Notes You Never Hear: The Metaphysical Loneliness of George Harrison

Of all the impossible-to-recreate sounds made by the Beatles, George Harrison’s lead guitar might be the most elusive. Jayson Greene teases out its haunting essence with the help of a few Harrison acolytes, including his son Dhani.

By Jayson Greene

Recently, Dhani Harrison was rehearsing “Let It Down”, from All Things Must Pass, when a member of his band told him he was playing his own father’s song wrong. “I was doing my own solo, not the one in the song, and he couldn’t take it,” Dhani laughs. “And he was right! I was fudging the chords a bit. I sighed and said, ‘OK then, let’s go back and figure it out.’”

Of all the impossible-to-recreate sounds made by the Beatles—Ringo’s drum fills, Paul’s bass lines—George Harrison’s lead guitar might be the most elusive. Even his own son has spent most of his life struggling to grasp its essence. “For most of my early life, I tried not to learn my father’s music,” Dhani says dryly. He’s joking, at least partly: He has spent years preserving, protecting, and archiving his father’s legacy, and he knows every note, down to which guitar played it. In September, he oversaw the remastering and reissuing of Harrison’s first six solo records, which were recently released on Capitol as The Apple Years: 1968-1975. 

So if you are looking for someone to explain the near-mystical quality of George Harrison’s guitar playing—or at least grapple poetically with its spirit—Dhani is your best bet. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,’” he remembers. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what’s left.’”

I just play what’s left. There probably isn’t a more self-effacing way to describe it. But Harrison’s playing, both in the Beatles and in his solo work, has always sounded this way, like whatever resounding truth remained after all else was exhausted; it is an inner music. Like a chess master who stares motionless at the board while the pieces move in his mind, Harrison’s hardest work always happened before he began playing, as he painstakingly arranged and rearranged chord shapes: In her foreword to his memoir I, Me, Mine, Olivia Harrison fondly remembers her husband writing at home, one ear cocked to the side, endlessly working and reworking chord formations. 

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