Guitar World Interviews George Harrison

The following interview was conducted in 1992, but wasn't published in its entirety until the January 2001 issue of Guitar World.

George Harrison looks back at the days when he played lead guitar in The Beatles, the greatest rock and roll band the world has ever known. By Vic Garbarini

"So, you're a real loony too," laughs George Harrison, with the familiar droll, nasal Scouse (as they call it in Liverpool) accent. "Remember lying in that room all day, needle in your arm, feeling dazed, staring up at that ugly lime green ceiling?"
Well, yes, actually I do. And no, we weren't shooting dope together in some dive. The lead guitarist of the most important group in rock history is reminding me of when we met a few years back in Dr. Sharma's clinic in London. Sharma is an M.D. who is also an internationally recognized expert in alternative medicine-in particular, homeopathic and Indian Ayurvedic medicines-and it was these treatments that appealed to Harrison's Eastern philosophic bent. Her waiting room looked like backstage Live Aid: Tina Turner and members of the Police, Pink Floyd-and of course an occasional Beatle-were drifting in and out. Through Sharma, I'd been promised an interview with George Harrison, and now 10 years later-we were finally sitting down to talk. It was late 1992, and George was promoting Live in Japan (Warner Bros.), the concert album of his 1991 tour with Eric Clapton and the last album he released to date.
So why is this interview finally finding its way to print eight years after the fact? Simple: it was lost. Parts had appeared in Guitar World and other places, but the body of the tape disappeared when the famous 1994 L.A. earthquake turned by appartment into a cosmic Cuisinart. Recently, while I was cleaning out a closet, the long-lost tape literally fell into my lap. The timing couldn't have been better: All Things Must Pass, Harrison's superb 1970 solo album, had just recently been issued in a remastered and expanded format. What's more, the massive Beatles Anthology (Chronicle Books) has once again put the Fabs back in the limelight; but while the book is crammed with minutiae that will fascinate anyone with any interest in the Beatles, it contains little information on how the group created its music, the source of its internal conflicts or how those two elements interacted over the years.
I found that Harrison needed a little prodding before he would discuss the band's inner turmoil. Once he opened up, though, he gave a most revealing and candid interview in which he expressed his true feelings for his fellow bandmates. Although Harrison was the first lead guitarist to become an equal in a major band (pre-Beatles guitarists like Scotty Moore, from Elvis Presley's band, were clearly hired guns), he was sandwiched between the two most towering songwriters in rock history-and they often wanted to control his playing-or even do it for him. And of course, getting a decent hearing of his songs was no picnic either.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that Harrison has a reputation as the most dour of Beatles; yet he was witty and upbeat during our talk. He forgave Paul McCartney's controlling tendencies and John Lennon's indifference-but, it was clear, he hasn't forgotten. He seemed emotionally evenhanded, even when angry, balancing the good with the bad and always seeing the positive dimension to all his struggles.
"I'm a Pisces, you know," he joked. "One half always going back where the other half has been."
George was also surprisingly willing to talk about the Beatles from the unique perspective of a guitarist as well as that of a composer. He told how he developed a guitar style that combined the music of the Mississippi Delta with that of India's Ganges Delta, thereby creating his distinctive sound. He spoke of his relationships wit Lennon and McCartney: who was more stimulating-and difficult-to work with, and why. He also described how he sneaked Eric Clapton into the studio to rescue one of Harrison's greatest songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And he answered the long-standing questions about whether he was bord during the making of Sgt. Pepper's.
This may well be the most comprehensive, free-ranging discussion Harrison has ever granted on his years with the Beatles. So, now, here's the man from the band you've known for all these years: Mr. George Harrison.

Guitar World John Lennon said, "I grew up in Hamburg-not Liverpool." Is that also true of the Beatles as a group?

George Harrison Oh, yeah. Before Hamburg, we didn't have a clue. [laughs] We'd never really done any gigs. We'd play a few parties, but we'd never had a drummer longer than one night at a time. So we were very ropy, just young kids. I was actually the youngest-I was only 17, and you had to be 18 to play in the clubs-and we had no visas. They wound up deporting me after our second year there. Then Paul and Pete Best [the Beatles' first permanent drummer GW Ed.] got deported for some silly reason, and John just figured he might as well come home. But when we went there, we weren't a unit as a band yet. When we arrived in Hamburg, we started playing eight hours a day-like a full workday. We did that for a total of 11 or 12 months, on and off over a two year period. It was pretty intense.

GW Paul McCartney told me that playing for those drunken German sailors, trying to lure them in to buy a couple of beers so you could keep your gig, was what galvanized the band into a musical form.

HARRISON That's true, because we were forced to learn to play everything. At first, we played music of all our heroes-Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins-anything we'd ever liked. But we still needed more to fill those eight-hour sets. Eventually we had to stretch and play a lot of stuff that we didn't know particulary well. Suddenly, we were even playing movie themes, like "A Taste of Honey" or "Moonglow," learning new chords, jazz voicings, the whole bit. Eventually, it all combined together to make something new, and we found our own voice as a band.

GW I can see how all this musical stretching gave you the tools to eventually create your own unique sound. But it's hard to believe drunken sailors would want to hear movie ballads.

HARRISON No, we played those things because we got drunk! If you're coming in at three or four in the afternoon with a massive hangover from playing all night on beer and uppers, and there's hardly anybody in the club, you're not going to feel like jumping up and down and playing "Roll Over Beethoven." You're going to sit down and playing something like "Moonglow." And we learned a lot from doing that.

GW Did those tight, Beatles vocal harmonies also come out of Hamburg?

HARRISON We always loved those American girls groups, like the Shirelles and the Ronnettes. So yeah, we developed our harmonies from trying to come up with an English, male version of their vocal feel. We discovered the option of having three-part harmonies, or lead vocal and two-part backup, from doing that old girl-goup material. We even covered some of those songs, like "Baby, It's You," on our first album.

GW When you broke through in America, Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitarists, were clearly your main influences as a guitarist. And, like them, you were using a Gretsch guitar. What was it about that rocka-billy style that captivated you?

HARRISON Carl was playing that simple, amazing blend of country, blues and early rock, with these brilliant chordal solos that were very sophisticated. I heard his version of "Blue Suede Shoes" on the radio the other day, and I'll tell you, they don't come more perfect than that. Later, when we met Carl, he was such a sweet fellow, a lovely man. I did a TV special with him a couple of years ago and I used the Gretsch Tennessean again for that, the one I like to call the Eddit Cochran/Duane Eddy model. And you have to understand how radical that sound was at the time. Nowadays, we have all this digital stuff, but the records of that period had a certain atmosphere. Part of it was technical: the engineer would have to pot the guitar [adjust its level and tone] up and down or whatever. It was a blend that was affected by the live "slap echo" they were using. I loved that slap bass feel-the combination between the bass, the drum and the slap, and how they would all come together to make that amazing sound. We used to think that the drummer must be drumming on the double bass' strings to get that slap back-we just couldn't figure it out.

GW The other major factor in your playing was Chuck Berry. I remember being a kid and hearing you do "Roll Over Beethoven" and thinking it was a Beatles song. We never heard black artists on the radio in those days.

HARRISON Oh, that's still happening. We did a press conference in Japan when I played live there with Eric Clapton [in 1991], and the first question was, "Mr. Harrison, are you going to play 'Roll Over Beethoven' in concert?" And when I said yes, the whole hall stood up and applauded! It was such a big thing for them, which seemed so funny. Then I realized they must still think I wrote it.

GW Going back to the Beatles' early touring days, Ringo Starr told me that you all grave up on playing live because you literally couldn't hear each other, due to all the screaming and the primitive amplification.

HARRISON We couldn't hear a thing. We were using these 30-watt amps until we played Shea Statium, at which point we got those really big 100-watt amps. [laughs] And nothing was even miked up through a P.A. system. They had to listen to us just through those tiny amplifiers and the vocal mikes.

GW Did you ever give up and just mime?

HARRISON Yeah, sometimes we used to play absolute rubbish. At Shea Statium, [during "I'm Down,"] John was playing a little Vox organ with his elbow. He and I were howling with laughter when we were supposed to be doing the background vocals. I really couldn't hear a thing. Nowadays, if you can get a good balance on your monitors, it's so much easier to hear your vocals and stay in pitch. When you can't hear your own voice onstage, you tend to go over the top and sing sharp-which we often did back then.

GW The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 around the time of Revolver. That album was a quantum leap in terms of the band's playing and songwriting. Rock could now deal with our inner lives, alienation, spirituality and frustration, things which it had never dealt so directly with before. And the guitars and music warped into a new dimension. What kicked that off? Was it Dylan, the Byrds, Indian music and philosophy?

HARRISON Well, all of those things came together. And I think you're right, around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver we just became more conscious of so many things. We even listened deeper, somehow. That's when I really enjoyed getting creative with the music-not just with my guitar playing and songwriting but with everything we did as a band, including the songs that the others wrote. It all deepened and became more meaningful.

GW Dylan inspired you guys lyrically to explore deeper subjects, while the Beatles inspired him to expand musically, and to go electric. His first reaction on hearing the Beatles was supposedly, "Those chords!" Did you ever talk to him about the way you influenced each other?

HARRISON Yes, and it was just like you were saying. I was at Bob's house and we were trying to write a tune. And I remember saying, "How did you write all those amazing words?" And he shrugged and said, "Well, how about all those chords you use?" So I started playing and said it was just all these funny chords people showed me when I was a kid. Then I played two major sevenths in a row to demonstrate, and I suddenly thought, Ah, this sounds like a tune here. Then we finished the song together. It was called "I'd Have You Anytime," and it was the first track on All Things Must Pass.

GW Paul told me that Rubber Soul was just "John doing Dylan." Do you think Dylan felt that?

HARRISON Dylan once wrote a song call "Fourth Time Around." to my mind, it was about how John and Paul, from listening to Bob's early stuff, had written "Norwegian Wood." Judging from the title, it seemed as though Bob had listened to that and wrote the same basic song again, calling it "Fourth Time Around." The title suggests that the same basic tune kept bouncing around over and over again.

GW The same cross-fertillization seemed to be going on between the Beatles and the Byrds around that time. Your song "If I Needed Someone" had got to be a tip of the hat to Roger McGuinn, right?

HARRISON We were friends with the Byrds and we certainly liked their records. Roger himself said that the first time he saw a Rickenbacker 12-string was in A Hard Day's Night, and he certainly stamped his personality onto that sound later.
Wait-I'll tell you what it was. Now that I'm thinking about it, that song actually was inspired by a Byrds song, "The Bells of Rhymney." Any guitar playing knows that, with that open-position D chord, you just move your fingers around and you get all these little maladies...I mean melodies! Well, sometimes maladies [laughs] And that became a thrill, to see how many more tunes you could write around that open D, like "Here Comes the Sun."

GW When you did that tour with Eric Clapton in Japan, you opened with "I Want to Tell You," from Revolver. The song marked a turning point in your playing, and in the history of rock music writing. There's a weird, jarring chord at the end of every line that mirrors the disturbed feeling of the song. Everybody does that today, but that was the first time we'd heard that in a rock song.

HARRISON I'm really pleased that you noticed that. That's an E7th with an F on the top, played on the piano. I'm really proud of that, because I literally invented that chord. The song was about the frustration we all feel about trying to communicate certain things with just words. I realized the chords I knew at the time just didn't capture that feeling. So after I got the guitar riff, I experimented until I came up with this dissonant chord that really echoed that sense of frustration. John later borrowed it on Abbey Road. If you listen to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" it's right after John sings "it's driving me mad!" To my knowledge, there's only been one other song where somebody copped that chord-"Back on the Chain Gang" by the Pretenders.

GW Around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, you met Ravi Shankar and went to India to study Indian classical music, which is full of microtonal slurs and blends. When you came back, your guitar playing became more elastic, yet very precise. You were finding more notes between the cracks, like you can in Indian music-especially on your slide work. Is there a conection there?

HARRISON Sure, because whatever you listen to has to come out in some ways or other. I think Indian music influenced the inflection of how I played, and certain things I play certainly have a feel similar to the Indian style. As for slide, I think most people-Keith Richards for example-play block chords and all those blues fills, which are based on open tunings. My solos are actually like melodic runs, or counter melodies, and sometimes I'll add a harmony line to it as well.

GW Like on "My Sweet Lord" and the songs on your first solo album [All Things Must Pass].

HARRISON Exactly. Actually, now that you've got me thinking about my guitar playing Indian music, I remember Ravi Shankar brought an Indian musician to my house who played classical Indian music on a slide guitar. It's played like a lap steel and set up like a regular guitar, but the nut and bridges are cranked up, and it even has sympathetic drone strings, like a sitar. He played runs that were so precise and in perfect pitch, but so quick! We he was rocking along, doing these really fast runs, it was unbelievable how must precision was involved. So there were verious influences. But it would be precocious to compare myself with incredible musicians like that.

GW When you cam back from India, did you intentionally copy on guitar any of the techniques you leared there?

HARRISON When I got back from this incredible journey to India, we were about to do Sgt. Pepper's, which I don't remember much at all. I was into my own little world, and my ears were just all filled up with all this Indian music. So I wasn't really into sitting there, thrashing through [sings nasally] "I'm fixing a hole..." Not that song, anyway. But if you listen to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," you'll hear me try and play the melody on guitar with John's voice, which is what the instrumentalist does in Hindustani vocal music.

GW Paul told me you wanted to do a similar thing on "Hey Jude," to echo his vocal phrases on the guitar, and that he wouldn't let you. He admitted that incidents like that were one of the causes of the band's breakup. And Ringo said you had the toughest job, because Paul in particular and George Martin as well would sometimes try and dictate what you should play, even on your solos.

HARRISON Well, you know, that's okay. I don't remember the specifics on that song. [pauses] Look, the thing is, so much has been said about our disagreements. It's much time has lapsed, it doesn't really matter anymore.

GW Was Paul trying to just hold the band together, or was he just becoming a control freak? Or was it a little of both?

HARRISON Well...sometimes Paul "dictated" for the better of a song, but at the same time he also pre-empted some good stuff that could have gone in a different direction. George Martin did that too. But they've all apologized to me for all that over the years.

GW But you were pissed off enough about all this to leave the band for a short time during the Let It Be sessions. Reportedly, this problem had been brewing for a while. What was it that upset you about what Paul was doing?

HARRISON At that point in time, Paul couldn't see beyond himself. He was so on a roll-but it was a roll encompassing his own self. And in his mind, everything that was going on around him was just there to accompany him. He was sensitive to stepping on other people's egos or feelings. Having said that, when it came time to do the occasional song of mine-although it was usually difficult to get to that point-Paul would always be really creative with what he'd contribute. For instance, that galloping piano part on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was Paul's, and it's brilliant right to thing day. On the Live in Japan album, I got our keyboardist to play it note for note. And you just have to listen to the bass line on "Something" to know that, when he wanted to, Paul could give a lot. But, you know, there was a time there when...

GW I think it's called being human-and young.

HARRISON It is...[sighs] It really is.

GW How difficult was it to squeaze you songs in between the two most famous writers in rock?

HARRISON To get it straight, if I hadn't been with John and Paul I probably wouldn't have thought about writing a song, at least not until much later. They were writing all these songs, many of which I thought were great. Some were just average, but, obviously, a high percentage were quality material. I thought to myself, If they can do it, I'm going to have a go. But it's true: it wasn't easy in those days getting up enthusiasm for my songs. We'd be in a recording situation, churning through all this Lennon/McCartney, Lennon/McCartney, Lennon,/McCartney! Then I'd say [meekly] can we do one of these?

GW Was that true even with an obviously great song like "My..uh..

HARRISON "Piggies"? You mean "While My Piggies Gently Weep"? [laughs] When we actually started recording "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" it was just me playing the accoustic guitar and singing it [This solo version appears on the Anthology 3 CD-GW Ed.] and nobody was interested. Well, Ringo probably was, but John and Paul weren't. When I went home that night, I was really disappointed, because I thought, Well, this is really quite a good song, it's not as if it's shitty! The next day, I happened to drive back into London with Eric Clapton, and while we were in the car I suddenly said, "Why don't you come and play on this track?" And he said, "Oh, I couldn't do that. The other wouldn't like it."

GW Was that a verboten thing with the Beatles?

HARRISON Well, it wasn't so much verboten; it's just that nobody had ever done it before. We'd had oboe and string players and other session people in for overdubbing, but there hadn't really been other prominent musicians on our records. So Eric was relunctant, and I finally said, "Well, sod them! It's my song and I'd like you to come down to the studio."

GW So did that cause more tension with the others? How did they treat him?

HARRISON The same thing occurred that happened during "Get Back," while we were filming the movie [Let It Be, (Apple Films) 1970]. Billy Preston came into our office and I pulled him into the studio and got him on electric piano. And suddenly, everybody started behaving and not fooling around so much. Same thing happened with Eric, and the song came together nicely.

GW Yet, rumor has it you weren't satisfied with your performance on the record. Why?

HARRISON Actually, what I was really disappointed with was take number one [i.e., the solo version]. I later realized what a shitty job I did singing it. Toilet singing! And that early version has been bootlegged, because Abbey Road Studios used to play it when people took the studio tour. [laughs] But over the years I learned to get more confidence. It wasn't so much learning the technique of singing as it was just learning not to worry. And my voice has improved. I was happy with the final version with Eric.

GW Did you give Eric any sense of what you wanted on the solo? He almost sound as if he imitating you style a lot.

HARRISON You think so? I didn't feel like he was copying me. To me, the only reason it sounds Beatle-ish is because of the effects we used. We put the "wobbler" on it, as we called ADT. [Invented by a Beatles recording engineer. ADT, or artificial double tracking, was a tape recording technique that made vocals and intruments sound as if they had been double tracked (i.e., recorded twice) to create a fuller sound. The technique also served as the basis for flanging.-GW Ed.] As for my direction I may have given him, it was just, "Play, me boy!" In the rehearsals for the Japanese tour, he did make a conscious effort for recap the solo that was on the original Beatles album. And although the original version in embedded in Beatles' fans memories, I think the version we captured on the live album is more outstanding.

GW Want to play rock critic for us and critique his playing?

HARRISON Ah, well, he started out playing the first couple of fills like the original, and the first solo is kind of similar. But by the end of the solo he just goes off! Which is why I think guitar players like to do that song. It's got nice chords, but it's also structured in a way that gives a guitar the greatest excuse just to wail away. Even Eric played it differently every night of the tour. Some nights he played licks that almost sounded like flamenco. But he always played exceptionally well on that song.

GW You talked about the pluses and minuses of working with Paul. What about John? He was a much looser, more intuitive musician and composer. Did you help him flesh things out?

HARRISON Basically, most of John's songs, like Paul's, were written in the studio. Ringo and me were there all the time. So as the songs were being written, they were being given ideas and structures, particularly by John. As you say, John had a flair for "feel." But he was very bad at knowing exactly what he wanted to get across. He could play a song and say, "It goes like this." Then he'd play it again and ask, "How does that go?" Then he'd play it again-totally differently! Also his rhythm was very fluid. He'd miss a beat, or maybe jump a beat...

GW Like a lot of old blues players.

HARRISON Exactly like that. And he'd often do something really interesting in an early version of a song. After a while, I used to make an effort to learn exactly what he was doing the very first time he showed a song to me, so if the next time he'd say, "How did that go?" we'd still have the option of trying what he'd originally played.

GW The melody on side two of Abbey Road is a seamless masterpiece. It would probably take a modern band ages to put together, even with digital technology. How did you manage all that with just four- and eight-track recorders?

HARRISON We worked it all out carefully in advance. All those mini songs were partly completed tunes; some were written while we were in India a year before. So there was just a bit of chorus here and a verse there. We welded them all together into a routine. Then we actually learned to play that whole thing live. Obviously there were overdubs. Later, when we added the voices, we basically did the same thing. From the best of my memory, we learned all the backing tracks, and as each piece came up on tape, like "Golden Slumbers," we'd jump in with the vocal parts. Because when you're working with only four or eight tracks, you have to get as much as possible on each track.

GW With digital recording today you can also do an infinite number of guitar solos. Back then, did taking another pass at a solo require redoing almost the entire song?

HARRISON Almost. I remember doing the solo to "Something" and it was dark in the studio and everyone was stoned. But Ringo, I think, was doing a drum overdub on the same track, and I seem to remember the others were all busy playing. And every time I said, "Alright, let's try another take"-because I was working it out and trying to make it better-they all had to come back and redo whatever they'd just played on the last overdub. It all had to be squeezed onto that one track, because we'd used up the other seven. That's why, after laying down the basic track, we'd work out the whole routine in advance and get the sound and balance. You'd try and add as much as possible to each track before you ran out of room. On one track we might go, "Okay, here the tamborine comes in, then Paul, you come in at the bridge with the piano and then I'll add the guitar riff." And that's the way we used to work.

GW "Something" was you most successful song. I think every guitar player wonders, did you get that riff first?

HARRISON No, I wrote the song on the piano. I don't really play the piano, which is why certain chords sound brilliant to me-then I translate them onto the guitar, and it's only C. [laughs] I was playing three-finger chords with my right hand and bass notes with my left hand. And on the piano, it's easy to hold down one chord and most the bass note down. If you did that on the guitar, the note change wouldn't come in the bass section; it would come somewhere more in the middle of the chord.

GW But you did play that Beatles-sounding bridge riff in "Badge" on Cream's Goodbye album, didn't you?

HARRISON No, Eric played that! He doesn't even play on the song before that. We recorded that track in L.A.: it was Eric, plus Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, and I think the producer, Felix Pappalardi, played the piano part. I was just playing chops on the guitar chords and we went right through the second verse and into the bridge, which is where Eric comes in. Again, it sounds Beatle-ish because we ran it through a Leslie speaker.

GW Any contemporary bands that strike you as having a bit of the same spark that your early heroes had?

HARRISON I can't say I've really heard anything that gives me a buzz like some of that stuff we did in the Fifties and Sixties. The last band I really enjoyed was Dire Straits on the Brothers in Arms album. To me, that was good music played well, without any of the bullshit. Now I'm starting to get influenced by my teenage son, who's into everything and has the attitude. He loves some of the old stuff, like Hendrix, and he's got a leather jacket with Cream's Disraeli Gears album painted on the back. As for recent groups, he played me the Black Crowes, and they really sounded okay.

GW You made music that awoke and changed the world. Could you sense that special dimension of it all while it was happening, or were you lost in the middle of it?

HARRISON A combination of both, I think. Lost in the middle of it-not knowing a thing-and at the same time somehow knowing everything. Around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver it was like I had a sudden flash, and it all seemed to be happening for some real purpose. The main thing for me was having the realization that there was definitely some reason for being here. And now the rest of my life as a person and a musician is about finding out what that reason is, and how to build upon it.

GW Finally, any recent acid flashbacks you care to share?

HARRISON [laughs] No, no, that doesn't happen to me anymore. I've got my own cosmic lighting conductor now. Nature supports me.

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