Four Fabulous guitarists play the FAB FOUR!


James R. Webb

The Beatles' legacy is one of great songs, great performances, and of course revolutionary sound. Their songs have some of the most recognizable melodies which transcend generations; nearly every generation of artists offer their rendition of a Beatle hit. Personally, I have been a Beatle fan as long as I can remember. Although I am not a professional musician or music critic, my occupation as an astronomer/astrophysicist has given me a lot of experience in critical analysis and my fastination for the guitar led me to wonder how does one go about reproducing the great vocal melodies, guitar riffs, and rhythms of the Beatles with only a guitar? Having played guitar for my own enjoyment for over 30 years, I began to compare four great gutiarists' interpretation of Beatles music.

For guitarists, Beatles songs have provided a medium for experimentation. The first guitarist to take on the Beatle challenge was Mr. Guitar himself, Chet Atkins C.G.P. His CD entitled "Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles" features twelve of the Beatles earlier songs. The very complimentary liner notes were provided by George Harrison himself! Some of the tracks feature Chet playing the melodies and fills on his Gretsch while accompanied by percussion rhythm tracks. Other tracks feature contributions from other studio muscisians as counterpoint for Chet's guitar work. The CD also features a few Chet Atkins solo efforts. The guitar "purist" will prefer the solo guitar works, but all of the efforts are excellent. They seem to retain the essence of Beatle music while infusing it with Nashville sensibilities. One of Chet's best known jewels, his solo rendition of "Imagine" was not included on the CD but certainly worth looking for if you have never heard it. (It is included on his CD "Pickin' the Hits" along with another classic solo effort "Vincent.")

A more recent attempt to adapt Beatle music to Guitar was done by Classical Guitarist extrodinaire Manuel Barrueco. Far from being a solo effort, his "Manuel Barrueco Plays the Lennon and McCartney" is a classical treatise on Beatles music. The CD features 13 tracks; five of the tracks are backed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jeremy Lubbock. Three other tracks are duets with none other than David Tannenbaum; the remaining tracks are solo guitar. The arrangements are done by various people, including Leo Brouwer, John Bayless (adopted for guitar by Barrueco), Toru Komitzku, and Jeremy Lubbock. The Bayless arrangements were originally arranged for piano in the style of Bach, and Mr. Barrueco preserves this feel in his adaptations. If you like classical music, and you like the Beatles, this is a must have CD. The orchestral arrangements are excellent, but the guitar purist will marvel at the precision and elegance of the solo guitar and duet tracks. The guitar playing is precise, and the tonal quality elevates these songs to the heights of some of Bach's great Lute works. More information about Mr. Barrueco's playing and the Komitzku arrangements on his web site listed below.

The third installment of Beatles guitar music is the CD "LJ plays the Beatles". LJ is of course Laurence Juber, the former Wings guitarist and childhood friend of Paul McCartney. After his lengthy stint with Wings, Laurence turned to solo guitar and has a number of successful solo efforts to date. This one is definitely one of his best. Laurence breaks through the pop restrictions, infusing the Beatle songs with some jazz and blues. His steel-string acoustic variations on the Beatles themes feature altered tunings that invoke moods in the songs that might not come through as clearly with standard tunings. For example, the DADGAD tuning used for Yesterday very effectively gives it a somber, brooding feeling, as well as increasing the playability of the song. (Even I can play this arrangement effectively!). The liner notes contains information about keys and tunings for each track. LJ chose songs from different periods of the Beatles development, including early hits like "I Saw Her Standing There" and more exotic tracks from later albums like "Strawberry Fields Forever". He explains in detail why he chose the various tunings in an article in "Acoustic Guitar" magazine ("Off the Record" September 2000). He also adorns his version of "Oh Darling" with percussive techniques and jazzy slides and runs, making the song even more compelling. In contrast, he slows down "Can't Buy me Love," making it into a bluesy sounding tune. To sum it up, LJ gives you an interesting and well-crafted new look at the Beatles Classics.

The final CD we review here is actually a series of six CDs by the "king of Fingerstle Guitar", Steven King. His CD's, "Beatle-ing", "Re-Beatle-ing", "Re-Beatle-ing Again", "Re-Beatle-ing, Last One, No More!", "Beatle-ing 5, It's Alive" and finally "Beatling 6, Just for Kicks" contain virtually every popular Beatle song as well as some more obscure ones played on solo guitar! It is an amazing feat to have arranged all of these songs for solo guitar in one lifetime, much less play them as flawlessly as they come off on the CDs. I asked Mr. King what made him decide to arrange and record four CDs of Beatle music? He replied, "I realized that not only do I cherish the Beatles' music, but so does almost every guitarist I ever met. I have forever admired the sheer excellence and creativity of the Beatles music that compels generation after generation to love it as I do." The arrangements are excellent, incorporating walking bass lines enhanced by bass expansion, rhythm, lead and vocals with one single guitar and no overdubs. He says about his playing style, "My style of fingerstyle guitar arranging plays homage to the true melody, while keeping the chords, rhythms and bass lines suggesting the sounds of the entire band." It sounds impossible, but Mr. King does it and does it with sparkling clarity. Listening to each selection, they seem to capture the feeling of the original Beatles recordings very accurately. The key to Mr. King's arrangements are that you can almost hear Paul and John singing the melody, while George and Ringo play their parts in the background! His treatment of "Across the Universe" is exceptional, but there is one other that stands out as a truly special arrangement. The Harrison song, "Within You, Witout You" was one of my personal favorites off of the Magical Mystery Tour album. When I listened to the Beatles original "Within You, Without You" there were a several different exotic instruments weaving a complicated web of sound, each of the many instrumental parts running simultaneously through the song. Steven King's arrangement for solo guitar captures both the feel and the intertwining elements built around a driving bass part that replaces the percussion. An amazing feat! Mr. King also tabs out all of his arrangements and they are available for those who want to try and play them at I ordered the tab for "Within You, Without You" and it looks remarkably simple to play, given the complex sound, but playing it is, of course, another story! Mr. King told me that "Within You Without You and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" were two of the most challenging pieces.

One is always tempted to compare the treatments different artists give the Beatles tunes, and although there were many overlapping songs, the only song included on all four CDs was "Yesterday". Chet Atkins plays it solo with his electrified hollow-body Gretsch to great effect, playing an upbeat version of his Fab-4 classic. There is no better description than it is classic Chet Atkins style. Manuel Barreucco plays Yesterday solo but at a much slower pace. Exquisitely placed stops and volume changes makes Barrueco's arrangement more pensive and dramatic than Chet's version. The clarity of the nylon strings gives this arrangement a definite classical feel. Laurence Juber's version of Yesterday has the melody played in lower register giving the song a slower, sadder feeling. This is an extremely playable arrangement and was featured in Acoustic Guitar magazine in January 2000. Steven King's arrangement of Yesterday has a much more positive feel. It is more upbeat, the melody is played in higher registers, and he inserts variations off the original melody giving some nice counterpoint to the song. They all are different, all masterfully arranged and performed, and all are my "favorite" versions! For those who play and want to try their hand at actually playing solo versions of Beatle songs, look for Larry Beekman's book "Beatles for Classical Guitar". This book contains 22 of the Beatles classics arranged for Classical guitar, but it contains only the music staff, no tab. The most complete source for Beatle solo guitar tab I have found is at Steven King's web site, where he has all four of his "Beatle-ing" CD's tabbed out for you to learn, as well as instructional videos to help you learn them.

I was hoping to save the reader the expense of buying all four CDs to get the best instrumental guitar version of Beatles songs, but I have to conclude a real Beatle fan should own them all! They are all so different in their treatments that they do not duplicate one another. It really depends on what mood you are in, or what you are doing at the time. If you are in the mood for some lively, party-time music the Chet Atkins CD can fill the room with fun music and familiar melodies as only a Certified Guitar Player can play them. If you are in a more pensive, tranquil mood, the classical quality and complex arrangements heard in Barrueco's CD is the ticket. Plus, it would be difficult to find more elegant guitar music, regardless of composers, than in this CD. If you are in a more exploratory mood, LJ's interpretations are both interesting, fastinating and of course well played. Finally, if you want to literally hear John and Paul's voices in the guitar strings and again, exquisitely well-played guitar music, put on any one of the four Steven King CDs. You will not be disappointed by any of these CD's.

What They Play: