The Half-Speed Mystery of “A Hard Day’s Night”

I have always been fascinated by George Harrison’s guitar work—his precision, his taste, and his ability to play exactly the right part to complement a song. But I’ve had a nagging suspicion that Harrison’s precision performance on his solo for “A Hard Day’s Night” might have been due to recording the part at half speed. The solo seems, as Beatles musicologist Alan Pollack has said, “impossibly fast,” although Harrison certainly played it verbatim in concerts. If the solo was recorded at half speed, Harrison would have played his part down one octave, so that the solo sounded at standard pitch when the tape was played at normal speed. Although it is well documented that Harrison overdubbed the solo—which was doubled by producer George Martin on piano (and on the same track)—I have found very little tangible evidence to support my theory about the “half-speed overdub.” The Beatles always noted when such changes in tape speed were done, and there is no indication the tape speed was al
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Is there anything more to say? Yes, indeed. And without Martin’s contribution to the solo, I would never have been able to figure it out, as the guitar part offered no clues, but the piano part was more useful. The starting and end notes of each phrase—a G—sounds as G3 on the piano, and as the pair G3 and G4 on Harrison’s 12-string. If the solo were played down an octave, the notes played on the piano would have to be G2 (and on the 12-string, a G2 and G3). Now, on the piano, G2 always has two strings under the hammer, while G3 always has three strings. At last, a difference I could hang my Beatles wig on.

I listened to a stereo version of “A Hard Day’s Night”—where the solo was separated on one channel—and when I analyzed the frequencies of largest amplitude (which correspond to the loudest pure tones), I found three G3s and one G4. Clearly, one of the G3s and the G4 were the notes played on Harrison’s 12-string, so the other two must have come from Martin’s piano. But if the solo was recorded at full speed, then the piano’s G3 should give three G3 frequencies, instead of two. This gave me the proof I needed that the tape speed must have been cut in half when Harrison recorded the solo.

This discovery also clarified for me why Harrison is shown playing the solo high up on the guitar neck in concert footage of the Beatles. When he played the solo at half speed, he most certainly started at the third fret of the 12-string’s low-E strings. And the very issue of the tape speed points to why Harrison played it live where he did—he could use exactly the same fingering he used on the recording, only starting at the tenth fret of the A strings.

Looking back, I don’t think the fact the tape was slowed down for the recording of the solo detracts anything from Harrison’s performance. In fact, it shows what a confident young guitarist he was, as he had the nerve to play such a daring solo at half speed knowing that in concert he would have to step up to the plate and play it up to speed with all of the world watching.