"If you want to play guitar to service a song, there's no one better to study than George Harrison," says guitarist and singer Joe Bithorn, who pays his respects to the late Beatle nightly as part of Rain, the much-heralded Beatles tribute band that has been packing 'em in on Broadway since last fall.
"George was one of the most versatile guitarists ever," Bithorn says. "He had many influences, and he was a very fluid instrumentalist. But he always knew that the song was key. Look at what he did in All My Loving, for example [shown in the above video]. Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins – George loved them all, and he managed to wrap a little of each player into one neat package that really lifts the song to a new level. Amazing."
George Harrison, backstage in 1965, warming up on his Gretsch Tennessean. © Bettmann/CORBIS
Bithorn caught the Beatle bug early - in fact, it was seeing Harrison play the solo to All My Loving on The Ed Sullivan Show that "sealed the deal for me and made me realize I wanted to play the guitar for a living." And that he did: by the age of 16, with a variety of influences that included Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, among others, Bithorn was already being recruited for studio sessions. He would eventually be hired by a touring production of Beatlemania, in which he portrayed Harrison on stage, which led to him joining Rain in 1983.
With Rain, Bithorn has traveled the world playing the music of The Beatles - and, more specifically, George Harrison - but for the next year or so, the guitarist (along with fellow 'Rainmakers' Steve Landes [John Lennon], Joey Curatolo [Paul McCartney] and Ralph Castelli [Ringo Starr]) will be entertaining sold-out crowds on the Great White Way. "It's really a blast playing Broadway," says Bithorn. "We get such a mix of people in the audience. Kids, their parents, their grandparents, folks from Baltimore, people from Tokyo on vacation - Beatles fans comes in all shapes and sizes. What we try to do is give everyone the experience of what it must have been like to see The Beatles live, and the only way to do that is to take apart the music and re-create it authentically."
According to Bithorn, Harrison's musical changes were fast. "In the middle period of The Beatles, George was very influenced by Indian music [check out the sitar tutorial in video one], but he was also into Bob Dylan, the blues and soul music, as well. All of it came out in his playing. He could be very complex, like the dual guitar lines that he and Paul played on And Your Bird Can Sing [see the below video for normal speed and slow demos] - an amazing display of musicianship that people ask me about all the time. But he would then turn around and do the simplest little thing, like using a pinky slide at the end of the solo to Drive My Car - probably a touch of his Eastern thing coming out there."
"Above all, George loved and valued melodies," says Bithorn, "and I think that's one of the most important musical lessons guitarists can take from him. Eventually, his abilities as an instrumentalist fueled his powers as a songwriter, and by the end of The Beatles, his writing was on par with that of John and Paul's. His reward finally came through with the songs Something [see the solo in the above video] and Here Comes The Sun [also demonstrated in the above clip]. The guitar playing is soulful, expressive, melodic and fluid, and it's all in the context of incredible songs."
Joe Bithorn takes center stage on Broadway, joined by Joey Curatolo (left), Steve Landes (right) and Ralph Castelli (top). © Walter McBride ./Retna Ltd./Corbis
When it comes to the Harrison's tools of the trade, Bithorn says that "Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Fender and Gibson guitars all come to mind, as well as Vox amps. The Beatles also used Fender amps, but I would have to say that the experimentation in the studio with various combinations are what really made the sounds.
"The opening of Sgt Pepper is actually three guitars, bass and drums," he explains. "It's easy to hear these tracks almost separately with the availability of ISO tracks. In our show, I recorded one of the parts which our keyboard player plays live while 'John' and I play the other parts. Many of the synth parts you here at our shows are played by me on guitar synth, so having the ultimate guitar-amp combination would be limiting to the music.
"At the end of the day we are trying to accomplish playing the music live with total respect and integrity to the magic and pure genius that The Beatles created in the studio," says Bithorn. "All four Beatles were staggering musicians, and George Harrison's contributions were integral. Bottom line: you couldn't take George away and still have The Beatles."