Music magazines frequently publish so-called ‘definitive’ lists of the 100 greatest guitarists, and you can usually predict which names will end up near the top. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck… all deserving of their places, of course. But you won’t often see George Harrison’s name in the top ten, or even the top twenty, which is bizarre considering he was one of the all-time great guitarists and was part of the most iconic band in history.
Ironically, being a Beatle probably contributed to George being overlooked as a musician (or so I’ve always thought). Along with his bandmates, he became one of music’s biggest celebrities — something he always seemed uncomfortable with — but what drove him into that world in the first place was his love of playing guitar. But his style may also have had something to do with it. He was never what you might call ‘flashy’. There was no showing off, no ten-minute solos. But he always played exactly what was right for the song, and not a note more. That’s why his Beatles guitar lines are so memorable.
As a songwriter, too, he is underrated. The reason for this is obvious: bandmates Lennon and McCartney became popular music’s most famous writing partnership, crafting hit after hit. And although George wrote his first Beatles song as early as 1963 (‘Don’t Bother Me’, which is actually a very good song despite his own insecurity about it), it took him a few more years to be taken as seriously as John and Paul were. By the time of Abbey Road, to which George contributed ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’, people had finally realised that he could write classics too. Frank Sinatra famously covered ‘Something’ and declared it his “favourite Lennon-McCartney song”, so he clearly wasn’t paying enough attention.
George’s early solo career was prolific. Having come into his own as a writer, he needed an outlet for all the material he was now accumulating, and 1970’s triple album All Things Must Pass was certainly an outlet. It showed that he could give John and Paul a run for their money, and it is still considered by many fans to be his best work. In fact, the years immediately following The Beatles’ break-up were probably the most successful of his career. Although the 80s and 90s marked a quiet period for him in terms of albums — 1987’s Cloud Nine was his first in five years, and was to be his last until Brainwashed was eventually released posthumously in 2002 — part of this time was spent as a member of one of rock’s great supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys. The dream team of George, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan released Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 in 1988, and after Orbison’s death, the four remaining members put out a second album, called Vol. 3. The title was George’s suggestion. He thought it would be funny to confuse people.
It was also during his solo years that he mastered the art of slide guitar, and his playing arguably became even more beautiful. For some of his best work in this area, check out the gorgeous instrumental ‘Marwa Blues’ from his final album, Brainwashed.
Let’s not forget that George took to another stringed instrument as well: the sitar. He wasn’t the only rock musician to develop an interest in Indian music during the 60s, but he was the first to introduce the sitar to a Western pop music audience and play it on record, and unlike others, it wasn’t simply a fad for him. He also embraced Hinduism and followed its philosophy for the rest of his life.
Although George was nicknamed ‘the Quiet Beatle’, the label is somewhat misleading. He was passionate and opinionated about many things, outspoken when he needed to be, and had a wicked sense of humour. And when he played guitar, he was louder than anyone. ‘Dark Horse’ (the name of his 1974 album, as well as the record label he set up that same year) seems a much more appropriate term to describe George. His passing on 29 November 2001 robbed the world of one of its greatest artists, and although he will always be remembered primarily as one of The Beatles, he proved throughout his career that he was much, much more than simply the lead guitarist. We will always miss him.