms, up tempos, and interaction with the audience. Lonnie Donegan, called the British Skiffle King, had a mega-hit with the song “Rock Island Line,” and the tune inspired George to start studying guitar. He formed a Skiffle group of his own with his brother Peter and a friend, which was called “The Rebels.”
Paul McCartney encouraged Harrison in his study of the guitar, though he took very few formal lessons. He listened to recordings done by his idols for hours at a time and did his best to imitate their technique and style. Buddy Holly, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and especially Carl Perkins were all analyzed and emulated by Harrison. When he was 15, McCartney invited him to sit in on some rehearsals of The Quarrymen, a band started by John Lennon that McCartney belonged to. George would strum along with the group, and occasionally fill in on rhythm guitar when one of the other members had to be gone. After about a year, George became a full-fledged member of the band.
The Quarrymen performed at gigs in and around Liverpool for a while. It is said that Lennon and McCartney considered George to be a “kid,” and did not have much confidence in his guitar skills for a while. They limited him to playing rhythm parts, or strictly defined solos that were laid out for him in advance note-for-note by Paul. The group had several different combinations of musicians and at least four names, before they became the quartet known to history. They were called Johnny and the Moon Dogs, The Silver Beetles, and The Silver Beatles, before they settled on The Beatles.  The band went through several drummers including Pete Best, before Ringo Starr joined them in 1962.
In 1960, the group’s manager Alan Williams arranged for a series of gigs in Hamburg, Germany. It was a place known for its wild nightlife and love of American Rock and Roll. Posing as students, The Beatles went to Germany for several months and performed a blend of new songs written by Lennon and McCartney, and classic rock covers. The atmosphere was full of drugs, booze, and pills, but the band was playing every day of the week, often for six hours at a time. They were forced to tighten up their performances in order to please the often rowdy and critical German audiences. When authorities discovered that George was only 17, he was deported and the rest of the group returned to Liverpool.
The experience of performing for live audiences in Hamburg had improved the Beatles’ skill and stage presence. Back in Liverpool, they began a series of engagements at a famous nightclub called The Cavern. By the middle of 1961, George was firmly entrenched as the group’s lead guitarist, with Paul playing bass and John adding rhythm. They all sang, often in tight harmony. The Beatles returned to Hamburg from time to time and provided back up for a recording made in Germany by Tony Sheridan.
Back in England, record storeowner Brian Epstein began getting requests from customers to purchase music by The Beatles, who were becoming better known. He took in their show one night at The Cavern, and recognized their potential. He used his influence with British record companies to get the group auditions, but was repeatedly turned down for a recording contract. After persevering for months, Epstein finally made a deal with Parlophone Records, and the Beatles cut their first single.
The group released several singles, which had modest success on the British pop charts during 1962. Many of those early recordings emphasized Lennon’s hard-charging rhythm guitar parts so much, that George’s leads were nearly covered up. Even though he was interested in writing songs, the duo of Lennon and McCartney was so prolific, and both guys possessed such dominant personalities, that there was little chance for Harrison to put his talent as a composer on display. He continued working on his musicianship despite these frustrations, however, and slowly became a favorite of the female members of the audience. His mother often attended their gigs in the early days and cheered enthusiastically from the crowd. Even though Paul was thought of as the “cute” one, and John was the charismatic leader of the group, George’s shy charm and skill on the guitar attracted many fans. The band was often showered with Jelly Babies, a favorite treat of Harrison’s, much like soft jellybeans.
During 1963, the Beatles’ reputation grew quickly in England. Brian Epstein who had taken over the management of the group by then, had plans for the boys to travel to the US. Showing a remarkable amount of marketing savvy, he got the group booked for three consecutive performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and convinced Capital Records to release and promote “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in advance of the appearances.  It was the beginning of “Beatle Mania,” and the biggest phenomenon in the history of pop music.
During that first trip to the US, George was given a new guitar. It was a 360/12 model manufactured by the Rickebacker Company, which was an electric with twelve strings. It looked like a six-string, though, because of its unique neck construction. He began using it right away when recording in the studio, and was very pleased with its ringing tone.
George Harrison was never comfortable with all the hue and cry that came from being a Beatle. He grew weary of the constant crowds and commotion and often longed to find a place where he could be alone to pursue his craft and increase his skills. He was encouraged by the fact that albums released in 1964, (Beatles VI) and 1965, (Rubber Soul) each contained one of his songs. He provided lead vocals and guitar for both of them. His lyrical and precise guitar playing set an example for many other artists of the time and The Byrds, in particular, give George credit for inspiring their sound and style. In 1965, he mastered the sitar, an Indian stringed instrument, and the Beatles used it when recording “Norwegian Wood.” It was a completely new sound for a popular group and paved the way for other Eastern instruments and scales to find their way into the counterculture of the 60’s. Likewise, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” from 1968 showcased George’s passion and skill as a guitarist and writer.
Toward the end of the Beatles’ time as a unit, Harrison experienced increasing tensions with the other members. He had a bitter disagreement with McCartney about the guitar part for the song “Hey Jude,” and stomped out of the studio during a recording session. He became increasingly resentful about being excluded as a songwriter for later albums. He was buoyed, however, when two of his pieces on the Abbey Road album achieved great popular acclaim. “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Something” both reached the upper strata of the pop charts for weeks. In fact, more other artists have covered “Something” than any other Beatles song except “Yesterday.”
George’s true genius was finally revealed after the Beatles split up in 1970. He had a backlog of songs he had written and not been allowed to release, so when he left the group he was able to put his first solo album together quite quickly. During the next three years George released two albums that landed at the top of the charts. (All Things Must Pass, and Living in a Material World.) He also organized The Concerts for Bangladesh with Bob Dylan that were the first of many charity events held by rock musicians.
Harrison eventually released 17 solo albums, and two more with The Traveling Wilburys, a group he formed with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. In his later years George performed less and less, preferring to dedicate himself to gardening and other solitary pursuits. When he became ill with cancer in 2001, both McCartney and Starr visited his hospital room and reportedly spent six hours laughing and reminiscing. At the time of his death, world leaders as well as other musicians remembered his talent and compassion for others.


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