The Fab Four weren’t all about Hofner, Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Epiphone electrics. Stuart Ryan explores The Beatles’ acoustic moments.
While the success of The Beatles undoubtedly lies in their melodies and lyrics, it’s easy to forget that behind it all was an engine room featuring three guitarists with unique styles. When these styles combined with the songwriting talents of John, Paul and George, the result was music that was staggeringly well rounded. Imagine the Fab Four on stage and you probably picture Paul and his Hofner bass and George and John with either Gretsch or Rickenbacker. However, at various points in the history of the group each of the three wrote and performed on acoustics. In this article, we will aim to bring out key facets of each player’s style, plus unique and idiosyncratic touches that meant that the acoustic was a powerful writing tool in each of their hands.
Paul’s acoustic playing often featured a ‘thumb and strum’ technique – he would pick a bass note with the thumb and follow this with a down-up strum with the first finger. In this way he was able to create strong self-accompaniment patterns that covered both bass and chord duties. This may sound simple if you already have a well-established fingerstyle technique but it may be tricky to break out of the ‘right’ habits in order to employ this unorthodox style. But one of the possible advantages of this way of playing is that the first finger strum gives a strong percussive quality to your playing, which makes for some great rhythmic dynamics (Yesterday, for example). However, Paul was also influenced by Scottish folk guitarist Donovan, who showed all three Beatle pickers some classic fingerstyle approaches. Paul’s elegant, almost Baroque playing on Blackbird has been on every aspiring fingerpicker’s performance wish list since it was first heard, and for good reason. The use of wide intervals (10ths) creates a full tapestry of sound that’s not at all muddy, and the combined picking of bass and treble strings makes for a great piece of fingerstyle guitar that could have stood on its own as an instrumental.
John was more traditional in his approach employing more of a‘p’ ‘i’ ‘m’ picking pattern. Again, the influence of Donovan was strong and in John’s playing you will often hear the alternating bass pattern beloved of every fingerstylist – listen to Julia to hear this effect and learn to master it too. John was also adept at fleet picking hand patterns, again as evidenced by Julia. If you are new to this style start slowly to build up strength and speed. In addition, listen to his solo performances and you will notice how strong the rhythmic element is – the guitar is there to accompany the voice but it is also the rhythm section and if that falls apart, all is lost. John can also be heard using a ‘thumb and strum’ approach although it seems that he would usually pluck a bass string with the thumb and then use a relaxed brush down the string with the picking hand ‘ima’ fingers.
George is often thought of as being the consummate guitarist within the group and indeed there is a sophistication and melodic content to his guitar parts – check out the chord progression to While My Guitar Gently Weeps (especially the acoustic version on Anthology). George also used some great devices to make his guitar parts really stand out – not least his use of a capo at the 7th fret on Here Comes The Sun. This gives his guitar sound a rich, sweet tone that stands out in the mix and adds another dimension beyond open-position playing. George’s approach often features jazz influenced progressions and melody within his rhythm playing –Here Comes The Sun for example, which also includes odd time signature passages.
I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse into the styles of the three guitar-playing Beatles; hopefully it will help you when you come to learn their original parts, create arrangements of their pieces or even write your own ‘in the style of’ pieces. Have fun!
PAUL WAS INFLUENCED BY SCOTTISH FOLK SINGER DONOVAN, WHO SHOWED ALL THREE BEATLE PICKERS THE CLASSIC FINGERSTYLE