10 Killer Beatles Guitar Solos

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beatles_playingThe Beatles are rarely hailed as a band known for parceling out one all-timer of a guitar solo after another, their residence being more squarely in the Land of Song rather than the Land of the Ax. But nearly any Beatles buff grapples with the pleasing task of sorting out which solos stand apart from the rest, such was the sheer volume of worthy exemplars. Here are 10 that make a worthy case as the best of the best.

10) “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1962)
This Hamburg field recording, with its piping hot George Harrison solo, is a reminder that this band loved rock and roll every bit as much as you do—or, really, let’s call it more. It’s the sound of music being a way of life. Harrison was an ever-earnest picker at this point, but he could flash some virtuosity. Not a lot of solos give you the sense that they’d be hot to the touch, but this is one of them.

9) “You Can’t Do That” (1964)
John Lennon’s guitar parts, as a whole, are tantamount to one of those character actors who forever crops up in old British films, always grounding the latest endeavor in an identity. Here that identity, on the scraping, jagged guitar break, is one of pique, hammering home the song’s mood. Not a ton of chops, but a ton of attitude.

8) “Nowhere Man” (1965)
Few solos sound like they’ve been all but dipped in the sun’s rays, but here is one of them, courtesy of George Harrison. It’s an autumnal sun, befitting the Rubber Soul album to which “Nowhere Man” belongs, and pure melody that seems to shimmer right out of the speakers. The concluding note manages to blend the timbre of a church bell with the plink of a drop of water landing back into another body of water. With, of course, more dappled light.

7) “Good Morning Good Morning” (1967)
Sometimes—as on Revolver’s “Taxman”—Paul McCartney would set aside his bass to take his turn as Hendrix-like ax-smith. Here’s another example from Sgt. Pepper, an album where the guitar quotient had been ratcheted down, but which this one track in large part makes up for. With an impossibly fast pumping of notes, McCartney is venturing towards heavy metal, though metal was rarely this lithe.

6) “Honey Pie” (1968)
The White Album is the ultimate amalgamation album, with scores of musical styles crammed into it. Before they heard rock and roll, before they heard skiffle, the Beatles heard jazz, and here’s their nod to it. Lennon’s solo uses slurring blue notes much as a Lester Young solo would, and you can imagine it emerging from out of a tinny speaker he would have listened to over at his mother Julia’s house.

5) “And I Love Her” (1964)
Quick: name an acoustic Beatles guitar solo. Tricky business, right? But this standout from A Hard Day’s Night is quite the bailout on a catalog lacking in such treasures. You might not think that Harrison, at this point, had such a solo in him, but it’s not hard to imagine a vision-driven McCartney providing instruction. The slowly articulated notes linger in the air like well-chosen words to a lover. The Beatles at their most deeply romantic.

4) “Long Tall Sally” (1964)
The studio version is one of the top Beatles covers—plus, you get back-to-back solos from Lennon and Harrison, a mega-rarity—but the live version from the Hollywood Bowl is the real smoker in terms of Harrison’s second solo. It has a pyramidal structure, beginning with a solid base of notes, and then ascending ever higher to a glorious point like some star in the sky, much like the solo on “Day Tripper.”

3) “I Saw Her Standing There” (1964)
Not the beloved album version, but rather the performance from the Beatles’ first U.S. concert, at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 1964. Harrison has beaten such holy hell out of his guitar that he plays it out of tune, mid-solo, which only makes it rock all the harder. This is one of the last glimpses of what they were like in Hamburg, only in front of a ton of screaming American kids launching jellybeans at them.

2) “Let It Be” (1970)
Nix the single version of this song, with its fey guitar solo, and stick with the album iteration and a solo to take your head off. You don’t expect one like that here, in a song of such grace and grandeur—after all, it’s a plea for peace, of the internal variety. This is the most distorted Harrison solo there is, and it’s entirely of a piece with the song, an expression of much needed relief. For when the mind doubles over in reflection, sometimes it takes a proper guitar blast to put it upright again.

1) “The End” (1969)
The final song on the final Beatles album featured nine guitar solos—count them if you like—each lasting about two bars and proceeding in a rotation of McCartney, Harrison, Lennon (repeat three times). The final Beatles album was going to be Abbey Road, which we’re talking about here, or Let It Be, and it’s interesting to note that on each, the final guitar solo belongs to Lennon, the man who started the band. His technique can’t touch McCartney’s or Harrison’s, but his musical will, the rock and roller’s heart, dusts the solos that come before in his third and final barrage. This is sourcing the very essence of rock and roll from something primal, and dropping it in your here and now. The forever here and now.

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Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming's work appears in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. He is completing a book called Same Band You've Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles.
Colin Fleming
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15 Comments so far

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  1. drp
    #1 drp 20 November, 2016, 09:54

    What about “Hey Bulldog”?

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  2. Wellitson
    #2 Wellitson 20 November, 2016, 10:37

    I’m pretty sure that the guitar solo on Sweet Little Sixteen is Lennon. I read once that he did all the Chuck Berry songs and solos in the early days except for Roll Over, Beethoven.

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    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 21 November, 2016, 00:05

      Author Colin Fleming writes: “Afraid not. Lennon sang most of the Chuck Berry songs. ‘Little Queenie’ was an exception. Harrison played the solos. One way to tell the difference is through tone. Lennon’s is almost always quite scabrous; Harrison favors cleaner, more clearly articulated lines, whereas Lennon’s solos are exceedingly chordal. They tend to have a fiercely blocky, rhythmic quality.”

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  3. Christo
    #3 Christo 21 November, 2016, 19:00

    And Your Bird Can Sing! (Nowhere Man?)

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  4. Sam
    #4 Sam 21 November, 2016, 22:46

    No “Something”? IMO, the best Harrison solo…

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  5. linclink
    #5 linclink 22 November, 2016, 13:43

    Missing In Action:
    ‘Taxman”
    “Something”
    “Get Back”
    “It’s All Too Much”
    “Old Brown Shoe”
    “Yer Blues”
    “Savoy Truffle”
    “One After 909”
    “Hey Bulldog”
    “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (Eric Clapton)

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    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 22 November, 2016, 18:28

      This is what’s so great about the Beatles. We could all come up with lists that repeat nothing. Our list isn’t intended to be definitive; it’s just 10 great solos. It would be easy to come up with 20 or 30 more.

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  6. mb3
    #6 mb3 23 November, 2016, 14:06

    Loved the list. Surprising picks…Loved the Long Tall Sally pick from the latest Hollywood Bowl. Check out Roll Over Beethoven from that collection, too. Thought for sure that Taxman or Fixing a Hole would make it.

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  7. Johnbeatle
    #7 Johnbeatle 24 November, 2016, 08:24

    Isn’t the distored let it be album solo john lennon? The other version is George.

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    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 25 November, 2016, 10:15

      Author Colin Fleming replies: “They are both Harrison. Lennon didn’t have the chops to play something like that. He used virtually no vibrato.”

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    • Klaus Bergmaier
      Klaus Bergmaier 1 January, 2017, 03:02

      No. John played bass in this one. All the overdubbed solos are by George.

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  8. Klaus Bergmaier
    #8 Klaus Bergmaier 25 November, 2016, 08:35

    The one which was really overlooked is Octopus’s Garden, IMHO THE tune with the best overall guitarwork by them Beatles ever. The solo gives us a hint of what Harrison was up to in later years on the slide guitar, culminating in his stunning solo in Belinda Carlisle’s Leave A Light On For Me.

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