Widely considered the greatest band of all time, the Beatles have earned their massive success based largely on their songwriting skills — all four members of the group both wrote and sang songs, and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison are all regarded as some of the greatest composers in the history of modern music.
But while the Beatles have always received plenty of credit for their creativity and songwriting talents, they’re often overlooked as guitar players. Their songs may have changed the course of popular music, but some of the guitar techniques they employed have become just as influential to plenty of musicians in the generations after the band’s breakup in 1970.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the Beatles’ greatest guitar techniques, from the raw energy of the band’s early days and first couple of albums to the polished precision of their final few LPs — one of which made our list of the greatest guitar albums of all time. We’ll start out by breaking down the unique style and techniques of each of the three guitar players in the band (Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison), and then take a look at how each one used their skills to influence the group’s output as a whole.
Even though the band is now over 50 years old, many of these techniques remain surprisingly modern — look closely and you’ll definitely be able to find some ways to fit them into your own playing.
John Lennon’s combination of a Rickenbacker 325 and Vox AC30 became famous.
While he’s often overlooked as a rhythm player, John Lennon was a crucial part of the Beatles’ sound throughout their history. His steady, chugging rock-and-roll beat helped anchor many of the band’s greatest songs — and his rhythm skill has led to some of the band’s most influential techniques as well.
Lennon, like all of the Beatles, was a completely self-trained guitarist; he never received any sort of formal music education and lacked much knowledge of music theory (or even some note names!). However, what he lacked in knowledge he more than made up for in passion and energy. His impeccable natural rhythm and raw, aggressive pick attack made him the perfect complement to George Harrison’s thoughtful lead lines and Paul McCartney’s smooth, slinky bass work (especially in the band’s final records).
Lennon’s self-taught pedigree shone through on records and in live performances as well as his songwriting. Because he learned chords and rhythm entirely from listening to songs and playing by ear, he acquired an innate feel for rhythm playing and how chords fit together into a cohesive whole rhythm part.
Rhythm and Lead at Once
One of Lennon’s greatest techniques was the ability to switch effortlessly between rhythm and lead parts — often within the course of a single song! While he may be known more for his rhythm playing, Lennon took center stage on plenty of legendary tracks, like “Get Back” and “Dear Prudence.”
Even though the Beatles had a dedicated lead guitarist in George Harrison, Lennon’s power to switch from rhythm to lead and back again freed up Harrison to provide more textured accompaniments and focus on livening up a song’s character rather than playing basic, stock lines or backing chords.
That flexibility also shone through when Lennon did assume the lead guitar role, whether for solos or accompaniment to vocal lines. Take a listen to his solos on “Get Back,” for example — he switches seamlessly from staccato, choppy chord playing during the verses to a pair of slinky, legato solos filled with fluid bends and smooth pentatonic lines.
As you practice your own playing, remember that you don’t need to maintain a strict line between rhythm and lead playing. Don’t limit your practice to just barre chord work or to only creating lead lines! Instead, practice shifting between rhythmic chords and arpeggios to solos and solo lead riffs.
Whether or not you’re playing in a band, this flexibility will help you craft livelier guitar parts for any songs you do want to play. You can always transfer this technique to a band setting with other guitar players, or you can merge rhythm and lead parts to create lush solo guitar arrangements. While developing this flexibility isn’t easy at first, after a while practicing the technique you’ll be able to switch easily between rhythm and lead guitar!
Passion and Energy
Beyond his dual-threat capabilities as both a rhythm and a lead player, John Lennon also became famous for his passion and force when he was holding down the backbeat. In fact, his spot-on rhythm was one of the factors that helped propel the Beatles to their early success — it was Lennon’s chugging rhythm guitar which made the band’s young beat rockers so fun for listeners to dance to!
And even though (as we mentioned above), Lennon never received formal lessons to learn how to play the guitar, he was blessed with plenty of fire and a great pair of ears with which to pick up rhythms from songs he listened to on the radio. He carried that “live-band” energy with him throughout his career. No matter where he was performing (in the studio, at a concert, or on the radio), he pumped every bit of energy he could into his rhythm parts. The upbeat timekeeping in “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is a great example:
To a player looking for concrete ways to improve, talking about “passion and energy” might seem trite at best and useless at worst. But even though it’s not as easily applicable as some of the other techniques on this list, playing with more fire can have just as significant an impact on your playing as any other factor.
This is particularly true if you struggle to record in a studio. Oftentimes, tracks that sound great live or in the practice room can come out flat in the studio thanks to the cold, “sterilized” environment. Focusing on the energy behind your rhythm and lead playing will help you fight against that chilly environment and deliver recordings which convey your true sound.
Rock and Roll Vocabulary
Finally, Lennon borrowed much of his lead guitar vocabulary from straight blues and early rock and roll. These influences were often much less complex than the sources from which the other Beatles took inspiration — but out of the group, nobody else could match Lennon’s edge and no-nonsense style.
This rock and roll pedigree is most evident on blues-based songs, which allowed Lennon the opportunity to deliver crunchy, salty solos without needing to play over chord changes or dilute his musical message. One particularly outstanding example is on “Yer Blues,” a track off of the band’s 1968 self-titled double album The Beatles, Performing live here at the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and Roll Circus,” Lennon takes a much different approach from his partner guitarist, Eric Clapton. Take a listen to the video below to hear for yourself:
This is a deceptively simple approach to soloing over a 12-bar blues progression. Lennon takes repetition to the extreme, playing only one lick for nearly two choruses! But while most other players would select a riff built around single-note lines, Lennon instead chooses a meaty, gritty double-stop riff. That extra note lends a serious punch to the solo, transforming it from a weak and flabby attempt at improvisation to a muscular, stripped-back minimalist approach.
That double-stop hammer-on and pull-off happens to be taken directly from early rock and roll performers like Chuck Berry, who used repeated hammer-on and pull-off combinations in his solos to establish a vibrant rhythm and swing feel. Even though it’s not technically difficult to play, this piece of rock and roll vocabulary still has enough depth to carry almost an entire solo.
It’s also interesting to watch how Lennon harnessed his rhythm guitar instincts even as he played lead on certain tracks. Listen carefully to hear how he subtly alters the timing of the riff against the rhythmic backdrop; he changes how closely he hews to the pulse of the groove, a trick that offers a bit of intrigue to any listeners who might otherwise grow tired of the repetition.
As you work on your own soloing instincts, you can use these “basic” pieces of early rock and roll guitar vocabulary to build up a repertoire of aggressive yet rhythmic licks. These will work well in plenty of different situations; their simplicity makes them far more versatile than other, more esoteric riffs. No matter what style of music you like to play — from classic rock guitar to blues guitar, indie guitar, and even jazz guitar essentials— you’ll definitely be able to incorporate some of Lennon’s style into your rhythm licks and solos. For another in-depth look at soloing on guitar, check out our article detailing how to improve your guitar solos.
Though initially called “the quiet Beatle,” Harrison grew into his own as the band mature
Initially regarded as “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison’s smooth, fluid licks and impeccable grasp of space showed that he could do far more than play in the background. In fact, Harrison is often regarded by players and critics today as one of the most melodious players in the history of rock music.
Like Lennon and McCartney, Harrison is often best known today for his compositions. He was the author of “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun,” two of the most famous tracks off of the last album the Beatles recorded together, Abbey Road. But even before the band’s swan song, Harrison produced gems like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “If I Needed Someone.” Those songs, while compositionally complex, were all built around catchy, melodic guitar lines.
Harrison shared McCartney and Lennon’s background in early rock and roll and Merseybeat, and he was also a self-taught musician just like the others. But where Lennon always remained tethered to his original rock and roll and McCartney often looked backwards towards the dance and swing music of the 1930s, Harrison created a new strain of guitar playing that was both harmonically complex yet driven by melodic riffs and the prudent use of space.
If you’ve never listened to all of Harrison’s hits, it might be difficult to see how prevalent riffs are to his compositions. But with the knowledge of his style, it becomes much more clear just how important instrumental hooks were to create Harrison’s signature smooth and restrained sound. Practically every one of his greatest hits involves a smooth, catchy phrase placed front and center in the mix at the beginning of the song.
Take a listen to one of Harrison’s earliest hit songs: “If I Needed Someone,” released on the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul. Notice how simple the central riff is; adapted from the riff on the Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney,” Harrison used the lick as a motif throughout the song. It repeats before the lyrics enter, during the verses, and throughout the bridges of the tune as well. It’s certainly a great example of working a catchy riff into the listener’s head!
But while the best hooks sound effortless, they can be painfully difficult to write! Great licks feel recognizable and simple, but don’t mimic basic scale runs or feel “boxed” into any one genre. If you’re struggling to write a catchy hook for your own songs, you might want to try what Harrison did: take a lick you love, (as he did with “The Bells of Rhymney”) and switch it up. Think of ways to make it sound your own and tinker with both the notes and the rhythm. For some other ideas, you can always check out our article containing 10 easy beginner riffs.
Once you keep making these minor edits, it will be much easier to come up with something you can put into a song. Just make sure to switch up the underlying harmony as well — even similar groups of notes can sound very different when played over different chord progressions!
After you find a melody you love, take another page out of Harrison’s book and place it front and center in your song. Lead off the tune with your hook, and play it underneath the verses and throughout the choruses or bridges as well. If you want to include a guitar solo, you can even incorporate bits of your main lick there! As long as your riff is strong enough to carry the song, this is a great way to make your tunes catchier and keep them more focused around a single musical motif.
Learning how to produce and mix your own songs can also help you make your riffs more prominent. For more information, look at our FL Studio 20 review, which covers how to record and mix a song, and our list of the best music making software as well as our buyer’s guide for the best audio mixers.
Space and Timing
Out of all of George Harrison’s musical talents, his command of space and timing might be the most impressive. In fact, his restraint and touch helped characterize some of the Beatles’ most famous hits, and grew to symbolize the group’s guitar style in general. When combined with his natural melodic instincts and smooth, supple playing mechanics, Harrison’s feel helped form some of the band’s most enduring compositions.
To beginner guitarists, space and timing might seem like very easy things to master — after all, to use space you just don’t have to play notes, right? At first glance, that seems like something that’s a lot easier to do than shredding at lightning speeds! But while using space might not require technical skills like sweep picking or tapping, it can be an incredibly difficult thing for any guitarist to master.
Learning to use space in a way that sounds good requires an impeccable sense of rhythm and outstanding musical knowledge. These factors are what turn clumsy, awkward gaps in songs into smooth, fluid spaces which accent the notes that the musicians do actually play. Without that knowledge, attempts to “create space” or add some “tasteful restraint” often devolve into uncertain, halting breaks and choppy songs which don’t flow together smoothly.
This ties in with dynamics — an aspect of guitar playing that’s often overlooked, but can take your style to the next level. For more in-depth looks, check out our articles on how to make your guitar playing more dynamic and how to master guitar dynamics.
For an example of Harrison’s use of space, listen to his guitar solo on “Something.” Each phrase remains tight and self-contained; none of his licks run into each other or drag on longer than they need to. The solo is curt and strikes directly to the point — but it’s also a composition of stunning melodic beauty and gentle, soft phrasing.
With the “air” in between each line, it’s much easier for listeners to process the solo as it develops, without needing to pause or rewind the song to fully understand the improvisational techniques. “Bringing the listeners along” in this way also makes the solo much more enjoyable to hear. It feels melodic and quotable, rather than just an awkward collection of single notes and scale runs. If you struggle to avoid basic runs up and down a scale box when you improvise, forcing yourself to pause between phrases and neatly define your ideas is a great way to sharpen up your playing.
These spaces also create a lovely contrast between the solo’s forward momentum and its slower, more stately pace — just as we gain steam and begin to run onwards, Harrison pulls us listeners back by wrapping up his phrase. Even though the space in between each lick is short, it’s just enough time to slow down each listener and keep the pace of the solo as a whole more contained.
This is another outstanding use of space and timing, because it maintains the conventional structure of a solo and keeps the listeners interested throughout. Instead of deploying his fastest licks right out of the gate, Harrison builds up the tension by creating anticipation among the listeners, then rewards them with an exceptional finish. Harrison employed this technique throughout other albums as well, like Revolver — another undisputed classic album.
You should also notice how the spaces grow less frequent as the solo reaches its climax. This is one of the main reasons why incorporating more spaces into your solos and rhythm parts can be so effective — when you want to kick things up a notch, you can easily do so by cutting out some of the spaces. There’s a clear progression here from the beginning to the middle and end, and our energy levels rise as we move through each stage.
Contrast the masterful use of space and timing in this solo with your own improvisation and other (inferior) solos in other songs. Even though Harrison avoids playing chop-heavy licks that would require him to burn up and down the fretboard (most likely an intentional move), he still manages to craft an absolutely killer solo thanks to his feel for space and timing between his lines. You might even argue that he says more when he’s not playing notes than when he is fretting a line!
Chord-based melodies are another signature technique of George Harrison’s playing style, and therefore one of the greatest guitar techniques of the Beatles as a whole. They may not create the flashiest riffs and solos, but they’re solid, dependable, and infectiously smooth. If you want to switch up your soloing style while keeping it rooted in solid theory and not just burning colorful scales up and down the neck, chord melodies are an exceptional way to get the job done.
“If I Needed Someone,” which we discussed in more detail above, offers a great example of a lick built entirely around one chord shape: the song’s primary vocal melody utilizes the notes of an “A” chord, played in a “D” shape with a capo on the seventh fret of the neck. With just one chord and a couple of chromatic notes close by, Harrison created one of the best songs of his career to that point.
But beyond “If I Needed Someone,” another song off of the same Rubber Soul LP contains an even better example of Harrison’s chord-based melodies. That song is “Nowhere Man,” where George offers up a solo played entirely with chords and a couple of light extensions. Take a listen to the track (and the solo) below:
At first glance, this solo seems exceptionally simple. Some players might not even call it a “true solo” at all and label it an “instrumental break” instead! But even though it mirrors the regular chord progression of the song and incorporates mostly the notes from the chords themselves, this is still a masterful solo, thanks to its use of chord-based melodies. George isn’t just playing the chords normally here — he’s adding emotion and movement to each of them, so that they flow into one another and propel the listener forward throughout the length of the solo.
That emotion and movement comes largely in the form of the extensions added after the first strum of each chord. The exact number of extensions varies — oftentimes George only adds one note, while at other points he adds two to better flesh out the motion of the specific chord. However, both the one-note and two-note extended phrases serve the same purpose in the end: to keep the solo going and to distinguish it from a basic restatement of the chords lying underneath each verse.
Up until now, most of our discussion of Harrison’s greatest guitar techniques has covered his simplest techniques. While they might sound easy, they’re certainly difficult to master! But beyond his restrained use of space and light, airy chord-based melodies in his riffs and solos, Harrison could also hold his own as a blues and rockabilly player! While he probably honed his skills by playing long hours in Hamburg nightclubs before the Beatles broke big, George certainly retained those same chops even after he became the most famous lead guitar player in the world.
Most of Harrison’s country influences came through rockabilly players like Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore, and Buddy Holly. These kings of early rock and roll incorporated influences from both blues and pure country influences, leading to a combined style which emphasized uptempo bluesy licks along with country-style chicken picking and fingerpicking techniques.
While many of the more obvious country techniques faded into the background on the Beatles’ recorded work, some early songs display Harrison’s familiarity with chicken picking (a term to describe the country technique of holding a pick with your first two fingers and using your other fingers to pluck extra strings as well). Take a listen to “All My Loving,” one of the group’s radio hits from their second album With the Beatles. The guitar solo in the middle may be short, but it’s made almost entirely from chicken picking exercises like the ones Harrison would have heard on early rockabilly records. For another great resource, look at our guide to playing fingerstyle guitar.
Paul McCartney’s acoustic work inspired many famous compositions.
Even though Paul McCartney was ostensibly the Beatles’ bass player, he did take lead guitar duties on a couple of tracks! Thanks to his own unique style and his important contributions to the Beatles’ techniques as a whole, he definitely merits a spot on this list. If you want to check out some of the best basslines (including McCartney’s)or learn how to lay down some bass riffs for beginners, check out our other articles on those subjects.
While all of the Beatles were talented songwriters, McCartney in particular knew how to compose a catchy pop melody that moved up and down the key. To give more space to those melodies and avoid over cluttering his songs, Paul also became very skilled at learning when to provide the right acoustic backing.
This technique often coincided with fingerpicking, on songs like “Yesterday,” “Rocky Racoon,” and “Blackbird.” While none of these songs is very technically complex, they’re all balanced perfectly against a strong melody, incorporating backing only when necessary so as not to disrupt the balance of the song.
Listen to “Yesterday,” off of the LP Help! for a particularly good example of this. Notice how, while the rhythm guitar part propels the song, it never steps in the way of the melody or prevents you from understanding the nuances of what McCartney’s singing. This kind of restrained backing works particularly well for solo compositions. To get better at this type of playing, you’ll need to learn how to improve your strumming.
If you want to incorporate this technique in your own playing, it’s important to have a good sense of where to insert some rhythm guitar. Don’t go crazy, but don’t leave your song too sparse, either! Finding the right balance requires a good touch for rhythmic playing. If you struggle to nail that balance, remember that you should always want the melody to carry your song. As long as you have a strong melody behind your composition, focus on not drowning the tune out with extraneous rhythm parts. McCartney was better than anybody at doing just that during his time in the Fab Four.
While Paul has earned a reputation as the soft balladeer in the Beatles, he could also rip out some gritty, technically difficult solos — as he proved on songs like “Taxman” and “The End!” Rather than providing soft, mellow accompaniment to sung melodies, these solos were designed to grab the attention of any listener and force them to focus exclusively on the current solo.
Listen to his exotic, frenetic work on “Taxman” (from Revolver) for a great example. The rhythm seems to cascade through the solo, almost falling in and out of time over the course of the break. The fuzz guitar tone and harsh, rapid-fire picking techniques only help this stick out in the mix further and grab attention even more.
Crafting these kinds of solos requires precision and a high degree of technical skill. Before you can do this, you might want to learn some great easy solos for beginners, as well as work on learning how to play better lead guitar lines and figure out how to improvise solos.
Even 50 years after their breakup, the Beatles are still widely regarded today as the greatest band of all time. That reputation speaks volumes about all of the members’ skills as songwriters as well as guitar players. But in the rush to praise the creativity of each member, many listeners neglect the prodigious guitar skills of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. While they may be a fairly old band, there are still plenty of techniques that you can learn from them to help your playing today!