A Guitarist’s Guide to the British Invasion

Lots of American guitarists who take a patriotic view of their music like to trace the lineage of rock and roll from blues to country to rockabilly and finally to the heavy stuff of rock’s golden age. Most draw a straight line from the African-American blues players of the Delta and Chicago to R&B and rockabilly guys such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Elvis, and make a beeline to Jimi Hendrix and the hard rock movement of the late ’60s.

But the real way blues guitar got to rock and roll was by taking a side trip to England—and years before there was Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. The Brits took our blues and then sold us back our own cultural spoils when they came ashore in the so-called “British Invasion.” We didn’t get “invaded” as much as we got “ransomed” for our own musical provenance. The Beatles may have scored gold with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but they had mined plenty of raw ore with blues tunes such as “Matchbox,” “Slow Down,” and “Money.” The same can be said of the Rolling Stones, who covered even more blues tunes than the Beatles.

Even in these earliest stages of the British Invasion—while Clapton was still with the Yardbirds, and before Page had Zep—Americans were getting schooled in the blues from the most popular British bands of the day. These bands may have paid homage to Elvis, but that was more for his generalized appropriation of the whole performance package: the snarky singing, the hip shaking, and the smoldering sex appeal. Musically, the bands that came across the pond in the early ’60s had our blues DNA already grafted onto them.

If you’re a guitar player and you really want to see who made off with the goods from the American blues experience, look to the earliest wave of the British Invasion—the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and the Animals. These bands were part of rock history long before anyone had heard of Zeppelin and Sabbath.

In chronological order by release date, we’ll tackle these bands and the tunes where the blues influence is obvious—whether that’s because the song incorporates the blues in a highly original manner, as did the Kinks with their early hits, or whether it’s an existing song treated to a completely different setting, as evidenced by the Stones’ “cover” (though that hardly does their treatment justice) of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” All of the songs invoked here were derived from or inspired by another source, but were all re-imagined in some unique way.

The Beatles, who started this whole mess, were uncanny in their protean skills: raw and edgy in the beginning (like the Stones were when covering Chicago blues guys) but developing into pop masters as they grew up with the music (from R&B to Dylan to psychedelia to lavish production that presaged the ’70s). In the British Invasion, though, they were the first ones over the wall, so in an effort to quench the blood-lust of the teeming masses, their early recorded work contains a mishmash of quotidian blues and R&B covers with the truly great songs of Lennon and McCartney that induced screaming in teenage girls. The cover songs often gets short shrift, but it’s fascinating stuff, and a good way to see into the Beatles development, rough patches and all.

Money (That’s What I Want)

“Money,” off the Beatles’ debut album, is a piano-based song (with a great piano lick) written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford. It was originally cut by Barrett Strong for Berry Gordy’s Tamla label (the precursor to Motown). The classic riff falls incredibly well on the guitar in the key of E, and offers a nice alternative to the ubiquitous 5-to-6 Jimmy Reed-style boogie that Chuck Berry was playing. The riff in Ex. 1 is arranged for both the E and A chords, although the Beatles play only the E part. Interestingly, as Paul and George play the riff in E on the recording, John clangs the V and IV chords (B7 and A7, respectively) over the top, just like on Strong’s original version. Unusual and cool.

Slow ’Nuff

George Harrison is one of the most influential, evolved, and versatile electric guitarists in rock guitar history. But it wasn’t always so, as the early Beatles recordings show. His solos were a little stiff and halting, even when they showed signs of great potential. Case in point: the passage in Ex. 2, which is inspired by his break in “Slow Down.” In contrast to Harrison, Chuck Berry was fully evolved and played a smooth lead style—even while duckwalking. But the “shy Beatle” was also unprepossessing even when soloing. In “Slow Down,” he starts off with a low-string, secret agent-style riff, and pretty much stays down in amongst the middle three strings before venturing into the upper frets. It’s a great study to hear the ideas of his repeated-note syncopations (bars 7-8), because while inventive, they don’t quite work. Obviously, he would “fix” this, and go on to become one of the great guitarists of all time, producing stellar slide work (“Marwa Blues”), classic pentatonic solos (“Let It Be”), and immortal fingerpicking (“Here Comes the Sun”).

Two-Chord Masters

The Kinks are the exception in our blues-invasion study, because their songs are not covers (or a direct tribute, as is the case with the Who’s “Magic Bus”). The only thing that you could construe as derivative is that it is alleged that the Davies brothers wrote “You Really Got Me” (1964) while trying to emulate the blues-based “Louie Louie,” by the Kingsmen. But while “Louie Louie” features a rather straightforward pentatonic blues solo, Dave Davies’ playing is positively schizoid. In any case, the real story is not in the soloing, but the riffs—or should I say riff—on which their songs are based.

You could argue that the Kinks built their career on just two chords and one key. Their three biggest songs, “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night” (1964), and “Tired of Waiting for You” (1965) were all in G and featured a repeated G-to-F chord progression, as shown in the three phrases in Ex. 3.

But some really cool opportunities result from this. The vocal melody in “You Really Got Me” is the pentatonic minor scale superimposed over the G-F progression. Plus, lead singer Ray Davies kind of slurs into that 5th degree (D) from below, making it a six-note blues scale.

The second phrase, beginning in bar 3, is the chord progression to the three-note melody in “All Day and All of the Night.” Jim Morrison would later “borrow” this melody for the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” “Tired of Waiting for You” has a Mixolydian melody. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day” use power versions of the two key chords, F and G, giving the Kinks a distinctive “garage band” sound, when other British bands of the time included such treacly acts as Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon. Keep in mind that the Kinks’ eschewing of the triads’ third degree is different from the heavy metal guitarists who came later. In the case of the metal sound, it was helpful to leave out the third in the harmonics-rich sound that heavily distorted guitars produced. Here, it’s to derive a decidedly stark sound—which is entirely new. This is bold stuff for the time.

But I Do Got Chops

Whereas Harrison and Davies were in the process of finding their styles and sounds, one guy already had a bold, evolved, lived-in blues lead style from the get-go: Eric Clapton. In Ex. 4, based on the Yardbirds’ 1964 cover of Jimmy Reed’s “I Ain’t Got You,” Clapton rips out these stop-time fills in the upper and middle registers of the guitar with stunning authority. The patented bend-release-pull-off figure is in high dudgeon here in bar 2, and the stinging vibrato—so absent from other Brit-blues guitar at the time—is here in shimmering glory on the high Gs in bars 5 and 6. (Bonus factoid: On the recording, something happens with the volume in the second pass of the solo, when Clapton goes up the neck. Perhaps an engineer doesn’t get the fader up in time, or Slowhand knocked his volume knob back. Either way, the guitar in the second bar in the section after the stop-time solo is almost inaudible before Clapton—or someone—recovers the level.)

However, I Could Be Mollified

The Stones captured better than any rock band—white or black, Brit or Yank—the true classic blues ethic of their Delta forebears. They’re rude, sexual, unbridled—and I’m talking about the guitar parts (and Mick’s vox), not just their lyrics. They were the true threat to young women. They seemed to channel Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon better than they did Berry and Diddley, who are still kind of R&B and shuffley. But their mastery of the blues is clearly evident in how they mix up two classics, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Love in Vain.”

The Stones keep the jump blues treatment of Muddy Waters’ 1948 original version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (1965) except that both the bass and the guitar play a walking-bass pattern [see Ex. 5]. The guitar part is free flowing, though it’s basically an ascending pattern, which mimics the standard boogie beat. But notice how there’s no real pattern strictly observed; every bar is different. Keith Richards is improvising on a walking bass. And if that’s not enough, there’s a tasty acoustic slide on top—creating a three-voiced fugue between the bass, slide, and rhythm guitars.

Now, See What You Done Done

What the Animals did with the 1920 Ma Rainey slow blues called “See See Rider” (1966) was not only put it in overdrive, but add an entirely invented riff. This practically makes it a different song, though the lyrics and melody are true to the original. The I-chord riff uses only notes from the C minor pentatonic scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb), which it transposes up in parallel to grab the IV and V chords. You don’t hear it as a scale, though. It just sounds like a cool variation of a boogie riff, except that this tune is more in the jump-blues category. To follow the form in Ex. 6, be sure to observe the score directions (e.g., Play 2 times, then to C riff, etc.) as this yields the 24-bar blues format in shorthand. Note that the slides into the new chords add a particularly guitar-like flavor and create a neat syncopation effect by slightly obscuring beat 1 and emphasizing beats 2 and 3.

Hop on It

He may be mentioned in the same breath as Harrison and Richards when the topic is early 6-string pioneers of the British Invasion, but Pete Townshend’s playing could hardly be more different. He is an anomaly as far as his approach to the guitar. He may pay homage to the American blues and R&B masters, but he certainly doesn’t play like them. Even in songs such as the bluesy “My Generation” (with its stop-time sections), or “Magic Bus” (the Who’s 1968 tribute to Bo Diddley), Townshend plays like Townshend.

In Ex. 7, based on “Bus,” we see some striking Townshend-isms. For instance, here’s a song that features prominent acoustic guitar fills alongside the electric guitar. And Townshend leads off the interlude section (the only thing approaching an instrumental break in this song) with a full bar of a descending pick slide—without the benefit of distortion to carry him. (Angus Young later got great mileage with a similar approach on “Highway to Hell.”) After an angular line of bluesy acoustic single notes unlike anything ever played by Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, Townshend launches into what he’s really famous for: chordal fills. And finally, he breaks out the Bo rhythm in the last bar.

In a Different Vein

Robert Johnson would hardly recognize his own composition “Love in Vain” (1969) as played by the Rolling Stones. Rather than the medium shuffle of the original, Richards puts it in a slow 12/8 feel with fingerpicked arpeggios. The intro [Ex. 8] is especially novel, in that the two-string hammer-ons sounds more like the work of Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix’s R&B rhythm stylings (e.g., “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary”) than anything Delta-based. Note that this passage is entirely diatonic—not a blue note to be found until the single F in bar 3. But even here, it’s played out of time and meant to serve as a sort of hanging punctuation mark before the verse begins.

These examples are a great introduction to the bluesy side of the British Invasion. The fun part is digging deeper and seeing how this early music fueled the virtuosic blues-rock artistry of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, and became a priceless part of the gorgeous, jangly pop the U.K. is so famous for producing. It’s no exaggeration to say that this wave of Brit music influenced just about everything that came after it.