Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Beatles' Three Guitar Workout On "The End"

It was somewhat fitting, and the circle was completed when The Beatles wrapped up their career with a three guitar jam in the appropriately titled, “The End” on their Abbey Road album. After all, they had started their career as three guitarists playing together, and it seems a good place to wrap things up. 

It was Paul's song, and John Lennon said he wanted to do the solo himself initially, as he often enjoyed having a shot at being a lead guitarist (and he was usually brilliant when he chose to do so), but let’s let EMI/Abbey Road engineer and author Geoff Emerick tell the tale, as he was in the room when it happened:

There were quite a few empty bars to fill after Ringo’s drum solo on “The End” [Abbey Road], and George Harrison said, ‘Well, a guitar solo is the obvious thing.’

‘Yes, but this time you should let me play it,’ said John, half seriously. He loved playing lead guitar, but he knew he didn’t have the finesse of either George or Paul, so he rarely took a solo on record.

‘I know,’ he said mischievously, unwilling to let the idea go, ‘why don’t we all play the solo? We can take turns and trade licks.’

"George looked dubious, but Paul embraced the idea, and he upped the ante further by suggesting the three of them play their solos live. Paul announced that he wanted to take the first solo, and as it was his song, the others deferred. Ever competitive, John said he had a great idea for an ending. So, as always, poor George was overshadowed by his two band mates, and got the middle spot by default.

While they were practicing, I took great care to craft a different, distinctive sound for each Beatle, so it would be apparent to the listener that it was three individuals playing, and not just one person taking an extended solo. They were each playing a different guitar through a different amp, so it wasn’t all that difficult to achieve. I lined the three amps in a row—there was no need for a great deal of separation, because they were all going to be recorded on a single track.

Incredibly, after just a brief period of rehearsal, they nailed it in a single take.

For me, that session was undoubtedly the high point of the summer of 1969, and listening to those guitar solos never fails to bring a smile to my face.” Geoff Emerick, Here, There, And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles.

The beauty of “The End” is that there is not a sense of competition between the players, so much as there is a collaboration. By all counts it was a joyous occasion enjoyed by all three guitarists. While Paul and George’s solos are excellent examples of the style of melodic hard blues rock that was being played on stages around London at the time, John Lennon’s take on things is much more simplistic and crude. It is Paul’s song, so he gets the first slot, and his playing is not very far from what Harrison is doing in the middle position, and this has caused great confusion amongst listeners for decades. 

Three amps were lined up side by side, and I am assuming they were recent issue silverfaced Fender Twin Reverbs, but this is again difficult to verify. George was almost certainly playing his red 1957 Gibson Les Paul Standard, a guitar which had started its life as a Goldtop model that went through the hands of The Loving Spoonfuls' John Sebastian, blues rock guitarist Rick Derringer, and a refinish before it ended up in the possession of Eric Clapton (who used the guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") who went on to make the guitar a gift to George in early August of 1968. The guitar is still in the possession of George Harrison's estate. John was undoubtably playing his 1965 Epiphone Casino (serial number 328393) which was famously stripped of its sunburst finish, and is still owned by Yoko Ono Lennon - the Lennon estate has the guitar in its inventory under the designation, “The Revolution Guitar”. While I have not found a definitive answer on what guitar Paul McCartney used for this session, with various usually reliable sources saying it was either his Epiphone Casino or Fender Esquire. I’ve listened very closely time and time again, comparing it between different tracks Paul has played with both guitars, and I’m very familiar with both instruments as a player, but I cannot with any confidence saying which is actually on this track. The guitars were played live, and they were obviously playing very loudly - you simply get those bold, aggressive tones out quiet amplifiers.

Let’s look at the solos themselves:

In the first round, Paul and George both tear off slices of highly energized riffs that sound almost as if this could be the work of a single guitarist. Both parts are evokative of the playing of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix at the time, and are even very similar in tone. But then, in comes Lennon with brutally effective rhythmic stabs at his guitar that establish his very singular voice as a lead guitarist. He’s making it howl, not sing. 

In the second round you start to see more stylistic differences between Paul and George, as Paul continues to sound very contemporary with the hot British rock guitarists of the day, and now George answers with a very tasty double-stop outing (a double-stop is when a guitarist plays a melodic section of a song using two notes, as opposed to a single note or a chord (three or more notes)) that is very reminiscent of the soul music coming out of the American South. Paul and George's tones are also more noticeably different with Harrison's being a bit softer and smoother than his playing on his first go round. Perhaps he had switched to his Les Paul's rhythm (or neck) pickup from his lead (or bridge) pickup. Next, John steps it up a bit and fires off a brilliant volley of bent low notes in a seething homage to Link Wray.

His travelling record collection includes albums by Bo Diddley (three), Chuck Berry (two), Lenny Bruce (six), the Mothers (everything), Paul McCartney (Ram – and it's been played at least once), and Link Wray (with cover inscribed "To John and Yoko – thanks for remembering – Peace, Link Wray").

“The story behind the Wray inscription is that John and Yoko were getting out of the lift at 1700 Broadway, which houses Allen Klein's office, when they were confronted by Wray, who was going up to Polydor's offices in the same building.

“Wray apparently said, ‘Hey – John and Yoko.’ John didn't say anything to him, but turned to Yoko and breathed: ‘Yoko, that's Link Wray. Without him…’”, Richard Williams, Uncut Magazine, 1998.

For the third and final round, we see Paul go very guttural in his playing with a staggering, stuttering statement that he picks very aggressively and very close to the guitar’s bridge, giving it a taut, staccato tone that would not sound out of place on a Jimmy Page solo from early days of Led Zeppelin. George’s gorgeous climb up the neck suggests his very soon to be exploration of the slide guitar (which he had been hinting at in his playing, and in his love for Indian music for several years), but it’s just the musical motion you’re hearing here as he manipulates the strings with just his fingers and a pick. John wraps it up with a rave up that is the perfect marriage of where rock ’n’ roll guitar had started for him, and where rock guitar would go in the future. 

Everyone simply did what it was that they did as guitar players, without any real time or thought being given to anything other than having a play. They had seemingly come full circle to once again meet The Beatles.

Here is a video of the isolated guitars from the track, and below is a clickable time schedule for who starts playing at what point (the soloing starts at the 1:03 mark):

Paul #1: 1:03
George #1: 1:07 
John #1: 1:10 
Paul #2: 1:14 
George #2: 1:19 
John #2: 1:22 
Paul #3: 1:27 
George #3: 1:30 
John #3: 1:34


Anonymous said...

Great subject......Incredible in depth uncovering of the guitar playing performed simultaneously in the studio...First riff by Paul then George then John.. That visual is sooo amazing to picture ..listening to the song now !!

Thank-you. Tony !! Loved it!

Anonymous said...

wow tony this is te best music ever shut up