John Lennon’s Guitars
The Guitarist D espite his status as master songwriter and cultural icon, John Lennon (1940-1980) was, first, a guitar player.
Lennon, founding member of The Beatles, played rhythm formidably, as evidenced by rock-steady chording, deft figures (“I Feel Fine”), rapid-fire triplets (“All My Loving”), delicate jazz fingerings (“Til There Was You”), and fine fingerpicking (“Julia,” “Look at Me”).
Although he had played some Chuck Berry-type leads in the band’s early days, Lennon gladly turned over those duties to George Harrison. In the studio, however, he did like to keep his hand in. Lennon’s first lead on record occured on 25 February 1964, on his composition “You Can’t Do That,” followed a few days later by a solo on “Long Tall Sally” (a song the boys nailed in one take). There followed solos on, among other songs, “Every Little Thing,” “Get Back,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Yer Blues,” “Honey Pie,” “Ballad of John and Yoko,” a slide solo on “For You Blue,” and, alternating with Harrison and Paul McCartney, “The End.”
Lennon did all the lead work on his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band . but on subsequent outings relied on Harrison, Eric Clapton and Jessie Ed Davis, among others. In the course of his career he traded riffs onstage with Chuck Berry, Keith Richard, Clapton and Frank Zappa.
His last piece of guitar playing, a manic lead on Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice” (12/80), showed his self-described “primitive” lead playing at its zenith.
1957: Gallotone Champion acoustic guitar. Lennon bought this 3/4-size guitar by mail for about 10 after seeing an advertisement in Reveille magazine. Made by the Gallo company of South Africa, it was “Guaranteed Not to Split.” Banjo player and sympathetic spirit Julia Lennon allowed her son’s new guitar to be delivered to her house, rather than that of disapproving Aunt Mimi. The lad started a band, the Black Jacks, with his mate Pete Shotton. His mother had shown him a few five-string banjo chords, so Lennon played the guitar with the sixth string left slack. With the addition of a few more members he rechristened the group the Quarry Men, and it was that outfit that played the St. Peter’s Parish Fete in Woolton, Liverpool on 6 July 1957 when McCartney entered the picture. Lennon wailed on this beginner model until it broke the following year. Whether the instrument — made of laminated woods — actually “split” is undetermined.
Long thought missing, this guitar recently turned up and was auctioned through Sotheby’s. The auction house called on original Quarrymen member Rod Davis to help authenticate the guitar, and in a Liverpool Echo story he remembers that when the band played that famous fete “John took the skin off the edge of his index finger while playing,” and when Davis changed one of the strings on Lennon’s guitar, he noticed a spot of blood inside. So Davis recounted that story to Sotheby’s and advised them to look inside for the spot, and “although faint, it was still there.”
So where has it been all these years? In its auction coverage, the Times of London reported that “when the Beatles became successful, Lennon left the guitar in the care of his guardian, Aunt Mimi. After his murder, she gave it to a family friend who had a disabled son. When the boy died, it was passed to another disabled friend, who is now in her twenties. Her stepfather sold it to safeguard her future.”
The Sotheby’s catalogue adds that “a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this lot will be donated to the Olive Mount Learning Disabilities Directorate, Liverpool.” Interestingly, it also includes excerpts of an undated document accompanying Mimi Smith’s donation: “Her typewritten and signed letter, sent from her home in Sandbanks, Poole, states, ‘With regards to the request for items in support of your Liverpool handicapped musicians appeal, most requests I have to refuse, however, in this case I feel able to make an exception. The poor old guitar was in such a state when I found it I had it professionally repaired. I hope that through you John’s possessions can bring pleasure. ‘ ” The guitar, which was auctioned together with the trunk it sat in for years, now sports a brass plaque Mimi had mounted on the headstock memorializing her advice to the young, guitar-happy Lennon: “Remember, you’ll never earn your living by it.”
So whence this mythic instrument? An anonymous bidder later identified as a “private collector” named Adam Sender got it for 155,000 (about $250,000). In the fall of 2000 this guitar went on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art.
. 1958: Dallas Tuxedo: tobacco-sunburst solidbody (vintage unknown). It wasMonday, 24 November 1958, and Johnny and the Moondogs were heading home from Manchester, where they had competed in a Carroll Levis talent show. The event wasn’t over, but the boys had to make a dash to catch the last train to Liverpool. There may have been another reason for their swift departure: John Lennon, who had arrived without a guitar, suddenly had one. Did he steal it from one of the other acts? Both McCartney and Harrison have said he stole someone ‘s guitar that night.
If this guitar— one of the first electric models made in Britain —is the “Manchester Mystery Guitar,” Lennon apparently hid it in the loft at Mendips, his Liverpool home, for he was never photographed with it. Except for one visitor who got abrief glimpseof it in the kitchen, and another local who remembers Lennon looking for a case for it, the Tuxedo remained unseen until 1996, whenworkmenfound the guitar, along with two banjo magazines, in the loft. Shortly after, Ernie Burkey, the man who’d bought Mendips, allowed two friends of his nephewAlan Strattonto visit the famous Beatles homestead. Burkey showed the two —Johnny “Guitar” Byrne and American Beatles expert Larry Wassgren —the items that workmen had foundand, knowing the visitors were Beatles fans, gave them to the astonished pair, who reckoned that the Tuxedo was most likely the long-rumored purloined Manchester guitar. Wassgren graciously turned the Tuxedo over to Stratton, and it was to be auctioned by Bonhams in July 2012.
While there’s no photographic proof of this guitar being the one referred to in Beatles lore, it must be considered a strong candidate. Doubters include Beatles archivist Mark Lewisohn, who told this writer that one of the band’s friends went along with them to the competition and saw Lennon take a guitar but described it as “a complete piece of rubbish.” So, for the time being, the Manchester Mystery Guitar remains just that.
Note: While most accounts place Johnny and the Moondogs’ Manchester appearance in 1959,
Tim Fletcher’s excellent research piece dates the event a year earlier.