FAB GEAR! GUITARS OF THE BEATLES Story by Bob Mytkowicz Captions by Richard Smith
John Lennon made the Rickenbacker Model 325 one of his earliest trademarks. The first version he owned—shown here in 1963 after it was refinished black—had a single gold-backed Lucite pickguard and a Bigsby vibrato.
The Beatles promoting their first album on March 22, 1963: Paul with his first Hofner violin-shaped bass, George with his 1950s Gretsch Duo Jet, and John with his Gibson J-160E. Notice the Vox AC-30 amps.
Believe it or not, the Beatles created most of their extraordinary music on stock, off-the-shelf production-model guitars. Were there common threads linking each Beetle's choice of instruments? "John and George had an obvious bias towards American manufacturers," observes guitar authority Richard Smith. "Yet in the 1960s Paul rarely played anything onstage but his German-made Hofners. Surprisingly, John, Paul, and George rarely chose top-of-the-line instruments. For example, at least six models offered by Epiphone in 1964 out-priced each of the Bea-tles' three Casinos. In any event, once a Beetle started wearing a certain guitar model, it became a Beetle guitar. From that day forward, each of the so-called Beetle guitars became the means of looking and sounding like the Liverpool lads —exactly what many guitarists in the '60s (and the '80s, for that matter) wanted to do." The gallery of historical photos accompanying this article shows the Beatles with some of their most often seen and most widely used instruments.
The group pictured during the recording of the Please Please Me album in February 1963 at the EMI Abbey Road Studios in London. This scene illustrates the ubiquitous presence of the acoustic/electric Gibson J-160E's at early Beatles sessions.
Our article is based mainly on photos that appeared in Beatles Book, the official monthly magazine that originally ran from August 1963 through December '69. (These editions have since been reissued, and a new version of Beatles Book still hits the newsstands each month.) Beatles Book photographers had more access to the Fab Four than any other photographers, and they snapped exclusive shots of the musicians in the studio and onstage. While this article presents a thorough accounting of the Beatles' guitars and basses, there were undoubtedly some instruments that were never captured on film.
When the Beatles played Hamburg, Germany, for the first time in 1960, there were five members: John, Paul, and George on guitars, Pete Best on drums, and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. John used a Hofner model 126/B, a blonde, single-pickup guitar similar in shape to a Les Paul. George paid his dues on a sunburst Futurama Resonet—a poor copy of a Strat—and Paul played a Rosetti Solid 7. Sutcliffe used a jumbo Hofner President bass, a single-cutaway, two-pickup model 500/5 hollowbody in a shaded brown finish. Their amps were small, nonde-script models.
During this trip to Hamburg, John saw Toots Thielemans playing a Rickenbacker. He immediately fell in love with the look and sound of this guitar, and soon purchased a Capri 325 finished in Hi Lustre Blonde. Made in 1958, it had three pickups, a 3/4 scale length, and gold Lucite pickguards. John replaced its original Kauffman vibrato with a Bigsby unit (By early 1963 this guitar was refinished black, but it was still the original, albeit very beat-up, blonde finish when the Beatles recorded "Love Me Do.") When Lennon acquired this Rickenbacker, Paul adopted his Hofner 126/B.
Sutcliffe left the Beatles in mid 1961, and Paul took over on bass. His first 4-string was a two-pickup Hofner model 500/1. A violin-shaped hollowbody in a shaded brown finish, it had pickups in the neck and "middle" positions (centered between the bridge and the neck), and a 30" scale length. Meanwhile, George picked up a Gretsch Duo Jet, model PX6128. This late-'50s solidbody sported "cloud" inlays, a Bigsby vibrato, black finish with a silver pickguard, and two DeArmond pickups. Its body style was similar to that of a Gibson Les Paul. George's early influences included Chet Atkins and rockabilly music, so his choice of a Gretsch guitar was obvious. He owned several Gretsch models through the years, including a newer model Duo Jet with "Neo-Classic" (or thumbnail) inlays, a red top with black pickguard, a trapeze tail-piece, and Filterfron pickups.
By now the Beatles' amp situation had improved slightly, with Paul playing through a Truvoice, John using a late-'50s tweed Fender Deluxe, and George favoring a Gibson GA-40T 16-watt combo model with a 12" Jensen speaker. By the summer of '62, the Beatles had switched to Vox amplification.
John and George acquired AC-30 30-watt combo amps, and Paul got a 60-watt T-60 piggyback bass amp with one 12" and one 15" speaker. One of the Beatles' first AC-30s had a white Tolex covering, while the other was black John and George soon had matching black AC-30s, and by September '62 they had purchased matching Gibson J-160E acoustic guitars, as well. This was the start of a trend for matching Beatles guitars. John's and George's main acoustic guitars for many years, the J-160E jumbo flat-top had a sunburst finish, spruce top, mahogany back and sides, bound body and neck, "crown" inlays, and a P-90 pickup at the end of the fingerboard. Most of the time they were used acoustically in the studio, but the musicians plugged them in for "P.S. I Love You." The J-160Es served mainly as backup guitars in concert, but the Beatles did amplify them for "Till There Was You" and other ballads during early tours of England's smaller venues.
George used his new Gretsch Country Gentleman, purchased by June 1963, for the recording of "She Loves You" and With The Beatles. The Country Gentleman, model PX6122, was the top of Gretsch's Chet Atkins line, with gold hardware, Neo-Classic inlays, double mutes, a Bigsby vibrato, two Filter-'Tron pickups, and a dark brown, stained-maple finish. In most pictures George's Country Gentleman looked black. but it was actually the dark finish.
Harrison came to the States to visit his sister in September 1963, and picked up a black Jetglo Rickenbacker 425—a single-pickup, non-vibrato solidbody. It was one of the company's lower-end guitars, and George didn't use it that much. It's only notable appearance is during a Beatles lip-sync on Ready, Steady, Go!, the English equivalent of American Bandstand.
About this time Paul picked up a newer version of Hofner's 500/1. It was basically the same bass, but the centrally located pickup was now in the bridge position. Selmer, Hofner's English distributor, presented him with a gold-plated 500/1 in the spring of 1964. By August 1963 Paul was using a new 100-watt Vox amp with his T-60 speaker enclosure, and this remained his amp setup through the end of 1965.
The Beatles at the time of the Beatles For Sale album in the early fall of 1964. Paul's second Hofner violin-shaped bags had its treble pickup placed in the bridge position rather than in the middle, adjacent to the neck pickup. George is holding his first Rick 12-string.
The Beatles' filmed performance of "Revolution" appeared in England on the BBC's Tops Of The Pops show on September 19, 1968. George played his Les Paul Standard with its seemingly original, but still unexplained cherry finish (not sunburst). John played his stripped Epiphone Casino, and Paul played his early Hofner.
George with his 1963 Gretsch Country Gentleman and Vox AC-100 amp in 1964. Obviously, Harrison was a fan of American guitars and guitarists—a rare tape made at Hamburg's Star Club in 1962 captured him in between Beatles tunes faking his way through a Chet Atkins instrumental.
In the spring of 1966, about the time of "Paperback Writer," John's Epiphone Casino still had a sunburst finish. George played a Gibson SG Standard with two humbucking pickups and a vibrato.
"Gee, it's a Rickenbacker!" George still owns the second Model 360/12 ever made—undoubtedly one of the essential Beatles guitars. Made in December 1963, it had the old-style double-bound body.
During the 1976 Wings Across America tour, Paul McCartney played the same Rickenbacker 4001S bass used on many post-1965 Beatles recordings. Originally, this bass had a Fireglo finish and a horseshoe pickup that wrapped over the strings. Here the bass had a natural finish and a 1970s under-string pickup with the cover removed.
As the halls got bigger and the screams grew louder, the Beatles needed more power to cut through. A November 9, 1963, review in the English pop weekly Disk reported: "Unfortunately, the non-stop ear-piercing screams drowned the Beatles' songs. It was impossible to hear the words. In fact, the group had difficulty in making their instruments heard, let alone their voices." By the end of November, John and George were playing through Vox AC-50 amplifiers that were specially made by Jennings Musical Instruments. Each 50-watt piggyback tube unit had a speaker enclosure housing two 12" speakers. The guitarists used these AC-50s through their June '64 Australian tour.
George played a Gretsch Tennessean, model PX6119, on and off during 1964, and he used it exclusively on the Beatles 1965 world tour. Another guitar in the Chet Atkins line, it was not as deluxe as the Country Gentleman. The hollowbody came in a dark Cherry Red finish and had Neo-Classic inlays, nickelplated hardware, a Bigsby vibrato, and two Hi-Lo'Tron pickups.
February 1964 found the band in New York for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. A throat ailment prevented George from participating in most of the sightseeing/ publicity/rehearsal sessions. F.C. Hall, president of Rickenbacker, came to see Harrison and offered him a new Rickenbacker 360/12 in the Fireglo (natural-to-red) finish. Made in December 1963, the guitar had two pickups, triangular inlays, and binding on the top, bottom, and fingerboard. This was the second 12-string Rickenbacker ever made, and the first one strung with the high octave strings on the treble side, rather than on the bass side as on most 12-strings.
Harrison used this 12-string extensively for the A Hard Day's Night film and LP, featuring it on the title song, "I Should Have Known Better," and "Can't Buy Me Love." The Beatles had already recorded "Can't Buy Me Love" in Paris, but they liked the sound of this new guitar so much that George overdubbed it onto the existing tracks. The 12-string became an essential part of the Beatles sound, and George used it often on the next few LPs.
Rickenbacker gave John a new Jetglo Rickenbacker 325 during the Beatles' first U.S. visit It was basically the same as his original model, except for its white pickguards and Rickenbacker Ac'cent vibrato. Unfortunately, John's original 325 was soon stolen. He later acquired a Fireglo Rickenbacker export model 1996, which was the same as a 325 except for its f-hole instead of a solid top. Rickenbacker also offered a Fireglo Rickenbacker 4001S bass to Paul, but he wasn't interested in buying it. [Ed. Note: For further details, see our July '87 Rickenbacker Exports article.]
Soon after the Beatles returned to England, Rickenbacker presented John with a 12-string version of his model 325. The only difference was the flat tailpiece instead of the vibrato. John used it during the Beatles' tour of Holland in June, and also had it onstage during the American tour that summer. He used a Vox Python guitar strap on this guitar, and later on his model 325. The 1966 Vox catalog described the strap as "armored with striking metal plates, and embellished with metal studs."
Before 1964's summer U.S. tour, Paul had his original Hofner bass refinished to a Fender-style three-color sunburst Its original small pickup rings were also replaced with larger ones. This became Paul's backup bass. The Beatles had started working on Beatles For Sale before the tour, with George using the Tennessean for I'm A Loser," "Words Of Love," "Honey Don't" and "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." Photos in the studio showed John and George using the new Vox AC-100, a 100-watt piggyback tube amp with a 4 x 12 speaker cabinet From this point on, the Beatles used the AC-100s regularly in the studio, as well as for their remaining 1964 and 1965 concerts.
By the time of the Beatles' 1964 Christmas show, John, Paul, and George had gotten sunburst Epiphone Casinos. Based on Gibson's ES-330, the hollowbody had two P-90 pick-ups. The headstock on Paul's right-handed model had the Gibson shape, while John's and George's had the flared Epiphone style. Paul and George had Bigsby vibratos on theirs, and John's had a Gibson-style trapeze tailpiece. Paul used his Casino for the solo fills in "Ticket To Ride."
The Beatles started work on Help in April '65. With this and each successive LP, they did more experimentation with different guitars. The April Beatles Book reported: "Apart from their usual lineup of drums, bass guitar, and grand two lead guitars, they also had a grand piano, an electric piano, a full-sized double bass, and no fewer than six other guitars." Two of the "other?" guitars were Fender Stratocasters purchased by John and George. They were both Sonic Blue, pre-CBS tremolo models with rosewood fingerboards. George used his for the solo of "You're Going To Lose That Girl." "Yesterday" featured Paul playing a new guitar, as well, the Epiphone Texan (similar to a Gibson J-50) that was to become his main acoustic for the next two years.
The October '65 Beatle Book reported that during the American tour, the head of Rickenbacker gave each of the Beatles one of the company's latest models. George received another Fireglo 360/12, the new style with a rounded top and "R" tailpiece. He "retired" his first 12-string and used the new one exclusively for tours Paul received the Fireglo 4001S bass that was offered to him the year before. The 4001S of this period had dot inlays, no binding and two pickups (including the "horseshoe" bridge model).
The following month all four Beatles received Russian-made nylon-string guitars, seem in the studio during the recording of "Day Tripper and Rubber Soul. As they acquired more instruments, they usually had them all in the studio. George debuted his new 12-string on "If I Needed Someone," while John played his Strat George and John played their Strats on "Nowhere Man," and Paul used his Rickenbacker bass for many of these sessions. On "Think For Yourself," he played it through a distortion box, probably a Maestro Fuzz. To achieve different textures, John capoed the J-160E for "Norwegian Wood" and George capoed the 12-string for "If I Needed Someone" Photos reveal Paul even using a capo on his bass! The Beatles experimented with tones by moving the pickup on the remaining J-160E (one was reported stolen in December '64) from its original location at the end of the finger-board to two other spots. The first was next to the bridge, and the second, which they seemed to favor, was at the bridge side of the sound-hole.
For December 1965's U.K. tour, George switched to a sunburst Gibson ES-345. An upgraded ES-335 with slash/block inlays, stereo electronics, and the Varitone six-way tone control, this instrument appears in the promo film for "Ticket To Ride." George's Country Gentleman met its tragic end during this period: Strapped to the trunk of a car, it fell off and was smashed beyond repair.
The next recording sessions, in April through mid June 1966, were for Revolver and the "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" single. Once again the collection of instruments grew. George employed a cherry-finish, pre-1966 Gibson SG Standard with crown inlays, a mahogany body, nickel hardware, two humbucking pickups, and the Gibson Vibrola. He played the SG on 'Paperback Writer," while John used a Gretsch Nashville model PX6120 that had an amber red finish, Neo-Classic inlays, hollow body with double cutaways, and two FilterTron pickups Paul played his Rickenbacker bass. (The Beatles even tried a version of this song with Paul on his Casino and George on a Burns Nu-Sonic bass) Specially made by Jennings, the band's new 150-watt Vox tube amps had huge speaker enclosures housing four 12" speakers and a horn.
The Beatles' 1966 world tour started in Germany in June, with John and George using their Casinos, and Paul his Hofner bass As spares, John had the J-160E, George had his SG Standard, and Paul had his Rickenbacker bass. All three played through the new Vox amps. They used the same instruments but different amps for the Far East and North American legs of the tour. In Japan, John and George had Vox AC-100s; Paul relied on his 100-watt amp and T-60 speaker enclosure. In North America, Thomas Organ-made Vox Super Beatle amps powered the instruments Similar to an AC-100 but solid-state, the Super Beetle featured three channels, a wide range of tone effects, built-in distortion, and reverb.
After the tour, the Beatles got down to serious studio experimentation, with "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" being issued as the first single from this period. By then Paul's choice of bass was the Rickenbacker, and John favored his Casino. George seemed to alternate between his Casino and Strat Both John and George still used the J-160E for acoustic work.
The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the spring of 1967. Beatles Book reported during the sessions: "The Beatles play far more instruments. The total count at the moment is 14 guitars, a tamboura, one sitar, a two-manual [double keyboard] Vox organ, and Ringo's Ludwig kit Plus various pianos and organs supplied by EML" Geoff Emerick, engineer for these sessions, remembered: "If there was going to be a piano used on a track, or a guitar, it was always John or Paul or George saying, Well we don't want it to sound like a piano or guitar.' I had no gimmick boxes to play with, like there are today. .. so we had to invent our effects."
They produced some amazing sounds. Paul played the last half of the "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" solo on his acoustic guitar with the tone dramatically altered. He also used his Casino for these sessions, but his latest guitar was a sunburst, right-handed Fender Esquire with a rosewood fingerboard, which he featured on his solo in "Good Morning, Good Morning" John used his Casino for "When Pm 64" and the J-160E for "A Day In The Life." George double-tracked his "Fixing A Hole" lead with his Strat The new Vox amps powered Vox Super Twin 2 x 12 speaker enclosures. A Fender Bassman amp was used for guitar, as well One session showed Paul playing his Casino and Esquire through a Selmer amp.
Around this time each Beatle "refinished" one of his instruments. The first was John's Casino; he spray-painted its back white. Paul accented his Rickenbacker bass with gray-and-white designs, and George refinished his Strat to a rainbow assortment of colors. Ringo joined in with a new bass drum head done in bright orange with yellow letters. These colorful instruments were featured in the film Magical Mystery Tour and in the Our World television broadcast of "All You Need Is Love." A photo from the "All You Need Is Love" session, however, showed John, Paul, and George all playing their Casinos.
The promo film for "Hello Goodbye," recorded November '67 at London's Chappel Studios, showed John playing a Martin D-28, Paul with a Rickenbacker bass, and George with a Casino. For one of the takes, John used a custom Vox guitar with reverse-scroll cut-aways, three control knobs, a tone switch, a pickup selector switch, and six veg-o-matic pushbuttons! The only conventional feature was its f-hole.
In February 1968 the Fab Four went to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. John and Paul took along D-28s, and many of the songs for the "White Album" [The Beatles] were written on this visit. Before leaving for India, the Beatles recorded "Lady Madonna." Beatles Book reported: "At the first session, George and John put their two guitars through one amplifier while Ringo played drums." Paul used his Rickenbacker bass and handled all the piano work. After returning from India, the musicians spent the spring and summer working on The Beatles and "Hey Jude"/"Revolution." They gave up their Vox amps for Fenders, with John and George using Twin Reverbs and Paul employing a Bassman 100. John and George also received matching solid rosewood Telecasters. (Former Fender executive George Fullerton reports that the company made two prototype rosewood Telecasters for the Beatles.) Fender also gave the band a sunburst Jazz Bass and a sunburst 6-string Bass VL By then, George was using a Gibson J-200 acoustic, while John still preferred the J-160E.
In August '68 Harrison received a special gift from his pal Eric Clapton, a Gibson Les Paul that he named Lucy. Clapton used this Les Paul for all the lead work on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and George featured it on "Cry Baby Cry" and "Sexy Sadie." "Back In The USSR" spotlighted Paul on guitar and drums, George on the Jazz Bass, and John on the Bass VL John also played bass on "Helter Skelter," while on "Honey Pie" George handled bass and John used his Casino. George's SG and Paul's Casino were also featured on these sessions.
For "Hey Jude," recorded at both Trident Studios and Abbey Road, Paul played piano, John played a J-160E, and George appeared with one of his electrics. Its promo film shows Paul on piano, George with the Bass VI, and John playing his Casino through a silver-faced Fender Deluxe amp. In the "Revolution" promo film, Paul appears with his original refinished Hofner bass, while George has his Les Paul and John plays a Casino. By now "psychedelic" was out, and "plain" was in for the Beatles. They had some of their instruments stripped to a natural finish, including John's Casino and a J-160E (a replacement for the one that was stolen). In March 1969 Paul did the same with his Rickenbacker bass, and George's Casino was also stripped.
George made a business trip to the States in October 1968 and purchased the Moog synthesizer that was used for Abbey Road and his solo LP Electronic Sounds. In January '69 the Beatles started work on what was to be their Get Back LP, eventually released as Let It Be in 1970. Paul used his Hofner bass exclusively for it, although he had the Rickenbacker bass in the studio. He played his D-28 on "Two Of Us." John used his Casino and D-28 for these sessions, while George had his Les Paul, rosewood Telecaster, and J-200. John played lap steel on "For You Blue." Guitar expert Steve Soest explains: "I've never seen one like this, but I believe its European-made. It doesn't look like any American lap steel I've seen." When Paul played piano, either John or George played one of the Fender basses. The Beatles used Fender amps for these recordings.
Abbey Road was cut in the spring and summer of 1969, using the same gear from the "Get Back" sessions. This time, George preferred his Les Paul for most of the album. The Moog saw action on "Here Comes The Sun" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Each Beatle got a chance to bask in the spotlight during "The End," with Ringo taking his only recorded drum solo and John, Paul, and George trading guitar solos (with Paul playing first, George second, and John last). The song's name proved prophetic, for soon afterwards the musicians parted ways.
In a companion piece beginning on page 86, George Harrison conducts a pictorial tour of his personal guitar collection.
- The following month all four Beatles received Russian-made nylon-string guitars, seem in the studio during the recording of "Day Tripper and Rubber Soul. As they acquired more instruments, they usually had them all in the studio. - В следующем месяце (в ноябре 1965 года) вся четвёрка Битлз получила гитары российского (советского) производства с нейлоновыми струнами, которых видели в студии в период записи композиции "Day Tripper" и альбома "Rubber Soul". Так как группа приобретала много инструментов, то они обычно держали их в студии.