For most musicians, the peak of rock and roll begins and ends with The Beatles. Although the genre began with the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, the Fab Four offered the perfect set for anyone with a catchy tune that won over the hearts of everyone from raucous hard rock to gentle ballad. Although they may have held firm to what people wanted to hear, George Harrison never claimed to be a great musician.
When asked about their musical abilities, Harrison felt that he and his former bandmates were far from being the best musicians in the world, telling BBC in 1963: “To be a guitarist, you have to practice a couple of hours a day. But, I mean, I don’t. Well, you know, I mean, the thing is… individually, we’re all, I guess, we’re all lousy musicians, really.”
Not that Harrison was the only one who lost his musical abilities. John Lennon agreed with Harrison’s point of view: “You know, I don’t have the patience to practice to be the perfect guitarist. I’m more interested in the combination of my voice and guitar. So I don’t go a day without playing, whether I improve or not.”
Even when the band was going through an experimental phase in the mid-1960s, they often asked their producer George Martin what musical terminology was appropriate for what they were trying to say. As Lennon recalled: “He had a very great musical knowledge and experience, so he translated for us and suggested much of what he did. He taught us a lot, and I’m sure we taught him a lot with our primitive musical knowledge.”
Despite their primitive musical knowledge, Paul McCartney mentioned that Harrison was the most adventurous of the four: “George is the only one of us interested in this instrument,” he said. “The other three of us are more interested in the band’s sound.”
For much of their time together, Harrison constantly pushed himself to see what sounds he could make from his instruments, whether it was musical taste on “Something” or finding the notes to create a sitar sound on “Norwegian Wood”. While Harrison remained a researcher, Lennon and McCartney always listened to their ears.
Although Lennon always downplayed his musical abilities, he always translated his emotions into his songs, even if that meant half the time he didn’t know what he was doing. Although McCartney ended up understanding the medium better by working with classical composers, he still admits that he cannot read sheet music, preferring to rely on playing his instrument and seeing what sounds can come from it.
Even in a recent documentary Come back Harrison still needed help figuring out what chords he could play on the piano, and asked Billy Preston what one of the chords in “Old Brown Shoes” was called because he couldn’t play it on the guitar. What the Beatles lacked in musical ability, they made up for by following their muse and not letting creative kinks get in the way of a good song.
There is a lesson in the history of The Beatles for any child who picks up a guitar for the first time. While professionals encourage beginners to learn the basics of theory, not everyone needs the right lessons to sing what’s in their hearts.