George Harrison: A Gallery of His Most Celebrated Beatles-Era Guitars

His most celebrated Beatles-era axes—from the 12-string Rickenbacker to the Rosewood Telecaster.
By cscapelliti,

This is a feature from the Spring 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado.

THE GUITARS OF GEORGE HARRISON: Handled with Care
By Tom Beaujour • Photos by Kevin Scanlon

George Harrison’s guitars are as iconic and important as any instruments in the history of popular music. But for Dhani Harrison, they are also family heirlooms that have always been a fixture in his life and home. Now thanks to the new The Guitar Collection: George Harrison iPad app, they can hold a place of pride in your abode as well.

George Harrison played many a classic guitar during the course of his career, popularizing some models so extensively that he is inextricably linked with them. In the Sixties, during his time with the Beatles, he helped make famous the Rickenbacker 360/12 electric 12-string, a rosewood version of the Fender Telecaster, and the Gibson J-160E acoustic/electric, among others, while his solo years saw him in possession of guitars by famed luthier Tony Zemaitis. These instruments, and many others, have remained in (or were repatriated to) his private collection, but thanks to his son, Dhani, they will be available for all to see and hear in exquisite detail, courtesy of The Guitar Collection: George Harrison, a new iPad app developed by Dhani.

The younger Harrison (who is the spitting image of his father) arrived at the concept shortly after work had concluded on 2009’s The Beatles: Rock Band video game, a project he had largely spearheaded. He was restless and looking for a new tech initiative to sink his teeth into when inspiration struck. Considering that Harrison studied to be an aerodynamicist, it’s not surprising that his muse came from the world of hard science.

“I ran across a really good app based on the periodic table of elements,” he recalls. “It’s kind of Star Wars-ey: you click on an element, like gold, and a photo of a bit of gold comes up and spins around. It’s super compelling compared to when we were kids and learning the periodic table from a book. I thought to myself, We should do this with guitars—the guitar table of elements. We just have to photograph the guitars and have them spinning around and be able to play them, you know? I want to be able to go on 3-D TV and strum it. We can’t do that with this iteration of the app, of course,” he says, with a laugh. “But it will be fully feasible with the next generation.”

And while The Guitar Collection: George Harrison app is not yet fully 3-D, it comes close. Users can spin the guitars and zoom in on them at will, providing a dynamic, interactive experience that one could never hope to achieve in print or by peering at the guitars through glass in a museum exhibit. The technology, developed by Tom Hartle of app developer Bandwdth Publishing, is flawless, and the guitar images, by famed fashion and music photographer Steven Sebring, are both vivid and detailed.

The process of capturing the guitars for the app, however, was nothing short of grueling. “There was no way the guitars were leaving the house,” Harrison explains. Instead, he, Sebring, Beatles archivist Richard Radford, and guitar tech to the stars Alan Rogan decamped to Harrison’s Friar Park Estate in Henry-on-Thames, where the guitars reside. “Everyone moved in, and we took all the furniture in the living room and put it aside and built the 3-D rig in there,” Harrison says. Subsequently, each guitar was placed on a custom-built Plexiglas stand on a rotating platform and photographed hundreds of times. The project, although ultimately successful, was also fraught with unforeseen technical difficulties, some of them quite comical. “We had a light underneath illuminating the base and the guitars. And, of course, as the turntable spun, it wrapped the power cord around itself,” Harrison says, laughing. “So then every time you did it, you had to reset the thing. We were like, Okay, massive design oversight!”

Creating stands that would allow the guitars to rotate on their own axes was another obstacle. “We started with a generic stand, and the rotation looked all wobbly and made you seasick,” Harrison says. “I quickly realized that we were going to have to build new stands and custom fit everything to each one.”

Harrison, who plans to expand the Guitar Collection app to document other players’ instruments as well, is quick to note that the task of designing stands that conform to a variety of guitars’ rotational idiosyncracies will continue to yield dividends as the project continues. “The ultimate goal is to have the whole system contained in a road case that we can bring from one place to another, and just open it up and start shooting,” he explains. “I want to do Eric Clapton’s and Tom Petty’s collections as well as many others. And now we have all of the kinks worked out and stands made for a variety of instruments.”

The visual and interactive aspects of the Harrison app are immediately impressive, as are the detailed descriptions of the seven guitars included in the first iteration of the app: the 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet used during the Beatles’ earliest recordings, the ubiquitous 1962 J-160E acoustic/electric, the “A Hard Day’s Night” 1963 Rickenbacker 360/12, the 1961 “psychedelic” Stratocaster, the 1968 rosewood Telecaster, a 1974 Zemaitis Lotus 12-string acoustic, and a rare Thirties-era Gibson UB-2 ukulele/banjo hybrid. More guitars, including Harrison’s “Sweet Cherry” red Les Paul will follow in subsequent updates.

Included, too, are image galleries that feature photographs of George Harrison playing the guitars, as well as comprehensive lists of the songs on which the instruments were used. These link seamlessly with your device’s iTunes library, so that if you already own the songs in question, they will play within the app when you select them.

But what makes this app a must for diehard fans is the audio content that accompanies several of the instruments, recorded by Dhani in the late Nineties before his father’s death. In it, George talks about and plays several instruments. The recordings are so intimate as to be disconcerting at first, as if George were in the room talking directly to you about the guitars.

“Back in 1999 or so while we were preparing the 30th anniversary reissue of All Things Must Pass, I got the idea that we should do a web site that would document all of the guitars,” Dhani explains. “It never got built, because the technology at the time was not yet up to snuff, but I had gone through the guitars with my dad and had him announce and play each one. I just had a Dictaphone, and we had an amp and all the guitars on the wall. I’d just go, ‘Play this one,’ and, ‘What’s it called?’ And he’d say, ‘This is the psychedelic Stratocaster,’ then play a bit.”

When pressed to pick his favorite guitar in the collection, Harrison selects the 1968 Rosewood Telecaster that his father most notably played on the Beatles’ rooftop performance of “Get Back,” captured in the documentary Let It Be. “Other than the fact that it weighs seven times more than a normal Tele, it’s so nice to play.”

But even legendary guitars are made out of wood, not steel, and they can crack, dry, and chip. Having immortalized the guitars in 360-degree detail also allows Harrison to rest a little easier knowing that, from now on, they will not have to travel, as they did recently to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, to be seen in minute detail. Even if the physical manifestations of the guitars decay, future generations, and perhaps, civilizations will still be able to study them. “I’m really happy to know that those models exist,” Harrison says. “If the world is wiped out and an alien finds a disc somewhere, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s what those guitars looked like. Why didn’t everyone have 3-D models of their guitars? I’d like to see all of Keith Richards’ guitars as well!’” Perhaps so. But as you’ll see over the next pages, George Harrison’s guitars are an excellent place to start.


PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images

GEORGE HARRISON: THE COLLECTION
Guitar Aficionado presents a gallery of the legend’s most celebrated Beatles-era axes—from his 12-string Rickenbacker to his Rosewood Telecaster.


1961 FENDER “ROCKY” STRATOCASTER
Serial Number:83840

GUITAR BIO: In 1965, John Lennon and George Harrison bought matching Sonic Blue Stratocasters that cost £180.60, approximately £2,080, or $2,900, in 2012 when adjusted for inflation. “We sent out our roadie, Mal Evans, and said, ‘Go and get us two Strats.’ And he came back with two of them, pale blue ones,” Harrison recalled. “We used them on the album we were making at the time, which was Rubber Soul. I played it a lot on that album, most notably on the solo on ‘Nowhere Man,’ which John and I both played in unison.”

“If I’d had my way,” Harrison continued, “the Strat would have been my first guitar. I’d seen Buddy Holly’s Strat…on the ‘Chirping’ Crickets album cover, and tried to find one. But in Liverpool in those days, the only thing I could find resembling a Strat was a Futurama that had strings about a half an inch off the fingerboard.”

Harrison’s Strat underwent a trippy cosmetic makeover during the Sgt. Pepper’s recording sessions. He painted the guitar in rainbow Day-Glo colors and dubbed it Rocky. George’s psychedelic artwork inspired many guitarists, including Eric Clapton, to paint their own instruments.

On June 25, 1967, Harrison played his “Rocky” Strat during a televised performance of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” on a program titled Our World, the first live television event to be broadcast globally via satellite and seen by millions.

FEATURES AND MODIFICATIONS: Looking at the back of this guitar (visible in great detail in the Guitar Collection app), one can see that Harrison’s custom paint job does not cover most of the original Sonic Blue finish on the back. The neck, which is unusually fat for a guitar of this vintage, is made of highly figured bird’s-eye maple. A faded dealer’s sticker on the back of the headstock indicates that it came from Grimwoods, a music retailer with outlets in Maidstone and Whitstable, southeast of London.

APPEARS ON: Nowhere Man, All You Need Is Love


1962 GIBSON J-160E
Serial Number: 73161

GUITAR BIO: In June 1962, Harrison and Lennon ordered a pair of matching Gibson J‑160E acoustic-electric guitars from Rushworth’s Music House, one of the few shops in Liverpool where musicians could buy American-made instruments. The guitars had to be shipped from the United States, and according to Lennon’s sales receipt, the J‑160E cost £161.05, approximately £2,050, or $2,850, today when adjusted for inflation.

The guitars were shipped to England during the summer of 1962, and George and John picked them up at Rushworth’s Music on September 10. They put the instruments to use the following day, at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio Two, to record the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do” backed with “P.S. I Love You.”

The two Beatles swapped guitars in 1963 for reasons unknown, and later that year Lennon’s J-160E was stolen. Afterward, he and Harrison would often trade off using the remaining instrument, which has the unusual distinction of being the only guitar used on every Beatles album.

FEATURES AND MODIFICATIONS: The J-160E comes standard with a P-90 pickup installed between the sound hole and the end of its rosewood fingerboard. Harrison must not have been satisfied with its tonality, as he moved the pickup below the sound hole and nearer to the bridge in 1965 prior to the recording of Rubber Soul. The pickup was later returned to its original position, but the holes added by its displacement remain.

APPEARS ON: Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You, Please Please Me, And I Love Her, Michelle, Girl, I’m Only Sleeping, Yellow Submarine


1968 FENDER ROSEWOOD TELECASTER
Serial Number: 235594

GUITAR BIO: In the latter half of the Sixties, Fender made plans to add a solid-rosewood Telecaster and Stratocaster to its line. To get maximum attention for its efforts, the company gave Harrison the Tele prototype. (A solid-rosewood Stratocaster, meant for Jimi Hendrix, was also built but never delivered. Its current whereabouts are unknown.) The custom-built Telecaster was delivered in time for Harrison to use it during the sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road, and the guitar can be seen in use during the rooftop performance sessions in the movie Let It Be. In December 1969, Harrison gave the guitar to Delaney Bramlett of the American act Delaney & Bonnie. It was later recovered by the Harrison estate.

FEATURES AND MODIFICATIONS: The rosewood Telecaster originally featured a satin finish, but Bramlett had the guitar resprayed with gloss. He also swapped out the original tuning machines for Schallers and modified the electronics, which have since been restored. An extra string tree was also added at some point.

APPEARS ON: Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got a Feeling, One After 909, Dig a Pony, Two of Us, The Long and Winding Road, Let It Be


1957 GRETSCH DUO JET
Serial Number: 21179

GUITAR BIO: George Harrison often referred to this Gretsch Duo Jet as his “first good guitar.” He purchased the instrument in the summer of 1961, paying £75 to Ivan Hayward, a 25-year-old former Cunard Line merchant seaman.

“One night I saw an advert in the Liverpool Echo,” Harrison recalled, “and I rushed right over to see it… I bought the Gretsch Duo from a sailor who had bought it in America and brought it back. It was my first real American guitar—and I’ll tell you, it was secondhand, but I polished that thing. I was so proud to own that.”

By 1963, Harrison retired the Duo Jet, and he eventually gave it to bassist (and Revolver album cover artist) Klaus Voormann, who kept the guitar for two decades. After reacquiring the Duo Jet from Voormann in the mid Eighties, Harrison posed with it on the cover of his hit 1987 solo album, Cloud Nine.

FEATURES AND MODIFICATIONS: The chambered mahogany Duo Jet’s Bigsby tremolo is an aftermarket modification installed by Hayward shortly after he purchased the instrument in New York. The guitar has also been refinished, and the multiple switching and pickup modifications that were effected while Voormann owned the instrument were reversed when Harrison recovered the instrument.

APPEARS ON: Please Please Me, I Saw Her Standing There, Twist and Shout


1963 RICKENBACKER 360/12
Serial Number: CM107

GUITAR BIO: When Francis C. Hall, owner of the Rickenbacker guitar company, found out that the Beatles would be in New York during the winter of 1964 to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, he arranged a meeting with the band at the Savoy Hotel to show them some new instruments, including the company’s new prototype Rickenbacker 360/12. Harrison was sick, however, and didn’t attend. Luckily, Lennon did, and he thought the 360 might be the perfect match for his bandmate. “John Lennon played the 12-string, and he said, ‘You know, I’d like for George to see this instrument. Would you mind going over with us and letting him play it?’” Hall recounted later.

“So it was the man from Rickenbacker who brought these guitars ’round for me,” Harrison recalled. “As for my Rickenbacker 12-string, I started playing it for the first recording sessions we did after we returned from those three Sullivan shows we did in ’64.” The unique, chiming tone of George’s new guitar led the British press to dub the Rickenbacker 12 “the beat boys’ secret weapon.”

FEATURES AND MODIFICATIONS: “I used to play the guitar in concerts for years, and it never gave me any trouble,” Harrison once said. “It’s a great classic guitar. That sound you just associate with those early Sixties Beatles records.” The former Beatle also noted that, for the uninitiated, the guitar could take some getting used to. “The neck is narrow, so you have to be very careful when you’re clamping the strings down there,” he said. “The first and sixth strings can slip off the side if you’re pressing at an angle.”

APPEARS ON: A Hard Day’s Night, Can’t Buy Me Love, You Can’t Do That, Eight Days a Week, Words of Love, Every Little Thing, What You’re Doing, Ticket to Ride

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