One of the most influential and successful bands of all time, Liverpool’s “Fab Four” – better known as the Beatles – are in the DNA of virtually every modern artist.
The Beatles went through a few major changes in style, both musically and visually, as the 1960s wore on and the band defined an era of major social change.
In this article, I’ll take you on a deep dive through some of the iconic guitar sounds from across the Beatles canon.
We’ll look at the two main tones most guitar players want to emulate when covering Beatles tunes. First, the bright, jangling Merseybeat sound of their early work, and second, the warmer tones of the Beatles’ studio era.
In particular, I’ll take note of lead guitarist George Harrison’s tonal tendencies as well as the amplifier settings that differentiated Harrison’s tone from that of his guitar-wielding bandmate, John Lennon.
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One of the most enduring images of the early Beatles is of John Lennon brandishing his Rickenbacker 325 in Mapleglo. This was a bright, jangling semi-hollow guitar, with its stock vibrato system replaced by a more reliable Bigsby.
In 1961, George Harrison picked up his own American instrument, a Gretsch Duo Jet. George’s Jet boasted twin DynaSonic single-coil pickups. So enamored was Harrison with this instrument that he picked up another Gretsch, a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, in 1963, endowed with FilterTron humbucking pickups.
Both Lennon and Harrison played Gibson J-160E flat-top guitars throughout the 1960s.
Around 1965, Lennon and Harrison copied bandmate Paul McCartney and purchased Epiphone Casinos, notably with the finish stripped from the wood to show the natural wood finish, which they felt improved the tone of the instruments.
The Beatles, as their fame (and wealth) grew exponentially, began collecting increasingly expensive guitars.
Among these, for Harrison, were a Gibson SG, a Fender Telecaster with a rosewood body, a unique red Gibson Les Paul (courtesy of Harrison’s friend, Eric Clapton). Of these, the Telecaster and the Les Paul were the most heavily used, with Clapton playing the Les Paul on the guitar solo for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
While these guitars weren’t exactly cheap for the time, vintage-correct instruments these days tend to be far from the budget of most gigging guitar players.
Fortunately, there are plenty of models available that can help evoke the magic of the Beatles’ tones.
Firstly, for the early jangling Beatles sound, the twang of a single-coil equipped Gretsch guitar is an absolute must-have. The Electromatic Jet series are excellent guitars, made with all the retro-futuristic cool appointments of a classic Gretsch. Be sure to pick up one of these guitars with single-coil pickups for maximum brightness.
Likewise, the Epiphone Casino with its twin P90 pickups coaxes those bright, clean Beatles tones from your fingers. The Casino linked above even comes in a Lennon-esque natural finish.
For the warmer tones of later Beatles recordings, Lennon continued using his Epiphone Casino, but Harrison employed his Telecaster, SG, and Les Paul prodigiously. The precise tone of George’s rosewood Tele is hard to nail down, but the Squier Classic Vibe ‘60s Telecaster will get you close.
George was also partial to his SG Standard, and a Epiphone ‘61 SG Standard is as close as you’ll get without busting the bank. Similarly, his Les Paul was a 1957 model, so I would recommend the ‘50s style Epiphone Les Paul. The aftermarket cherry red paintjob, however, is harder to come by.
When it comes to amplifiers, the Beatles predated the boom of British amps by about a decade. In the early years, they almost exclusively used Vox amplifiers, typically a set of AC30 combos, although later high-wattage Vox amps such as the AC-100 did make appearances in the studio.
Generally, however, when it comes to amplification, the typical Beatles amp is the Vox AC-30. For bedroom players (or those who don’t want to carry this enormously heavy amp to gigs), the diminutive Vox AC15 is probably the next best thing.
The Beatles also used a blonde Fender Bassman, but not as frequently as their long and fruitful association with Vox amplification. The Bassman’s versatile younger brother, the Bassbreaker, is a low-wattage combo amp that can provide the same kind of chiming clean tone as the old Bassman.
Beatles Amp Settings
The below settings are based on the amplifier settings used by John Lennon and George Harrison throughout their time in the Beatles.
Because both guitar players were using similar-sounding guitars through identical amplifiers, they had to differentiate their tones using techniques and chord voicings rather than running amplifier settings.
The below John Lennon amp settings are based on a Vox AC-30. If you’re using a different amp, such as a Fender amplifier, you’ll need to increase the midrange and treble slightly to account for that amplifier’s subtly different tonal palette.
Most of the Beatles’ guitar tones are very clean, with minimal fizz or crunch from poweramp saturation. Keep the gain nice and low.
Listen to any classic Beatles track and you’ll hear much of the low end coming from Paul McCartney’s bass guitar and Ringo’s kick drum. You’ll also hear much of the warmth of keyboards and piano. Accordingly, the guitar signals don’t need much bass.
Vox amplifiers are naturally quite mid-forward, particularly in the higher midrange. This helps nurture the twang and jangle of classic Beatles tones, but I’d advise starting at about 6 for your mids and adjusting according to your own taste.
The Beatles’ tone is very bright, but the Vox AC30 is a very bright amp. So, too, are the band’s guitars remarkably bright-sounding. Accordingly, you don’t need a tremendous amount of treble in your tone to achieve the Beatles sound when you’re using the right combination of guitar and amp.
Run your volume relatively low. You don’t want to push the amp into breakup territory for this sound.
Shocking as it may seem to some modern guitarists, the Beatles largely avoided using guitar pedals. This is because most of their work predates the development of guitar pedals, and certainly predates the sheer variety of pedals we have these days.
Occasionally, in the studio, the Beatles would use fuzz and wah effects, but otherwise their use of effects was sparing.
The Beatles’ Vox sponsorship saw them use an early iteration of the Vox Wah during the recording of Let It Be.
For fuzz, the Beatles were reliant on the primitive fuzz circuits of the era, largely restricted to the likes of the Colorsound Tone Bender and the Maestro Fuzz. The Maestro was made famous on the Rolling Stones’ hit “Satisfaction,” and was recently reissued so modern players can embrace the brassy, sassy fuzz sound of the ‘60s.
The Tone Bender, on the other hand, is lost to time, but JHS’ Bender offers a viable facsimile of that particular sound. Another common fuzz of the time was the Fuzz Face, which is still readily available.
It would be remiss not to mention George Harrison’s penchant for the Leslie rotating speaker. This psychedelic effect was heavily deployed on Magical Mystery Tour, but the Lesie rotating cabinet has been out of production for decades now. Fortunately, rotary speaker simulator pedals such as the Neo Instruments Mini Vent are on the market.
Most of the Beatles’ tone came not from guitar pedals, but from their guitars plugged straight into their amplifiers.
The band’s guitar techniques and unique chord choices contributed to this: they tended to play close to the bridge for extra twang and used inversions and voicings borrowed from jazz and country music to create the full, exciting sound now associated with The Beatles.
Getting to grips with a few seventh-chord inversions, triads, and voice-leading principles will help enormously in capturing the Beatles’ guitar sound.
The same chord played elsewhere on the fretboard, can sound enormously different, and The Beatles precision-engineered many of their songs with this in mind. One of the best examples of this can be heard on “A Hard Day’s Night” throughout the song.
While it’s often said that the best way to sound like the Beatles is to consult a Liverpudlian accent coach, with the right gear, capturing the spirit of their ‘60s heyday is entirely achievable.
Key to the equation is choosing the right vintage-style guitar and amplifier combo. The Vox AC30 is considered indispensable to any Beatles tone enthusiast, but the right Fender amplifier can make a good substitute. Similarly, most hollow-bodied guitars will, when played the right way, offer the twang and jangle of the classic Beatles sound.
Emulating the warmer tones of the later Beatles work from Rubber Soul onwards is another mission entirely, and requires you to use a warmer-voiced guitar like a Les Paul or a Telecaster.
For all the Beatles tones, however, arguably the best combination is a P90-equipped Epiphone Casino running through a Vox AC-30. Whether to leave the finish on the guitar or remove it, Lennon-style is entirely up to each individual guitar player.