Remembering John Lennon through his most significant guitars

By Sergio Ariza

If 2020 wasn't already horrible enough , it now brings us two painful reminders, first that this year, on October 9, John Lennon should have been celebrating his 80th birthday, and then, on December 8, we are reminded that we cannot do so because 40 years ago an undesirable (whose name I don't want to remember) shot him dead. From Guitars Exchange we wish to remember the person who is probably, together with his friend/rival Paul McCartney, the most important songwriter of the 20th Century. To do so, we have chosen to do it in an attractive way for our readers, through his main guitars: 

Gallotone Champion

We begin on one of the most significant days of the 20th century, the day John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Lennon was on stage, leading his Quarrymen, a skiffle band, with his quiff, his checkered shirt and his first guitar, a Gallotrone Champion. He had not yet turned 17. Among the audience that went to see him was a boy who had just turned 15 a month earlier and had been invited by a mutual friend. It was McCartney who did not hesitate to take his guitar, a Framus Zenith, and after the performance left Lennon stunned when he played
Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock. In less than a week Lennon would invite him to join his band and the future of popular music would be sealed, just like the day Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads and Elvis Presley passed by Sun Records to record an album for his mother.

It was Julia, Lennon’s mother, who introduced him to music, by introducing him to Elvis Presley - his great idol - and teaching him to play the banjo, an instrument on which she taught him to play Fats Domino's Ain't That A Shame. It is not very clear if it was her or her aunt Mimi, Julia's sister, and the woman who actually raised him, who bought him this first guitar for 10 pounds; what is clear is that it was good business.


Hofner Club 40 de 1959

Despite not living with Julia, his mother was one of the fundamental figures in his life, so it is understandable that her death in July 1958, when she was hit by a car, had a huge impact on his life. John became even more conflicted, drinking heavily and getting into constant fights, but it also made his bond with Paul much closer, as McCartney had also lost his mother. So it's not surprising that the first electric guitar that Lennon owned came about illicitly. When his band had changed its name to Johnny And the Moondogs, and already had McCartney, abandoning the skiffle for rock & roll, on November 24th 1958, Lennon stole a Dallas Tuxedo after a performance. But the first real electric would arrive in August 1959 for about 30 pounds: it was a Club 40 Hofner and it was his Aunt Mimi who put more than half of the money to it, even though she gave him one of the least accurate tips, especially read today, in history: "The guitar is great, John, but you'll never make a living with it".


Rickenbacker 325 de 1958

Attention, we are talking about the Holy Grail of the Beatles' guitars. In 1960 the band had been renamed The Beatles and consisted of Lennon, McCartney,
George Harrison (who entered at Paul's suggestion and convinced John of his skill, despite his age, after playing Raunchy on a bus) and Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend from John's art school. In August of that year they were signed up by a club in Hamburg and, with no drummer, decided to rush Pete Best into the band before embarking. It was there, in Germany, that Lennon bought his Rickenbacker 325, a guitar he had seen on a Jean Thielemans’ album. Harrison never understood how he afforded it or if he even paid for it in full, but the guitar became part of the Beatles' history. Astrid Kirchherr immortalized it for the first time in the fall of 1960, but it wouldn't be the last time the world would see it. The guitar was orange but Lennon decided to paint it black just when the Beatles were getting their first contract. Lennon recorded Please Please Me with it, the song with which George Martin told them: "You have just recorded your first number one". He was not wrong - that guitar was responsible for the rhythm of 'Beatlemania', and was the guitar with which Lennon recorded all the first successes, and in which you can see its enormous rhythm, as can be seen on All My Loving. It was also with this guitar that Lennon appeared on Ed Sullivan's historic program in 1964, the program that broke all the audience records on American television.

Some of the songs in which he used it: Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving, I Want To Hold Your Hand.


Rickenbacker 325 de 1964

Lennon was never especially good at taking care of guitars and his Rickenbacker 325 ceased to function in the middle of the Beatles’ 1964 American tour. But by that time the band had already become the world sensation and the brand sent a new one, from that same year, to Florida, where the group were about to appear, for the second time, on Ed Sullivan's show. That would be the first appearance of this second Rickenbacker that would accompany him on the recording of A Hard Day's Night - and would go as far as Rubber Soul and
Revolver. Around the same time, Lennon would also get himself, like George, a 12-string guitar of the same model that he would use on songs like Ticket To Ride. The first albums of the Beatles are linked to the Rickenbacker sound and it was responsible for Roger McGuinn getting one for his Byrds.

Some of the songs in which it used: A Hard Day's Night, If I Fell, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Wait, Day Tripper, And Your Bird Can Sing


Gibson J-160E de 1962

After signing with EMI in 1962 Brian Epstein gave the Fab Four money to buy ‘more acceptable equipment’. So John and George went to Rushworth's Music House in Liverpool and bought two similar Gibson J-160E's. Both would make their first appearance on the band's first single, George's on side A, Love Me Do, and Lennon's and again Harrison's on side B, PS I Love You. This became Lennon’s favorite guitar, something that is not of surprising if one thinks that he composed, face to face with McCartney, the songs that catapulted them to the fame: see Please Please Me, She Loves You or From Me To You (I Want To Hold Your Hand, which they composed on the piano in Paul's house). The guitar is the acoustic sound of the early Beatles, playing on And I Love Her and If I Fell, but also on such wild things as Twist & Shout. The guitar was stolen after a concert and appeared years later at the home of the lucky John McCaw who ended up selling it for $2,400,000.

Some of the songs in which it was used: Twist & Shout, I Should Have Known Better, And I Love Her, Can´t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day's Night, Things We Said Today


Gibson J-160E de 1964

The second of the J-160Es is the guitar that Lennon used most times, being, possibly, the most important of his guitars. This is the song that he used as his main instrument, and therefore to compose, from the times of Beatles For Sale until his death in 1980. It can be heard on Help!, Nowhere Man, Girl, We Can Work It Out, A Day In The Life and Hey Jude, and it is more than likely that it was the guitar with which he wrote Strawberry Fields Forever in Almería. It was painted with psychedelic colors by The Fool in 1967, and it returned to its natural color in 1968. In 1969 John painted some cartoons of him and Yoko on it, and it was the guitar he played on Give Peace A Chance and his 'Bed-in for peace' against the Vietnam War. The acoustic sound of Lennon and the Beatles comes with this guitar, from which he was able to get great songs… like a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat.

Some of the songs he used it on: Eight Days A Week, I Feel Fine, Help!, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), Nowhere Man, Girl, We Can Work It Out, Yellow Submarine, I'm Only Sleeping, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, A Day In The Life, Julia, Dear Prudence, Hey Jude, Give Peace a Chance


Fender Stratocaster de 1961

Another guitar that was bought at the same time as George Harrison’s and maybe his was much better known and used: is the fundamental Rocky. However Lennon also used his Strat, mainly on the incredible Rubber Soul, where you can hear him, along with Harrison, extracting great sounds from the guitar, plugged into a Vox AC-100.

Some of the songs on which he used it: Nowhere Man, In My Life, The Word, If I Needed Someone


Epiphone ES-230TD Casino de 1965

But if there is a single electric guitar that can be related to Lennon it is his Epiphone Casino, a guitar that appears on all the Beatles' albums from Revolver to Abbey Road, but also on the two main albums of his solo career, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. It is also the guitar on which he played the last official Beatles concert (in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, in 1966), with which he appeared in the legendary performance of the Beatles on the roof of Apple Corps and the one that he used for his appearance in the Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus, interpreting Yer Blues. It is also the guitar with which he recorded his best moments as a guitarist, from the fiery intro of Revolution, to the solo, shared with McCartney and Harrison, on The End, without forgetting being the main guitar for Get Back or the 'grungy' sound of Well, Well, Well... This was the electric equivalent of the J-160.

Some of the songs on which he used it: Got To Get You Into My Life, Sgt. Pepper 's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise), Strawberry Fields Forever, Hey Bulldog, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Yer Blues, Revolution, Come Together, The End, I've Got A Feeling, Get Back, Don't Let Me Down, How Do You Sleep?


Framus 5/024 Hootenanny de 1964

Lennon rarely cheated on the J-160, but when he did, he opted for a 1964 Framus 5/024 Hootenanny that he bought the following year. Its most mythical appearance is in the movie Help! where you can see him playing You've Got To Hide Your Love Away with it, but it would also appear at the end of the band's career, when Lennon rescued it to use it on the wonderful Across The Universe and even in one of his brief contributions to the B side of Abbey Road, with Polythene Pam.

Some of the songs on which he used it: You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, Polythene Pam, Across The Universe, The Ballad Of John And Yoko


Les Paul Junior de 1956

This is another of the most mythical guitars of his career, thanks to its appearance in the famous Madison Square Garden concert in 1972. Lennon bought this guitar shortly before and used it during the whole concert; the only, and last, time that Lennon gave a concert by himself after the separation of the Beatles.