George Harrison's Signature Sound


Jan 8 2007, 8h27

There are many different factors to consider when determining the source of George's sound. Love him or not, it is impossible to deny that every song George touched had a stamp that was recognizable as the Harrison sound. In this update of Extra Texture, we're going to explore the many aspects that make George's music so unique so grab a cup of coffee, pull out All Things Must Pass and take a journey with me to the inside of George's music.

Naughty Chords
George refered to them many times in interviews throughout his life but few fans, outside of musicians, really knew what he was talking about. What is this "naughty chord" and what is it that makes it so naughty? The naughty chords George refers to are typicaly dominant diminished chords and augmented chords. All you readers without degrees in music theory, don't run so fast, I'll explain. In music, basic chords are made of three notes (a triad) and can be major or minor. Without getting into the details of how to construct each chord, I'll show you examples. A Cmajor chord is built on the note C-E-G. The distance from C to E is a major third (hence a major chord). A Cminor chord is built on the notes C-Eb(b=flat)-G. The distance from C to Eb is a minor third. These are very basic chord structures and are found all over music. The naughtyness begins when we start messing around with notes in these chords. Let's take that Cminor chord and lower the fifth (G) a half-step. Now we have C-Eb-Gb this is a diminished triad. If we were to take the major chord and raise the fifth (G) to G# then we'd have an augmented chord. But it doesn't stop there. If you want to get real kinky, you through another note on the diminished chord. Add a 7 (B, in our example) and lower it a half step. Now you have C-Eb-Gb-Bb which is often refered to as a Dominant Diminished chord. This chord, with all those flats, leads us to many different chords that a regular C minor would not lead us too. It is with using these naughty chords that Harrison is able to jump from key to key with an amazing amount of ease.

What do these chords sound like? The second chord in All Things Must Pass is a diminished chord. Without playing it for you, it's hard to describe, but the diminished chord adds color. Harrison often uses it as a tool for contrast by slipping it in between two major chords. In contrast to the diminished, Harrison often used Augmented chords. These chords function as a pulley leading you into another key or tonality. That is All from Living in the Material World is an example of Harrison use of Augmented chords. Harrison plays an A (A-C#-E)chord. Then he raises the five a half step(A-C#-E#). Then he raises the five another half step in the next measure (A-C#-F#)which brings him to a pivot point in the song. He now has the third and the fifth of a D major chord and his C# is only a half step away from the root of that D chord. If A is I (1) then D, in the key of A, would be IV and a I-IV chord progression is one of the most common movements in all of western music. So why bother with all that augmented mumbo jumbo? Simply put, it's pretty. It adds tenstion. Music is based on tension and release. By throwing in that augmented chord he's making you want what's coming up next. Without it, the IV chord is a surprise but with it you ache for that IV. You want him to finish the climb and get to that D. And when he does, it's pleasurable to your ear; you enjoy it. That's why you use these chords. It's a tool for letting the audience in on where your going but not letting them know if you're ever going to get there.

That's a lot to handle, especialy if your not musicaly inclined. Don't feel bad if you don't get it all at once but next time you listen to All Things Must Pass, Apple Scruffs, Can't Stop Thinking About You, or Never Get Over You keep an ear out for that dark chord between the pretty chords and when you're listening to That is All, listen for that tug to the next chord. That is Harrison playing with the naughty chords and many times it's hardly noticable because he slips them in so effortlessly. Jeff Lynne commented, in the extra features for Concert for George, that it was often difficult to play George's music because of all the chords. In truth, most of rock music is based on three chords for 80% of the song and will only stray off of those chords for the bridge or the solo, but to look at Harrison's music, one will see a number of chords that stray beyond the standard I-IV-V chords that most rock is built on. Harrison voices his songs with chord progressions like a classical composer would. He does not look at what chord he just played to see where he's going, he looks at what chord he wants to be playing and figures out how he's going to get there. That's one mark of genious, in my book, that is often emulated but rarely mastered.

Kinky Timing
George's ability to tweak with conventional rock standards did not end at chord structures ( a topic which I could write much much more on than I have here). George, very rarely, stayed in one time signature for very long. Most rock is writen in 4/4 time. That means that each measure has four beats and that the quarter note is geting the beats. George didn't care one bit about most rock (and neither did Lennon, I must point out). The most noticable stamp on Harrison's music is a sudden shift in meter. Ever wonder why your foot taps funny when you listen to Here Comes the Sun? It's because, in the course of a few measures, Harrison shifts from 4/4 to 3/8 to 5/8 to 2/4. It's craziness unmatched anywhere else in rock music but it's brilliant. Harrison takes whatever means necisary to get what he wants out of a melody. Many critics attribute his lose timing to the indian influence in his music. Wherever it comes from, it's there a lot.

Listen to the chorus of Beautiful Girl (...and when I saw the way that she looked at me...). That portion of the song is written in 7/8. When dealing with meters where the eigth note receives the beat (6/8, 12/8, 7/8) it is very rare to have an odd number of beats in a measure simply because there are two eight notes in a quarter note. George, like many classical composers before him but few rock composers, ignores that school of thought. Furthermore, he changes the grouping of those beats. 6/8 is generaly grouped into two groups of three. 7/8 can be split into a group of four and three (4 + 3), vice versa (3 + 4), two twos and a three (2 + 2 + 3) or vice versa (3 + 2 + 2) or any other mixture of those groupings. It's these groupings that you tap your foot to and the drummer drums to. Every time your foot taps is the start of a new grouping. Now, listen to the chourus of Beautiful Girl and tap your foot. You should notice two taps per measure but they are uneven, lopsided. You can't, if you're doing it right, tap this out in a regular steady beat because of the odd amount of beats in the measure. Next, you'll probably notice that the lopsidedness shifts every measure. That's because for the first measure (and when I saw the way that she smiled at me) he groups the seven into a 4 + 3 pattern but for the next measure (I knew it then and there that she was a one) he switches it to a 3 + 4 pattern and then back again. I can't put into words how brilliant I think his time signature work is and, as I write this, I'm not possitive I'm being very coherrent to anyone but myself, but I'm trying.

Another aspect of his timing was that he placed most of his melody on the upbeats. The rule of thumb in rock writing is that your strong sylables go on the down beats but Harrison (and again, Lennon did this frequently) puts most of his melody on the upbeat. What purpose does this serve? Well, for one it provides you with something different to listen to and it causes tension. When you base most of your phrase on the upbeat, the listener will feel agitated until you resolve it on a down beat. Like chord progressions, phrases need to have a cadence point so that the listener can enjoy the music. This is a very classical approach, again, because many rock composers don't experiment with tension and release all that much. If I Needed Someone is a very early look at George's syncopated style. "You're THE ONE THAT I'D BE THINK ING OF" all the words in total caps appear on the upbeat. In contrast, take Penny Lane where all the strong beats land right on the down beats, "penny LANE there IS a BARber SHOWing PHOTographs..." there's nothing wrong with putting the emphasis there. Musicaly, it's the most natural way to write a song but natural doesn't always equal exclusive or best and Harrison was a master of syncopation. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, If I Needed Someone, Here Comes the Sun, Give Me Love are all prime examples of his syncopated rhythms.

Genious in Song
When you couple the syncopations with rare time signatures, you have an incredible amount of tension. Then, you throw in those naughty chords and the tension is even greater. Keep in mind, tension in a musical stance, is not a bad thing. Tension can be beautiful and is more of a tool than anything else. Composers use tension to keep the listener interested. It puts you into the song and makes you want, however subconscious it may be, the song to go a certain way. Harrison's use of rhytmic and harmonic tension is what keeps us hooked in every song. It is the reason we listen to it and find joy in it because he was a master at it. He was a master of directing us through each of his songs, taking our emotions and manipulating them with naughty chords and time changes but always taking us back home in the end. As long as this entry has been, I have only begun to scratch the surface of Harrison's masterful songwriting. In future updates I will discuss what production aspects give him his distinct sound as well as analyise his most impressive compositions so that we can all explore, together, the inner workings of brilliant music.

George Harrison played rock music. He loved it and had a passion for it but on a whole other level, he composed classical music and now, sadly since his passing, he is beginning to get the credit he deserves as a masterful songwriter. But, that is for another update. I hope you all enjoyed learning a little bit more about music and I hope I didn't lose to many of you

All Things Must PassThat Is AllLiving in the Material WorldApple ScruffsCan't Stop Thinking About YouNever Get Over YouJeff LynneHere Comes the SunBeautiful GirlIf I Needed SomeoneGeorge HarrisonThe Beatles


  • folduprabbit

    Thanks for that.

    Jan 20 2007, 21h36
  • drewe181

    From listening to the Beatles I found that the songs I enjoyed most were written by Harrison. I am lucky enough to have a wife that let my son's middle name be Harrison. Nice article by the way!

    Set 29 2007, 1h28
  • Hazeyville

    Great Reading

    Ago 31 2008, 10h28
  • TheGuessAvenger

    Damn, this was great! I remember hearing a song of George's that was discovered posthumously and another musician put it to music (can't remember the musician or even the song, because I fail), but many of the comments said, including my own comment, "They just don't sound like George chords." I love George chords. :) Also, thanks for the theory brush-up. I needed it, lol.

    Jan 23 2010, 2h05
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