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Excerpt from piece about Paul McCartney's guitar playing in the Beatles

Thursday 4/13/23

This piece will go into Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan, and may well be the last addition to that sizable book.


The Beatles aren’t thought of as a guitar band the way that the Rolling Stones are, but if you love guitar, there’s that much more to love about the Beatles.

George Harrison was usually the man responsible—especially in the early days—for the guitar solos in Beatles songs. He was no innovator, but a player easy to adore on account of his tone and tendency to restate what were always formidable melodies in his solos.

Those melodies gave the Beatles a formidable leg up as a band, and Harrison the guitarist understood what was a good thing and utilized it. He was capable of cutting lose, but that was generally reserved for BBC sessions (or his second solo in “Long Tall Sally” from The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl), which had an experimental quality, albeit a controlled one. The days of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper were still some ways off, even if the BBC did serve as a kind of underrated radiophonic workshop for the band.

By his own admission, Harrison didn’t practice much, adding that he would have been much better if he did. Props for candor, anyway. One doesn’t imagine that John Lennon practiced much either, but his guitar style—with its aggressive corrosiveness—didn’t lend itself to discipline, paradoxically enough.

Lennon could, as he said, make the guitar scream and howl, which was sometimes called on to do as a soloist—with his own “You Can’t Do That” being a prime example—but he was also a surprisingly tasteful, even dexterous player when need be. One only has to think of the demanding triplets throughout most of “All My Loving,” or the nimble, light-heeled touch in evidence on both “Honey Pie” and “Get Back.”

But the best guitar player in the Beatles—from the technical standpoint—was Paul McCartney, who of course played guitar the least, being the bassist, and arguably the most innovative in rock and roll history.

The longer one listens to the Beatles, the more one appreciates McCartney, who apparently could have done anything he wished musically between the years of 1963 and 1969.

When we use the word “consummate” to describe someone—as in, “He was a consummate pro” or a “consummate pianist”—the implication is that they’re not dynamic. They’re epitomize stability, and stability doesn’t suggest—or allow for—daring. It’s something that can be counted on, not something that reaches skyward itself.

McCartney, though, was both consummate and daring, the way that Mozart was, or Charlie Parker. It may be his most salient musical quality when he was at his best. He didn’t play much lead guitar with the Beatles, but when he did, it was always dynamic—startling, even.

McCartney has four big moments as a Beatles lead guitar player, with one of them muted in part by having two other lead guitar players join him, which is what happens with the long medley of Abbey Road. We get nine guitar solos, with McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon—in that order—taking three guitar solos each, the solos having a length of about two bars.

Harrison is at his virtuosic best, especially on his third solo. One may be taken aback that he could play at this level. He’s come a long way from the laughable attempt at a guitar break on “One After 909” in March 1963 that caused Lennon to audibly sneer, “What kind of solo was that?”

Lennon’s solos on the medley represent the primal power of rock and roll—why the Beatles got into the game in the first place. His playing carries that theme, sonically embodies its heart and soul and as such represents his all-encompassing moment—as human, rebel, Beatle, rocker—as a guitar player.

McCartney sets up his bandmates. He’s the distributor. The point guard. Miles Davis was a master of not so much laying out, but almost laying out while also playing at a high level but seemingly making it easier for others to play at their best. That’s the McCartney of the long medley. He doesn’t need the splashy moment. Harrison and Lennon are better suited to do their respective things here, in this context, with everything that implies and conveys. Someone had to take charge of what that medley could be, and that somebody was the best guitarist in the Beatles.


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