Who plays the guitar tremolos on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by The Beatles?

For many, George Harrison’s song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was his greatest achievement as a songwriter during his career with The Beatles. This paean to guitar-playing as an antidote to disagreements within the band sees its lead guitarist become their balladeer supreme.

It originated from two words Harrison picked out at random on the page of a book he’d opened – “gently weeps” – which immediately led him back to the instrument that made him. Ironically, though, the electric guitar we hear on the track isn’t Harrison’s. He enlisted the best guitarist he knew to play the lead part on his new song.

Eric Clapton had been Harrison’s close friend for years after the two guitarists met in 1964 when their respective bands shared the billing at a concert in London. In September 1968, Clapton was in the process of disbanding his supergroup Cream and spending an increasing amount of time with Harrison.

Harrison himself, meanwhile, was incredibly excited about the new song he’d just written. He insisted that Clapton play guitar on The Beatles’ recording of it. Clapton reluctantly agreed, becoming the first (and only) non-Beatle to play the instrument on one of their recordings.

So, Clapton plays the tremolos on the song?
The iconic lead guitar part that enters the song around the 15-second mark is unmistakably Clapton’s, even though he was never formally credited for his performance. But this isn’t the only electric guitar part on the track.

Just before the four-minute mark, part way through the lengthy coda section of the song, a wobbly, high-pitched note enters into the mix, making a song like a UFO hovering above the earth’s surface. The note is repeated and sustained in unison with Harrison’s vocal wails for most of the remaining 45 seconds of the song until it fades out completely.

This sound was created on another electric guitar with an effect applied to it known as tremolo, because of the trembling motion it invokes. It was actually John Lennon playing this guitar, not Clapton, while Beatles sound engineer Chris Thomas manipulated an oscillation control to apply a “trembling”, alien-sounding effect to the single note Lennon was playing.

Surprisingly, Lennon’s part was recorded with the song’s basic backing track on September 5th 1968, the day before Clapton’s lead part was added. In fact, Harrison only asked Clapton to record his part on the morning of the following day, as the two of them were travelling together to Abbey Road Studios.

It may be that Clapton’s guitar-playing on the song is more celebrated, but Lennon got there first. And try listening to the final section of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ without his guitar tremolos. It just doesn’t weep in quite the same way.

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