A Brief Look at the Guitars of the Beatles
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At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments. Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all paid for with musicians’ dollars).
Last week, we took a look at guitars from “Back in the USSR.” So, this week, it's appropriate that we take a look at the gear of the Beatles. Working class boys from Liverpool before they suddenly burst onto the world stage, they fit the “workingman’s guitar players” theme of our blog perfectly.
They share another trait we’ve noticed from other artists featured on this blog. Like Stevie Ray, they’re legendary for particular rigs (nothing channels early Beatles like a Rickenbacker into a Vox). But, also like Ray, Hendrix, and others, they weren’t as glued to their famous rig as generations of imitators seem to believe. Like most of us, they enjoyed experimenting with gear to find new sounds.
Of course, the Beatles had two notable guitar players (Harrison and Lennon), while McCartney could also play and contributed guitar to some notable tracks (classics like Tax Man, Ticket to Ride, and Helter Skelter feature Sir Paul on lead). So we can’t possibly cover every guitar picked up by these legends. But we’ll cover some of the most iconic axes.
The Beatles are also the partial inspiration for some of our most stunning custom shop guitars, like the “12 string Ricky.”
Guitars of the Beatles
The Beatles got their first big break when they landed a precious paying residency in Hamburg, Germany in 1960. With a full-time paying gig finally secured, John Lennon decided it was time to invest in a “proper” guitar. He selected a natural wood grain Rickenbacker 325. He had it repainted a year or two later, so there are very few photos of Lennon’s first Rickenbacker with its original finish.
This guitar is known for its high-end chime—as are the Vox amplifiers that they Beatles typically favored in their earlier years. The combination would feature brutal treble frequencies for some playing styles but sounded perfect the bell-like arpeggios that fill early Beatles records. You can see this guitar in the Beatles famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
When the Beatles first arrived in the United States in 1964 to massive acclaim, Rickenbacker was well aware of the marketing value of John Lennon holding their guitar. They personally delivered their newest addition to his hotel: the Rickenbacker 360 12-string. Lennon preferred his 325, and handed off the 360 to George Harrison. The rest is history: Harrison’s 12-string work is everywhere on many of the Beatles’ most classic recordings. Lennon did manage to score a shiny new black 325 from the Rickenbacker reps, which he continued to use heavily for the remainder of the Beatles’ limited remaining career as a touring band.
Lenon’s original 325 now belongs to his son Sean. The second is in the John Lennon Museum in Japan.
The next iconic Beatles guitar was an Epiphone Casino (this was long before Epiphone became a Gibson subsidiary, it was once a prestigious brand of its own). By the end of 1964, the Beatles were becoming a studio-oriented group. Outside of the live context, McCartney realized he would now have his own opportunities to contribute guitar tracks. It was time to pick out a quality guitar of his own. Apparently, on the advice of the legendary blues band leader John Mayall, he decided on an Epiphone Casino. He must have liked it, because he plays the same guitar to this very day:
His bandmates were also impressed: Harrison and Lennon both picked out their own Casinos soon after. They both sanded down the finishes on their versions. You can see Lennon playing his in the legendary rooftop concert, the last time the Beatles played together live:
Lennon and Harrison didn’t stand by their Casinos like Paul, and migrated onto other guitars soon after. George, in particular, developed a taste for Fenders, which leads us to our next two beauties.
In 1968, Fender was considering rolling out an all-Rosewood Telecaster as a major new commercial offering. They sent a prototype to George Harrison as a marketing experiment (he’d later say, if forced to choose, that it was his favorite guitar ever). It’s a truly unique beauty (and what George is rocking in the rooftop video above.
Finally, it seems few classic rock players can totally escape the magnetism of the Stratocaster. Harrison had lusted for one since seeing the Strat (like so many other early rockers) on the cover of a Buddy Holly album. Post-war import restrictions designed to protect Britain’s industry, however, made Fenders virtually impossible to buy in the UK at that time.
But, in 1965, Lennon and McCartney were able to buy “the Buddy Holly guitar.” They picked out matching sonic blue Strats. Both can be heard extensively on Rubber Soul. Lennon moved on, though Harrison would often use his for the remainder of his Beatles and solo career. As a solo artist, he generally kept it set up for slide.
Harrison also gave his Strat a wild custom paint job (he did it himself):
The headstock is apparently painted with Patti Boyd’s nail-polish (his then-wife, who’d go on to inspire Layla and marry Eric Clapton). Now that guitar is a piece of history.