Dark Horse

Though defined by the Beatles, George Harrison's greatest musical breakthroughs were very much his own

It's one of the sad ironies of George Harrison's passing last week to cancer that he was memorialized by the international media as little more than a member of the world's most exclusive club: the ex-Beatles.

Of all the former Fabs, Harrison was always the least comfortable with both his role in the group and the demigod status it was accorded by its followers. He had taken to reflexively debunking the Beatle myth, admitting that the foursome wrote some good tunes and made some nice records, but they weren't really that big a deal.

Of course, they werea big deal, but the sorrow over Harrison's death seemed to miss his intense, and deserved, need to be respected for his individuality. Too many news reports rehashed the Beatles story last week, as though a band had died, when it was really an individual musician. To hear CNN correspondents in London and Liverpool spew out the usual "he was the quiet one" tripe suggested that none of these people really had a clue why he was important, other than the fact that he'd once rubbed shoulders with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Desperate to pinpoint his musical contribution, they endlessly played Harrison's famous ballad "Something," an admittedly beautiful song, but hardly the be-all and end-all of his career.

The fact is that Harrison wasimportant, not because he was the quiet one, or even because, as some stories are claiming with wild hyperbole, he taught Lennon how to play the guitar (he showed him a few chords, to be sure, but that's about it). To repeatedly push the notion, as the news outlets have, that he instructed Lennon is vaguely insulting. It puts Harrison on the level of Michael Jordan's junior-high basketball coach, a guy whose only legacy is that he helped someone else achieve greatness. But Harrison was important because he made musical contributions that -- even when placed in the context of the Beatles' pop empire -- were all his own.

Harrison's first major impact on popular music came with his use of the 12-string electric guitar. A gift from the Rickenbacker company to a bedridden Harrison during the Beatles' legendary first visit to New York in February 1964, the 12-string brought a rich, chiming sound to the band's next batch of recordings: the A Hard Day's Nightsessions. On this album, Harrison's playing really crystallized into a distinctive sound, taking bits of Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry he'd filtered through the girl-group R&B sounds of the early '60s, and giving them the fresh ring of a new era dawning. You hear it in that impossibly weird opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," in the insistent circular riff of "You Can't Do That" and the simple but majestic solo on "I Should Have Known Better."

When A Hard Day's Nighthit movie theaters in the summer of '64, its avid fans included members of a budding group called the Byrds. Folkies energized by the Beatle phenomenon, they watched the film with close attention to what instruments the Fab Four were playing. As a result of seeing Harrison with his Rickenbacker, Roger (then Jim) McGuinn went out and bought the same. So the electric 12-string sound, which practically defined the Byrds (and later became an inspiration to the early, Murmur-era R.E.M.), can all be traced back to Harrison.

Harrison could be remarkably self-effacing about his own work, and when in late '65 he wrote and recorded the Byrdsy "If I Needed Someone," he thought he was lifting McGuinn's sound. He needed McGuinn to remind him that he'd actually invented it.

On the heels of that innovation, Harrison then introduced the sitar into Western pop music. Though Indian raga master Ravi Shankar had acquired a devoted following in America by the mid-'60s, he was still very much a cult figure in the Western world. In the fall of 1965, when Harrison lent his novice sitar chops to Lennon and McCartney's "Norwegian Wood" (a solo that Shankar frankly told Harrison he thought was "terrible"), he brought a trippy new timbre into a musical climate that was devouring new ideas faster than musicians could go into the studio.

While some people, Harrison included, got carried away with their sitar jones, the lasting impact of Harrison's breakthrough was that it expanded the possibilities for rock guitar playing. Not long after "Norwegian Wood," Indian modalities started creeping into the playing of people like the Yardbirds' Jeff Beck and Beatle worshiper Jimi Hendrix. Harrison's template even rubbed off on his bandmate Paul McCartney, who contributed an explosive, sitar-ish guitar solo to Harrison's "Taxman" on the 1966 Revolveralbum.

Harrison's third, and greatest, musical achievement has practically nothing to do with the Beatles. In late 1968, after more than two years of dedicating himself to the sitar, Harrison returned to the guitar, only to find himself intimidated by all the great new virtuosos around him. Sensing that he needed something to help him stand out, Harrison began playing with a slide. As his pal Eric Clapton pointed out, Harrison brought a completely different approach to slide guitar than had ever been heard before.

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