George and his black 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet

George and his black 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet

I’ve been thinking a lot about guitars lately, and the guitars of the Beatles in particular.  For most of my life, my ears have resisted the temptation to dissect a song when it came to songs by the Beatles. They were to me a beautiful, homogenous, sacrosanct blend of amazingness, with the possible exception of 12 bar original.

But lately I’ve been taking every opportunity to play on a guitar associated with the Beatles. Every guitar teaches me something I didn’t know about guitar playing and also about the songs the Beatles used them on. There are some pretty nice guitar stores in LA, and there’s almost always something new (new to me, vintage in age) and interesting to try. Just yesterday I played on a ’67 Gretsch Country Gentleman through a VOX AC30 amp.

Last time I was there it was a ’64 Rick 360/12 (very close to George Harrison’s 1st Rickenbacker 12 string). It’s amazing how just playing on one of those instruments for a little while wakes up your ears to the sound. It’s like, now I’ve been introduced, and now I have a personal relationship with the sound and feel of that guitar, and now it’s not just some anonymous guitar sound when I hear it on the record. It’s like hearing the voice of an old friend in a crowded room. For example, after playing on a Gretsch Duo Jet, the sound and feel of it are unmistakable as the guitar used on the lead of “I Saw Her Standing There“.

George with his 1962 Country Gentleman and Vox amp

George with his 1962 Country Gentleman and Vox amp

By the way, if you want to hear John’s 1958 Rickenbacker 325 especially clearly, this video from 1963 of them live in Sweden for a TV show called Drop In is particularly instructive. George’s guitar is mixed woefully low, so you can only just hear his part. John really was an amazing rhythm guitar player.  A pretty huge part of the sound of the early Beatles is his Rickenbacker and the way he played it. Another wonderful place to hear the sound of John’s Rick 325 is on the only song credited to Lennon/Harrison, “Cry For A Shadow“, recorded in Germany as part of the tracks done with Tony Sheridan that produced “My Bonnie” and “Ain’t She Sweet“.

I’ve been really blown away to realize, as I listen again to these songs with my guitar cap on, how much care they put into constructing the two parts, and how much artistry there is to the arrangement. It’s as integral to the sound of the Beatles as their vocal arrangements.

So considering that they must have put so much heart and soul into developing these really amazing guitar arrangements, which in my opinion have a lot to do with the very unique sound created by the combination of a Gretsch Duo Jet and Rickenbacker 325, why then would George get it into his head to get a new guitar, namely the Gretsch Country Gentleman, and potentially mess with the sound of the band?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, and I have formulated a hypothesis: It wasn’t the fault of the Duo Jet, it was the use of the Gibson J160-e that caused a need for something new.

John receiving his J160E

John receiving his J160E

As I’ve been listening to these songs with the new guitar ears on, I’ve been rather stunned to hear how much they were doing with the J160-e. It’s true that when recorded via the pickup, the J160-e sounded like, and was for all intents and purposes, an electric guitar. But it had a warmer and softer sound than John’s Rick 325, and certainly warmer than the Gretsch Duo Jet.

The Duo Jet is a formidable sound; it’s not exactly agressive, but it’s pushy. 😉 It’s self-assertive and self-assured. And a fun guitar to play, I must say. If you want to hear an example of the Duo Jet played by someone else, I would heartily recommend re-listening to Gene Vincent, especially “Race With The Devil“. The lead is played by Cliff Gallup on a ’55 (I believe) Duo Jet.

I never even considered that it might be two acoustic guitars playing on “Please Please Me”. But then I watched Rob Taylor’s video from his impressive “Beatles To A Tee” series and went back and listened again. I am now persuaded that it was John and George on their J160-e guitars, recorded via the pickups.

On the “Please Please Me” album, there were a number of songs recorded on the J160-e acoustically, like “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, “A Taste of Honey”, “Ask My Why” and of course “Love Me Do”. Once they started doing the big tours with all the other acts like Helen Shapiro and Roy Orbison, they didn’t have a lot of time on stage, so they wouldn’t have wanted to do a lot of guitar switching during the show. They didn’t exactly have a team of guitar techs standing by the stage at every moment. Just Mal and Neil, at best. So maybe George thought to himself, “Hmmm, that Country Gentleman guitar has a nice warm tone and might sound better for playing the lead on ‘Till There Was You'”, which was one of those songs they were playing a lot at that time. Of course “Till There Was You” was a song where the acoustic guitar sound was very pronounced on the record. Though when they used to play it live while George was still using his Duo Jet, it probably sounded more like this version, from the Beatles’ Decca audition tape.

So the Country Gentleman, which is actually a wonderful name for the guitar, by the way; it plays similarly to the Duo Jet, but without the attitude. It’s like the Gretsch Atticus Finch guitar. Anyway, it seems to me that the Gent retained some of the warmth of the acoustic sound on stage, but still had the range to play George’s great rocking part on “Roll Over Beethoven” or the plaintive twang in “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party“.

By the time of “Help!”, George had switched from the Country Gent to a Gretsch Tennessean, due to the loss of his favorite Country Gent on the way to a gig as it flew off the back of their van and underneath a lorry. I believe the lorry driver is reputed to have said something like “Does this banjo have anything to do with you?” as he handed them the pieces of what had been the guitar and case. Of course by then, George could have gone out a bought a bunch of new Country Gentlemen, but he said he’d gotten attached to that one and I guess he decided it was time for the Gent era to end and move on to new sounds.

George with his 1962 Gretsch Chet Atkins Tennessean

George with his 1962 Gretsch Chet Atkins Tennessean

Categories: Beatles, Guitars, Music

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