The 50 Greatest Guitar Songs of The Beatles
As Peter Jackson’s flagship documentary, To recover, finally sees the light of day, Guitar world celebrates the 50 best guitar moments in the band’s success story.
The Beatles were such talented songwriters that it’s easy to forget the fact that their music contains great guitar work, sometimes revolutionary.
In putting together this list, we looked beyond our favorite songs and reflected on where John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney showed their guitar skills, whether in a solo, riff, technique or through their clever selection of instruments and arrangements.
For some songs, we took it a step further and analyzed the guitar work to give you a taste of the magic that makes these moments so special. Enjoy!
50. Across the universe
Album: Whether … naked (2003)
John Lennon considered the Beatles’ recording of this 1967 composition to be “a lousy piece of a great song,” even dismissing his own work on it.
He was too hard on himself: his imperfect acoustic guitar work and vocal delivery work effectively in the service of the song’s heartfelt devotional message, though strings, backing vocals, and electric guitar overdubs obscure the delicacy and l intimacy of his performance.
The liberation of Whether … naked in 2003, set the record straight, delivering a rudimentary acoustic blend of the song that even Lennon could have approved of.
Album: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
The heavily pulsing tremolo of the rhythm guitar makes the instrument sound as if it is riding slightly late, giving the song a drugged languor appropriate to its title. (In the movie Magical Mystery Tour, Flying accompanies scenes shot above the clouds).
The crystal-clear acoustic guitar appearing for about 13 seconds gives the song a country vibe, culminating in a tasty double lick that lazily winds its way down the neck. Celestial.
48. Helter Skelter
Albums: The Beatles (1968)
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Beatles foreshadowed the more doom side of heavy metal with this 1968 Paul McCartney track.
For this recording, McCartney put aside his bass duties and strapped on his Fender Esquire to deliver the song’s brash rhythmic work, while Harrison performed the scorching tracks on Lucy, the 1957 Les Paul Standard courtesy of Eric Clapton. .
But the best work here is done by Lennon on, of all things, a bass (ie a Fender Bass VI). His sloppy but inspired playing propels the song and provides its main rhythmic interest.
Album: To help! (1965)
McCartney’s melancholy, acoustic ballad marked a symbolic turning point in the Beatles’ career as a group in that it was their first song in which none of the members – three in this case – took part in the performance.
McCartney tuned his guitar a full step for this song (low to high, DGCFAD) and performed it as if it were in the key of G, with the detuning transposing it to the concert key of F.
This may have been done for the purpose of putting the vocal melody in a more optimal tone for McCartney; it certainly made the bass notes deeper and richer, while the relaxed string tension contributed to the thicker texture of the chord voicings.
46. For you blue
Album: So be it (1970)
Written by Harrison, this seemingly simple D-blues workout stands out as a bouncy eccentric in The Beatles’ catalog.
Not only is this one of the band’s rare forays into 12 bar blues territory; he also finds Lennon in the rare role of lead guitarist, providing a fiery solo and filling a Hofner Hawaiian Standard lap-steel guitar in open D-tuning.
To make things even stranger, he uses a shotgun cartridge as a slide. In addition, there is no bass on the recording; McCartney played the piano and the song received no overdub.
45. Free as a bird
Album: Anthology 1 (1995)
Released in 1995 as a post-mortem Beatles track based on a John Lennon house demo, Free as a bird makes a valiant attempt to resuscitate the spirit of the band’s glory days.
While some will quibble over the lackluster handwriting, it’s hard to find fault with Harrison’s scathing slide work. Starting with a few lines held back, Harrison lets his playing fly on the solo, the only time the song really takes off.
44. Sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Group (1967)
Recorded quickly in one session, this rock cover of the album’s opening track features fiery solo guitar work by Harrison.
Written as a bookend for the album’s opening title song, the cover is both faster and one step lower than the original, though halfway modulating an entire step. (Modulation is a technique that is rarely found in the compositions of The Beatles, And I love her being another example from the group’s catalog – see entry 30…)
43. I will
Album: The Beatles (1968)
This calm love song, written by McCartney, presents only him with the main and harmonious vocals, two acoustic guitars and a “vocal bass” sung in scat, with Lennon and Starr on percussion.
McCartney added, in addition to his strummed guitar main part, a second melodic part played in a rockabilly style reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s lead guitarist Scotty Moore, choosing syncopated and ringing melodies built around a form of 1st position F6 chord with blues, hammer-ons from minor third to major third.
Years later, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton played a similar line on the chorus labels for My best friend’s girlfriend.
42. The ballad of John and Yoko
Album: 1967-1970 (1973)
In this 1969 musical tale of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s wedding and honeymoon, Lennon’s acoustic strumming sets up the song’s infectious beat, as his electric guitar fills the call-and-response play with his voice.
The track was written and recorded in April of the same year, fresh out of the sessions of So be it, in which the group attempted to return to their rock and roll roots. This may have inspired Lennon’s musical direction with this track, which he ends with an electric guitar riff reminiscent of Dorsey Burnett’s. Lonely tears in my eyes, which The Beatles covered early in their careers.
41. Yer Blues
Album: The Beatles (1968)
Lennon wrote this 1968 song as a crude sendoff to the electric blues boom that had taken London by storm, but the suicidal feelings he expressed were a heartfelt articulation of how trapped he both felt in his first unhappy marriage and into the Beatles.
Likewise, his primitive two-note solo might be seen as a mocking contempt for the slick, white imitators of the genre, but he plays the riff until it’s as raw as his emotions. He would pursue this style of proto-punk guitar further when he made his solo debut in 1970, John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band.