The Woodstock Guitarist John Lennon Felt Couldn’t ‘Play in the Real Sense’

John Lennon often spoke his mind — even if it meant critiquing his contemporaries. He once said a guitarist who performed at the Woodstock Rock Festival could not truly play the guitar. On the other hand, John lavished praise on this musician’s cover of a classic Beatles hit.

John Lennon | Max Scheler – K & K/Redferns

John Lennon on a singer who played ‘very strange guitar’

In a 1970 interview with Jann S. Wenner of Rolling Stone, John gave fans major insight into his musical taste. This lengthy interview was later published as a book titled Lennon Remembers. In the interview, Wenner asked John to assess his skills as a guitarist. John deemed himself a better guitarist than George Harrison before discussing another artist.

“I think there’s a guy called Richie Valens, no, Richie Havens,” John said. “Did he play very strange guitar? He’s [the] guy that was on at the Isle of Wright concert, sang ‘Strawberry Fields [Forever]’ or something.” Wenner told John he was clearly thinking of Havens, a funk singer known for his cover songs, rather than Valens, a singer famous for his rendition of “La Bamba.”

“Strawberry Fields Forever” by Richie Havens

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“[Havens] plays like one chord all the time — pretty funky guitar,” John added. “He doesn’t seem to be able to play in the real sense. I’m like that.”

What stands out about John Lennon’s words

John’s comments are striking for a few reasons. Firstly, many critics would disagree that John couldn’t truly play the guitar. Oddly enough, after making that comment, John told Wenner he sometimes felt he was a good guitarist — one who could “make a rock move.”

Richie Havens wearing rings
Richie Havens | Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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Secondly, John said Havens wasn’t a true guitarist the year after an important moment in Havens’ career. In 1969, Havens was the opening act at the legendary Woodstock Rock Festival. The Woodstock Rock Festival was one of the defining moments for the counterculture of the 1960s. It’s fascinating how John — one of the most prominent figures from that scene — didn’t wholeheartedly endorse all of the acts at that festival.

The connection between Richie Havens and the Beatles

Interestingly, Havens released a number of Beatles covers on his album Richie Havens Sings Beatles & Dylan. The record includes Havens’ renditions of “Here Comes the Sun,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and other popular Fab Four tracks. Despite the record’s title, some of the songs on the album like “My Sweet Lord” and “Working Class Hero” were written by ex-Beatles, not the Beatles.

“Eleanor Rigby” by Richie Havens

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Most notably, Richie Havens Sings Beatles & Dylan features Haven’s cover of “Eleanor Rigby.” According to the Chicago Sun-Times, John and Paul McCartney told Havens this was their favorite of the many, many versions of “Eleanor Rigby.” Maybe John thought Havens couldn’t “play in the real sense,” but he certainly believed Havens made a good cover.