March 23, 2012
By Christopher Wilbanks
The new Guitar Collection: George Harrison iPad app from Bandwdth Publishing presents a fascinating digital guided tour of one of the world’s most historic guitar collections belonging to one of the world’s most famous and beloved guitarists. It delivers 360-degree views and an unbelievably detailed close-up look at every scratch, ding, dent and modification of the guitars that Harrison used to make his many monumental contributions to music.
Fans can dive much deeper, too—Guitar Collection: George Harrison also presents the facts about and the story behind each guitar through detailed descriptions, a wealth of images, historical and contemporary video footage, a full list of Beatles and Harrison songs on which each guitar is heard, and even the unmistakable voice of Harrison himself.
Among the many famous instruments on digital display, the app presents a remarkably detailed look at the highly distinctive Gretsch Duo Jet that figured so prominently in Harrison’s early career and that he was photographed with for the cover of acclaimed 1987 solo album Cloud Nine. Harrison played the guitar extensively from summer 1961 through spring 1963—a historic period that encompassed the Beatles’ meteoric rise from regional popularity at home in Liverpool, the band’s gritty rock ‘n’ roll “apprenticeship” in the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, 1963 debut album Please Please Me, the phenomenal rise of Beatlemania and the opening salvos of the British Invasion.
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There’s a famous film clip of the Beatles, very early in their career, performing at Liverpool’s Cavern Club—the dank, cramped cellar where the group played 292 times from February 1961 to August 1963. The only existing film of them playing there, in fact, it was shot on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 22, 1962, and the grainy old black-and-white footage captures the Beatles sweating through a raucous cover of “Some Other Guy” before a packed house mere days after new drummer Ringo Starr officially joined.
At far stage right, 19-year-old guitarist George Harrison can be seen pumping out the song’s infectious chord progression on what he later called his “first real decent guitar”—an all-black 1957 Gretsch 6128 Duo Jet, serial number 21179, with a Bigsby® vibrato unit. The guitar is clearly visible in the footage.
Harrison prized the guitar, which he bought a year earlier, in summer 1961, from Liverpool cab driver and former merchant seaman Ivan Hayward, who bought the guitar new in 1958 in New York and wanted £90 for it (it was he who had the Bigsby® installed). Harrison had paid Hayward £70, writing an IOU for the remaining £20 on the back of the instrument’s customs slip (which Hayward still has to this day).
“It was my first real American guitar,” Harrison told Guitar Player magazine in 1987. “And I’ll tell you, it was secondhand, but I polished that thing. I was so proud to own that.”
Indeed, Harrison had procured a truly fine guitar for himself—no small feat for an 18-year-old in early-’60s Liverpool and a very large step up from the cheap Czech-made Futurama model he’d been playing up until then. As author Andy Babuik notes in his meticulous survey of all equipment used by the Beatles throughout the group’s career, Beatles Gear, the Gretsch Duo Jet, introduced in 1953, was a serious guitar for serious guitar players, which Harrison certainly was even as a teenager:
A 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet is a rare guitar today, highly sought after among guitar collectors. The playability and tone of most 1950s Duo Jets is outstanding. Its semi-solid mahogany body provides a deep, rich tone while the single-coil pickups help deliver a fine treble response, combining into a tone unique to those early Duo Jets. Another bonus is the guitar’s very thin neck, which is comfortable and easy to play. So it’s no surprise that this guitar started Harrison’s love affair with Gretsch guitars.
It became Harrison’s main guitar as soon as he got it. In addition to the many Cavern gigs, this meant that the Duo Jet accompanied the young guitarist on several of the Beatles’ legendary visits to Hamburg, Germany. Between August 1960 and December 1962, the group served a wildly raucous apprenticeship during residencies in the nightclubs of the city’s notorious Reeperbahn red-light district, including the Indra, the Kaiserkellar and the Top Ten Club. Harrison played his Gretsch during 1962 stints at the Star-Club in April, May, November and December. Hamburg was a formative chapter in Beatles history as the place where the group honed its live skills, widened its reputation, lost a certain amount of innocence and recorded and released its first single (“My Bonnie,” backing singer Tony Sheridan, June 1961).
Things happened increasingly quickly after 1961. Brian Epstein officially became the Beatles’ manager in January 1962, securing a recording contract with EMI’s small Parlophone label dated June 4, 1962. On June 6—a mere two days later—Harrison and his Duo Jet were at London’s Abbey Road Studios for the group’s first recording session there, and at subsequent sessions later that year and in early 1963. Consequently, the guitar is heard on early Beatles singles such “Please Please Me”—the group’s second single and first number-one hit—and on most of March 1963 debut album Please Please Me, which includes famous tracks such as “I Saw Her Standing There,” first single “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” a magnificently raucous cover of “Twist and Shout” and the hit title track.
As Beatlemania gripped the U.K., Harrison acquired other Gretsch guitars after mid-1963, most notably Country Gentleman® and Tennessean® models, and largely retired the Duo Jet. In the mid-1960s, he gave the guitar to bassist and artist Klaus Voorman, a longtime friend of the band from the Hamburg days and well known to Beatles fans as the designer of the covers of seminal 1966 Beatles album Revolver and the mid-1990s Beatles Anthology albums.
Voorman kept the Duo Jet for the next 20 years, at some point changing the neck pickup. Harrison himself recalled that Voorman “had the guitar for a number of years, and then he moved back to Germany, and he’d left it in Los Angeles.”
In the mid-1980s, Harrison recalled, “I’d asked him what happened to the guitar and whether I could have it back, because of its nostalgic value. So he returned it to me, and I had it fixed back in its original form with the original pickup and switches that had been missing from it since he owned it.”
For these late-1985/early-1986 repairs, Harrison turned to noted U.K. guitar tech Alan Rogan, who in turn entrusted the restorative work to luthier Roger Giffin, who rewired it and installed a spare DeArmond® pickup in the neck position that resembled the original more closely than the neck pickup Voorman had installed.
With the Duo Jet thus restored, Harrison once again put it to good use. The cover of critically acclaimed and enormously successful 1987 solo album Cloud Nine shows a beaming Harrison holding his old Gretsch Duo Jet, back in his hands after more than two decades.
The fact that Cloud Nine turned out to be one of Harrison’s final original albums perhaps lends a touching symmetry to the notion that he both started and completed his amazing career with “the first real decent guitar” he ever had—the one he affectionately called “the old black Gretsch.” In 2011, Gretsch introduced a meticulously crafted replica of the guitar as a limited-edition tribute model, followed by a more widely available signature model based on it. Now, the Guitar Collection: George Harrison iPad app gives more Harrison fans than ever the opportunity to experience the historic instrument in truly marvelous detail.