The “unbelievable” guitarist that made George Harrison “feel like a skiffler”

Everyone has heard the rumour that John Lennon once said Ringo Starr wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles. This defamatory supposition was triggered by a Jasper Carrott gag from 1983. In a similar vein, Beatlemaniacs often argue over George Harrison’s stature as the band’s lead guitarist, with many suggesting that bassist Paul McCartney was a better guitarist.

When McCartney joined John Lennon’s early skiffle band, The Quarrymen, in 1957, he was a rhythm guitarist; Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe joined shortly after as lead guitarist and bassist, respectively. In 1961, not long after The Beatles rebrand, Sutcliffe left the band as a four-piece, with McCartney’s instrumental dexterity and versatility forcing him reluctantly into Sutcliffe’s role.

McCartney may well have been a more accomplished guitarist than Harrison during The Beatles’ rise to fame in the mid-1960s. As a reluctant bassist, McCartney used the guitar as his primary songwriting conduit, and in 1966, producer George Martin asked him to write and record a lead solo for Harrison’s song ‘Taxman’ after several unsuccessful attempts by the songwriter.

Over time, Harrison became more confident in his songwriting abilities and established a distinctive approach to the guitar, inspired by his embrace of the sitar during the psychedelic period. While he may not have been the most technically gifted guitarist, his creative approach bore several nuanced chord variants and inspired several iconic players.

Keith Richards is among Harrison’s many noteworthy admirers. “What I know is that he was a lovely lead guitarist, beautifully understated,” the Rolling Stones guitarist once stated. “When you listen to his songs, you’re aware of how much went into it. He didn’t flip anything off. George crafted his stuff very, very carefully, and it all had its own feel.”

Harrison, himself, was aware that he would never knock Jimi Hendrix from his pedestal but found comfort within his personal limits. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,” Harrison’s son Dhani told Pitchfork in 2014. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really.”

Dhani, now a successful songwriter in his own right, remembered his father’s artistic integrity. He understood his strengths and focussed on trying not to hit “any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you,” Dhani added. “‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what’s left.’”

In a conversation with Guitar Player in 1987, the year of his comeback album Cloud Nine, Harrison described himself as a humble skiffle guitarist. “I’ve always been embarrassed at the idea of being in Guitar Player magazine,” he said in self-deprecation. “I’m just a skiffler. I do ‘posh skiffle’, that’s all it is…”

Indeed, the late Beatle had roots firmly planted in skiffle, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Harrison famously idolised Lonnie Donegan as one of Britain’s foremost skiffle performers credited with bringing American folk and blues traditions across the Atlantic in the 1950s. However, Harrison’s position notes that skiffle was considered a rough and ready approach to rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout his career, Harrison befriended several titans who dwarfed his talents. Among these were Eric Clapton and Thin Lizzy’s Gary Moore. The latter recognised Harrison’s distinctive and attentive approach, inviting him to play slide and rhythm guitar on his 1990 solo song ‘That Kind of Woman’.

As a big fan of Moore’s work with Thin Lizy, Harrison was humbled by the opportunity. “He’s an unbelievable guitar player,” the ‘Quiet Beatle’ once said in praise of Moore. “With guitar players like him around, it makes me just feel like a skiffler.”

Hear George Harrison and Gary Moore perform together in ‘That Kind of Woman’ below.

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