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McCartney the lead guitarist

His childhood dream was to become a guitarist, but he became a bass player. Still, from time to time McCartney can be heard as lead guitarist both with The Beatles and solo. Nevertheless you do have to search.

John Lennon and his friends must have been surprised, when the left-handed McCartney turns a right-handed guitar upside down and then flawlessly plays Eddie Cochran's ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. He impresses them during that first meeting in 1957, so almost two weeks later, the 15-year-old McCartney is hired as lead guitarist of Lennon's band The Quarrymen.

Video: In Spite Of All Danger / Twenty Flight Rock
It is a career of very short duration. Already at his first gig with the band McCartney suffer from nerves and with all the public attention focused on him when playing his first guitar solo on stage, he completely blew it. And that was a hard lesson; it will eventually take more than thirty years, except for the very short 1979 Wings Tour, before anyone sees McCartney playing a guitar solo live: it takes until the 1989 World Tour when he does it again. And mind you, it goes wrong again, during a performance of ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’. If he finds out that the public forgives him on the spot, he add this failure as a gimmick into the act.

Video: Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band - live in 1989

It was really his childhood dream to become a guitarist. That he became the bassist of the Beatles, was reluctant: no one else wanted to take on that role. However, he can be heard regularly as the Beatles lead guitarist. The best known examples are on George Harrison's ‘Taxman’, during Lennon's ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ and in his own ‘Helter Skelter’. And then there's Abbey Road’s final piece ‘The End’ where McCartney, Harrison and Lennon alternate together in a long solo.

In the second half of the sixties, McCartney starts to get more fun in playing bass, causing to hear him less and less as a guitarist. Throughout his time with Wings he passes all the guitar work to the other band members: Henry McCullough, Jimmy McCulloch, Laurence Juber and Denny Laine. Except for the album "Band on the Run', because McCullough left the band just before the recording sessions started and there was no time to arrange a replacement.





Even as a solo artist he leaves the work up to others, such as to good friend and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. It is therefore searching for songs on which McCartney takes the lead guitar on his behalf. The easiest are those found in the three one-man-band albums ‘McCartney I’, ‘McCartney II’ and ‘Chaos and Creation in the Backyard’. On this latter album his guitar work on the song 'Promise To Your Girl' pops out.

Video: Promise to Your Girl
More difficult is it with other solo work, simply because it is often not clear who is the lead guitarist. One of his best solos can be heard on ‘House of Wax’ from the album ‘Memory Almost Full’ in 2007. The album 'Tug of War' (1982) has a wonderful, acoustic, solo on the song 'Dress me Up As A Robber'. And certainly noteworthy is his solo on the single 'Once Upon A Long Ago’ (1987).

Video Once Upon A Long ago
You hear McCartney so little on electric guitar apparently because he isn’t convinced of his own qualities: "I have my doubts. I think there are good guitarists and there are people like me who just love to play." But not everyone agrees: Beatles producer George Martin praised him as a brilliant guitarist. And when it comes to his work on acoustic guitar he has certainly earned his degree: during guitar lessons these days the song 'Blackbird' is globally a must do.

Video: Blackbird (live)
You can’t say McCartney has a recognizable style. He is not a BB King, Clapton or Santana you already recognize even though you've never heard the song before. Therefor he hasn’t played enough lead guitar. But you can say that he has a pretty raw sound. And that is his preference. You would not expect it from him, but he has a penchant for heavy metal guitarists, Eddie Van Halen is one of his favorites. And the man he admires most, is Jimi Hendrix, whom he now honors during his live concerts. Because it may have lasted thirty years, for covering a Hendrix solo live he nowadays thinks nothing of it.

Video: Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady





André Homan

André Homan is a Dutch writer and journalist.

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