George Harrison Said Indian Music Influenced ‘the Inflection of How I Played’

George Harrison first heard Indian music while in utero. His mother Louise hoped the calming melodies of the Eastern music played on Radio India would help calm her rambunctious unborn son.

However, George wouldn’t truly connect with Indian music until 1965. During a scene in Help!, The Beatles go to an Indian restaurant. There, George heard the gentle playing of sitars. It was as if something in his brain switched on. It changed George and his guitar playing forever.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar playing Indian music on the sitar in 1967.
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar playing Indian music | John van Hasselt – Corbis/Getty Images

George Harrison had an eerie first encounter with Indian music

It was almost by fate that George encountered Indian music. As The Beatles were filming a scene in Help! at an Indian restaurant, George remembered picking up one musician’s sitar and trying to hold it. He thought, “This is a funny sound.” George told Billboard (per Beatles Bible), “It was an incidental thing.”

It wasn’t until he’d heard about the famed sitarist, Ravi Shankar, multiple times that George knew he had to investigate further. “The third time I heard it, I thought, ‘This is an odd coincidence,'” George continued. So, he bought one of Shankar’s records. When George played it, an eerie feeling came over him.

“I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me,” George explained. “The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it. It just called on me… a few months elapsed and then I met this guy from the Asian Music Circle organisation who said, ‘Oh, Ravi Shankar’s gonna come to my house for dinner. Do you want to come too?'”

George’s thoughts, listening to Shankar for the first time, were very Hindu-like. George felt he’d heard the music in a past life without knowing any Hindu scriptures that talked about reincarnation. Suffice to say, Indian music then had a powerful effect on George. His playing was never the same.

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George said the Eastern music influenced ‘the inflection’ of how he played guitar

Around the time The Beatles released Rubber Soul and Revolver, they were experiencing many changes. By 1966 they’d stopped touring and therefore had the time to listen to music deeper and hone their skills as musicians. They had time to experiment and became conscious of so many different things. Everything influenced them.

However, while the rest of The Beatles found inspiration at home, George went East to India to look for it. He needed answers. “George had a really curious mind, and when he got into something he wanted to know everything,” George’s widow, Olivia Harrison, explained in George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

After George bought a sitar, he added its “funny sound” to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” But he would have to meet with Shankar to truly start his musical journey.

“When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think,” Shankar said (per Mint). “But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene.”

After only a few lessons with Shankar, George’s sitar playing wasn’t the only thing that changed. Suddenly his guitar playing had an Indian tone to it.

In 1992, Guitar World pointed out that once Indian music ingrained itself into George, his guitar playing became “more elastic, yet very precise.” George was “finding more notes between the cracks, like you can in Indian music-especially on your slide work.” They asked the ex-Beatle if there was a connection there.

“Sure, because whatever you listen to has to come out in some ways or other,” George explained. “I think Indian music influenced the inflection of how I played, and certain things I play certainly have a feel similar to the Indian style.”

When George got back from an “incredible journey to India,” The Beatles were doing Sgt. Pepper. He doesn’t remember much about doing that album because he was in his “own little world, and my ears were just all filled up with all this Indian music.”

All George could do to stay connected to the wonderful music he’d heard in India was to play his guitar like Shankar would his sitar. “If you listen to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ you’ll hear me try and play the melody on guitar with John’s voice, which is what the instrumentalist does in Hindustani vocal music,” George explained.

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George’s slide became melodic after listening to great Indian musicians play

The ex-Beatle’s slide guitar also changed. Compared to other musicians’ slide work at the time, George’s was more melodic, all thanks to Indian music.

“As for slide, I think most people-Keith Richards for example-play block chords and all those blues fills, which are based on open tunings,” George explained. “My solos are actually like melodic runs, or counter melodies, and sometimes I’ll add a harmony line to it as well.”

“Actually, now that you’ve got me thinking about my guitar playing Indian music, I remember Ravi Shankar brought an Indian musician to my house who played classical Indian music on a slide guitar,” George added. “It’s played like a lap steel and set up like a regular guitar, but the nut and bridges are cranked up, and it even has sympathetic drone strings, like a sitar.

“He played runs that were so precise and in perfect pitch, but so quick! We he was rocking along, doing these really fast runs, it was unbelievable how must precision was involved. So there were various influences. But it would be precocious to compare myself with incredible musicians like that.”

It’s safe to say that Indian music profoundly affected George. George strived to make what he called “minority music” heard for the rest of his life. Even as George was leaving his body, Shankar’s soft sitar melody carried George’s soul away.