George Harrison, The Beatles, and the Fender Strat?
Was George Harrison's favorite Electric Guitar really a Strat? (or has the author spent too much time in Pepperland?)
8.2.2022 | By Mike Rock
Even in this age of ready information, sometimes an important detail or savory morsel of pre-digital history trickles through the cracks of time. Such seems to be the case of the Dark Horse in Day-Glo. Most Beatles fans and Guitarists are at least familiar with Harrison's Strat of many colors, but don't know how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
“If I had my way, I’d have started out on the Strat” -George Harrison.
Why a Strat?
Out of all the Beatles, George Harrison unquestionably loved the Guitar most. George loved to explore every detail, strength, weakness, and idiosyncrasies of any Electric Guitar he got his hands on. John and Paul are each Guitar lovers and great players, each with a unique style. George took it a step deeper. He’s the guy who let his curiosity for and about the Electric Guitar keep him awake at nights. Harrison was the youngest, and most advanced Guitarist in the Beatles (especially in the early years). Paul’s interests came from a more diverse musical background.
John was….well, John. George? he was the Guitar freak.
The Fender Strat was the first Solid body Electric Guitar to give Harrison that burning, unrelenting obsession we guitar players are all too familiar with. Harrison himself recalls his first experience with the Fender Strat was on the 1958 Buddy Holly “The Chirping Crickets” album. Anyone who remembers the age of the LP, will remember staring at the album cover while listing to the record. Buddy Holly’s songwriting, creativity and brand-new Rockabilly style inspired and thrilled Harrison. It was like nothing he’s ever heard before. The Fender Strat Buddy Holly cradled on the Album’s cover was like nothing Harrison had ever seen. The sounds and images created a permanent connection in the young musician’s creative mind.
When did Harrison get his first Strat?
Unfortunately, Fender, Gibson (and nearly any solid-body guitar) weren’t easy to get your hands on (not to mention pricey) in the U.K of the 50’s and 60’s.
Harrison's first close encounter with owning a Fender Strat came in 1960. News of a Strat for sale locally, drove Harrison to a fever pitch of anticipation. 17- year-old Harrison contacted the seller, making an agreement to buy the Guitar of his dreams the next day. Harrison walked a foot above the ground on the way to meet his destiny. Upon arrival Harrison was met with devastating news- the Strat had already been sold an hour earlier. Decades later Harrison recalls the disappointment was so intense that he still felt bitter 20 years later. Harrison’s luck locating a Strat changed during the final few days of recording sessions for the HELP LP. (April ’65) John Lennon started becoming vocal about wanting a Strat, as much as George had been. With two Beatles now “Chirping” for Strat's, extremely image conscious Beatles manager Brian Epstein agreed to buy a pair of Strats for the boys, as long as they matched. According to Harrison, Epstein dispatched trusted Beatles roadie/helper Mal Evans, who returned with a matching pair of light Blue (Sonic Blue) Fender Strats. John and George both fell in love with their new Guitars. Harrison (who’d been dreaming of a Stratocaster most of his young life) discovered just how good his intuition really was. He and his Strat became instantly inseparable. Mal Evans little shopping errand was a home run.
What are the first Beatles records to feature George’s Strat?
John and George put the new Strats to work immediately, finding time to squeeze them in on the tail end of the HELP sessions. The Strats have a completely different tonal signature than the Rickenbacker’s, and Gretsch’s that did most of the heavy lifting on early Beatles records. The new Fender Strats end up supplying a nice bright kick in the pants on ‘Ticket to Ride,’ ‘Another Girl,’ and ‘You're Going to Lose That Girl.’ With a pair of Strats added to the Beatles arsenal, things are going to be different.
Rubber Soul is a turning point for the Beatles. It’s the first Album the Beatles made that wasn’t rushed to be available for a film, concert tour, or other previous commitments. For comparisons sake, the Beatles first album ‘Please, Please Me’ was recorded in 11 hours. The Rubber Soul sessions afforded the Beatles a luxurious 4 weeks to complete, and it shows. Though sometimes called the Beatles “Folk Album” there is plenty of outstanding Electric Guitar work. George gets to really explore his beloved new Strat, that is rapidly becoming George’s go-to Electric Guitar.
The Rubber Soul sessions included the double A side single We can Work it out B/W Day Tripper. Both hits absolutely smack of Harrison’s increasingly hard to put down Strat. So…whatever Guitar you pictured Harrison unleashing one of Rocks greatest riffs on, you’re wrong (unless you pictured a Strat through an early 60‘s Blonde Fender Bassman amp). The Amazing solo on Nowhere man features George and John playing the new Strats in unison. Actually, George is all over his Strat on the non-Acoustic songs on Rubber Soul- Drive My Car, Think for Yourself, The Word, If I Needed Someone, Girl, Run for Your Life, Wait, I’m Looking Through You, and You Won’t See Me. All played on Harrison's new favorite guitar-The Fender Strat.
Why doesn’t any concert footage, or television programs feature George’s Sonic Blue Strat?
At this time in history, the Strat Harrison has been wanting since 1958 has only been in his possession for about 6 months. What many people don’t realize is this Fender Slab-Board Strat that Harrison received in Spring of ’65 is about to become one of George Harrison's and the Beatles most important Guitars.
There has not been time to integrate the Guitar into the few remaining live concerts the Beatles have obligations to perform (although Lennon is seen with his Strat on a sound check). Aside from the unmistakably different tone, Georges increasing use of the Strat is still unknown outside the Beatles small inner circle. We fans have only been treated to a taste of what’s to come.
Cool, ain’t it? Yea, it is.
Harrison's growing song crafting skills earn him three tracks on Revolver (Taxman, I Want to tell you and Love You Too.) A tough task to pull off against hit making machine Lennon and McCartney. The Sonic Blue Strat now fits on Harrison like a 2nd skin. It’s used on most of Harrison's electric Guitar tracks on Revolver: Rhythm tracks on Taxman (the solo is Paul with his Casino and Selmer amp) I'm Only Sleeping, Here, There and Everywhere, I Want To Tell You, She Said, She Said, Got to Get You Into My Life, and Tomorrow Never Knows.
What Beatles Albums does Harrison use the Strat on the most?
George took to his Strat like he’d always dreamed he would. Like Buddy Holly before him, The Beatles are making records that sound like nothing anyone ever heard before. The Strat must have felt like a magic wand in Harrison's hands. Harrison and Lennon loved to experiment with the “in-between” choked tones of the 3-way Toggle (5 way since 1974). Although Harrison acquired an SG Standard, and a discontinued Les Paul model from 1957 (refinished to Cherry) and gave them plenty of use, the Strat remained Harrison's favorite go-to guitar, all his days.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
An album that needs no introduction. Sometimes considered the triumvirate finale of Rubber Soul, and Revolver, ‘Pepper’ is the first full blown post touring Beatles Album. With no timer clicking, the Beatles took a little over 4 months to write and record the landmark album.
Pepper is a keyboard heavy record that features a wide array of odd-ball musical styles that mark the beginning of the Psychedelic Pop/Rock era. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band is an era defining masterstroke, but not a Guitar heavy album. However, the Guitar work on the record is sophisticated, original and at times, thrilling. Harrison and his magic wand of a Strat are featured playing rhythm on the Title track and lead on the Reprise. Harrison wields the Strat on ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ Psychedelic anthem Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and rocker Getting Better.
What’s the difference between Harrison's Sonic Blue Strat and “Rocky” Strat?
They are the same guitar, so not much is different- Just some Psilocybin in a cup of tea courtesy of ‘Dr Roberts the dentist.’ Add a few tubes of Day-Glo paint, and some of Patty Boyd’s nail polish, and Rocky was born. At a time when no Rock Stars guitar was safe from the effects of electric medicine (Clapton’s “The Fool” SG, Hendrix and his sacrificial Monterey Pop Strat, fellow Beatles Paul McCartneys Mercury Silver 4001, and Lennon’s “Fool” painted J-160E). Harrison looked at his favorite Strat and declared “it’s all over now baby blue.”
Harrison painted right over the Sonic Blue Custom Color, on his kitchen table. Although the Psychedelic makeover is clearly not the work of the next Rembrandt, it’s got a fun and altogether memorable look. The name “Rocky” painted on the headstock is in honor of Harrison's Rockabilly heroes like Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and Eddie Cochran.
Where was the Rocky Strat first seen by the public?
“Rocky’s” first venture outside the recording studio (and Beatles inner circle) is a big one. Harrison featured his favorite Strat with the Beatles and cast of luminaries performing “All you Need is Love” on the show ‘Our World.’ It was Televisions first live simulcast program, and a big deal in the Space age 60’s. McCartneys Mercury Silver over-sprayed Rickenbacker 4001 did get some noteworthy screen time, but Harrison's Strat is visible only momentarily.
The publics first really good look at Harrison's recently transformed Strat is on the Magical Mystery Tour Television Special, and in all its technicolor glory on the inner sleeve booklet inside the album.
Other songs that Feature ‘Rocky’ on the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack: I Am The Walrus, All You Need Is Love , Flying, Magical Mystery Tour, and Blue Jay Way.
The Beatles (White Album)
Tracks on the White Album that feature ‘Rocky’ seem to be less well documented. Rocky is all over the White Album, playing all kinds of roles. Songs Rocky is prominently featured on include Glass Onion, Happiness is a Warm Gun, I'm So Tired, and Revolution 1 (The slow one), and almost certainly Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey).
Let it Be (recorded January ’69)
The original Let it Be Film, and recently released 12-hour, three part “Get Back” documentary show the Beatles with a giant ‘Care Package’ from Fender. PA speakers and mixer, a pair of Fender Silverface ‘drip edge’ Twin Reverb Guitar amps, A Bassman Amp and Cab for McCartney, a Fender Bass VI, Fender Rhodes keyboard and a very special creation for George: The World-Famous Rosewood Tele.
Although most of the footage used for “Let it Be” and “Get Back” show George Playing the Bass VI and Tele, but that doesn’t mean Rocky was cast aside. George and his Strat made its way onto Album tracks I Dig a Pony, Two of us, and I, Me, Mine.
Abbey Road (recorded July 69)
Although Abbey Road was released before Let it Be, it is the final Beatles album to be recorded (over 6 months after Let it Be). “The Harrison Strat” or “Rocky” (or whatever you wanna call it) served Harrison and the Beatles quite well. The mostly unsung Guitar appears on every Beatles album from Help through Abbey Road. A boast that can’t be made for any other Electric Guitar in Harrison's collection. That itself is pretty mind-blowing.
On the Beatles farewell album, Rocky is featured on Octopuses Garden, and the End.
Life After Death (Beatles Anthology)
Sadly, the Beatles waited till after John Lennon lost his life in 1980 to release a new Beatles song that features all 4 Beatles. After Lennon’s Death, George Martin (Beatles Producer), Paul McCartney, Ringo Star and George Harrison join John Lennon’s voice recorded on an unfinished Demo Tape for the song “Free as a Bird.” Probably the most touching moment in the song is a crack in Harrison’s voice, followed by a gut-wrenching slide solo. Yes…. Played on “Rocky.”
What Happened to Rocky after the Beatles split up?
The Beatles got the long-awaited break from each other, but no such luck for Rocky the Strat. Harrison took some very good advice from Guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder. “Set the action higher and add some springs to keep the Tremolo stable if you are goanna play bottle neck style on that Psychedelic Strat.” Harrison listened to the veteran slide player, and it worked out quite well.
Harrison more or less abandoned his old style of lead Guitar work in favor of slide style playing. In what seems like no time, Harrison's slide work became extraordinary, and unique. Rocky can be heard all over All things must Pass, including the magnificent slide solo on Isn’t it a Pity. “Rocky” became Harrison's number one slide guitar throughout his entire solo career-from the All things must Pass classic ‘My Sweet Lord,’ through posthumously released ‘Stuck inside a Cloud’ from “Brainwashed.”
What Made Rocky So Special to Harrison?
The left over 1961 demo Fender Stratocaster in Sonic Blue that Mal Evans found for George was his first Strat. A fact that may have something to do with the deep bond Harrison developed for this particular Strat. “Rocky” might be the only guitar of such importance that’s never been owned by anyone other than Harrison, or his Estate. It’s safe to compare the Guitar with the irreplaceable instruments of Paul and John: The 500/1 Hofner Bass that Paul McCartney still tours with (it has its own bodyguard) or John Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 Capri, that he used from 1960 until the night he died.
Was Rocky Stripped to natural, like most of the Beatles Psychedelic Guitars?
Unlike McCartney’s Psychedelic 4001, Lennon’s J-160E and Epiphone Casino, Rocky remains the way it looked in the summer of love. Rocky has been seen over and over through the years. Its first outing was on tour with Delaney and Bonnie is the hands of Eric Clapton. Harrison featured the guitar heavily during his 1974 Dark Horse Tour. Rocky never really went into retirement. The Psychedelic Strat can be heard and seen in the capable hands of Mike Campbell, playing the slide solo on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit “I Won’t back down.”
The old girl still has all its Mojo. Rocky is now safely cared for and enjoyed by George Harrison’s son, the musician Dhani Harrison.