WHEN DIRECTOR PETER JACKSON unveiled the preview of his documentary series The Beatles: Get Back this past winter, fans were dazzled by the sight of the Fab Four’s smiling faces, and with good reason. The film is a document of the group’s notoriously difficult Let It Be sessions, a tortuously bleak period in January 1969 when the British group nearly broke apart while attempting to return to the simpler style of music on which they founded their career. Jackson’s sneak-preview footage turned the old story on its head, showing the Beatles laughing and clowning with one another in a style not seen since the heady days of Beatlemania.
But it wasn’t just the Beatles’ smiling faces (or George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s snazzy threads) that caught the eyes of guitarists. You didn’t need a particularly sharp eye to notice the thrilling sight of a few new sparkling silver face Fender amplifiers, a pair of large Fender Solid-State P.A. speaker columns and George Harrison’s solid-rosewood Fender Telecaster among the treats that stood out in the newly restored film footage. No doubt many musicians will tune in to the six-hour special when it premieres this fall to see the gear as much as to view the previously unreleased Beatles footage.
The Beatles’ various eras are defined as much by musical styles as by clothing and hair fashions, and they are specified by musical equipment. Their history is full of consequential moments when new gear brought fresh sounds into the band’s music. They include the 1964 arrival of George Harrison’s 1963 Rickenbacker 360/12 12-string in time for the album A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon and Harrison’s acquisition of Fender Stratocasters for Help!, and their subsequent purchase of Epiphone Casinos in 1966. Sgt. Pepper saw McCartney give up his Hofner bass for a Rickenbacker 4001S, and the White Album brought a new guitar, Harrison’s “Lucy” Les Paul, into the fold. Along the way there were other instruments, including the sitar, Mellotron, Hohner electric piano and Moog synthesizer, that added new textures to their music. The Let It Be sessions would be the last time such a gear transformation took place, and its source was largely down to one company: Fender Musical Instruments.
THE TWICKENHAM SESSIONS
The January 1969 Let It Be sessions divide neatly into two groups: those held at Twickenham Film Studios, from January 2 through 14, and those that took place at the Beatles’ Apple Studios from January 21 through 31, including their final rooftop performance. Starting out at Twickenham, Harrison largely played Lucy, the 1957 formerly gold top Gibson Les Paul gifted to him by Eric Clapton in August 1968, as well as his Gibson J-200 acoustic. Lennon almost exclusively played his 1965 Epiphone Casino, which he’d had professionally sanded down to bare wood and covered with two coats of nitrocellulose in 1968. As for McCartney, he had his 1961 Hofner violin bass as well as his newly stripped Rickenbacker 4001S bass, which he didn’t use. Also on hand was a Fender VI six-string bass of unknown vintage that Lennon played when McCartney switched from bass to piano for the songs “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”
The new equipment for Lennon, Harrison and McCartney at Twickenham consisted mainly of amps. Lennon and Harrison each had new silver face 1968 Fender Twin Reverb amps, while Paul used a new silverface 1968 Fender Bassman.
AT APPLE STUDIOS
The misery of rehearsing on Twickenham’s vast, chilly soundstage in the middle of winter took its toll on the Beatles within days. After arguing first with McCartney and then Lennon, Harrison quit on January 10, returning on January 15 with the ultimatum that the group abandon Twickenham and return to Apple Studios. It was at this point that the sessions became happier, not only because of the return to familiar territory but also because of keyboardist Billy Preston, whom George had invited to sit in on the sessions. Just as Clapton’s presence at Abbey Road Studios had helped make the group behave during the recording of the White Album’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” so did Preston’s keep the Beatles’ attitudes more positive.
THE BEATLES’ HISTORY IS FULL OF MOMENTS WHEN NEW GEAR BROUGHT FRESH SOUNDS INTO THEIR MUSIC
Preston’s arrival also corresponded to the arrival of new gear from Fender in the United States. McCartney had been eager for the sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano to appear on the album. Andy Babiuk relates how Ivor Arbiter, Fender’s U.K. agent, secured a pair of the pianos, which were rush delivered from the states. With them came a new surprise for Harrison: a solid rosewood Telecaster, custom-made for him. Fender planned to add the model, as well as a solid-rosewood Stratocaster, to its lineup and believed a pair of high-profile guitarists could help publicize the new products. While Harrison received the Telecaster prototype, the Stratocaster was intended for Jimi Hendrix, who died before it was delivered.
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