When you wade into debates pitting The Beatles against The Rolling Stones, the first order of business isn’t usually the guitar players. Though both Keith Richards and George Harrison rank among the best on their instrument, they worked perfectly within the confines of their respective bands.
In other words, you didn’t listen to The Beatles just to hear George play guitar, and the same went for Richards and the Stones. But it’s hard to imagine either band without these essential players on lead guitar.
Looking back on the work of George in The Beatles (and beyond), Richards spoke of how George’s style differed from that of guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Richards loved George’s understated, exacting approach most of all.
Keith Richards said George Harrison was both ‘an artist’ and ‘a f*cking craftsman’
In comments published at Harrison Stories, Richards zeroed in on George’s strengths as a guitarist. “The thing is, you’ve got your Jimi Hendrix, you’ve got your Eric Clapton, and then you’ve got guys who can play with bands,” he said. “George was a band and a team player.”
For Richards, there’s more to lead playing than firing off a killer solo. “People get carried away with lead guitars […] and feedbacks,” he said. “And it’s all histrionics, when it comes down to it.” Though fans of Hendrix might disagree, Richards made a great point about the Beatles’ lead player.
“George was an artist, but he was also a f*cking craftsman,” Richards said. “When you listen to his songs, you’re aware of how much went into it. He didn’t flip anything off. George crafted his stuff very, very carefully, and it all had its own feel.”
Richards wasn’t alone, of course. In the Rolling Stone rankings of the greatest guitarists of all time, Tom Petty related a story George once told him about coming up with the opening riff to “You Can’t Do That.” And it blew Petty’s mind.
Tom Petty loved the precision of George’s slide playing
Petty told the story of hearing “You Can’t Do That” one time while driving with George. After George said he came up with the signature riff, Petty asked how. George simply said, “I was just standing there and thought, ‘I’ve got to do something!'” And he delivered on his Rickenbacker 12-string.
But Petty also marveled at George’s shift to slide guitar at the end of the Beatles’ run. “It was a really beautiful thing to hear him play that,” Petty said in Rolling Stone. “He once said to me, ‘I think modern guitar players are forgetting about pitch.’ That was something he really cared about.”
Indeed, if George Harrison had a trademark, it was going for pitch over flash every time out. “He was very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise, and just a beautiful vibrato on it,” Petty said. “He was a guy who could just add so much.”