The Beatles' White Album Fretless Guitar: the Mystery Revealed

In the past few years, perhaps the last of the great mysteries involving The Beatles' guitar gear has been finally revealed - yes, they used a fretless guitar on the 'White Album'.

 

With the launch of our new Bring It Back project, the Eastwood PB Fretless, it's about time we shed a light at the guitar which inspired it - the Bartell Fretless, designed by Paul Barth, and perhaps the most mysterious guitar ever associated with The Beatles.

A mysterious guitar

There have been many books and blogs written about the Beatles over the years and, since the dawn of Beatlemania, there was a lot of interest regarding the guitars they've used. But it wasn't until recently that one particular, and perhaps crucial, instrument  - the Bartell Fretless guitar - has finally come to light, when it was put up for auction and evaluated at £400.000.

Most hardcore Beatles fans - those who play guitar, at least - will be familiar with pretty much every other guitar they've used, from their Rickenbackers to Epiphone Casinos or Gibson J-160e. But the use of a Bartell fretless guitar during the sessions of 'The White Album' has been clouded in mystery for decades, maybe because the Beatles never talked about it, nor any photos of the guitar in the studio has ever surfaced.

George Harrison and his guitars

The only photo of George Harrison and his Bartell fretless (by his left arm) is an early 80's, low-resolution one...

The Facts

Paul Barth's prowess as a guitar maker goes far beyond the 2000-some-odd instruments that came out of the Bartell factory in the '60s. Having previously worked with the likes of Magnatone, Rickenbacker, National, and Acoustic, it's safe to say the man knew what he was doing!

It's no wonder that legendary guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and George Harrison all took a liking to Barth's work. In fact, there's one thing all three artists shared in common: the ownership of a fretless guitar designed by Barth.

Barth in fact gave George Harrison the first of his Bartell fretless guitars, and announced it on the Los Angeles Free Press newspaper, with an ad published in 1967:

Paul Barth newspaper ad

The only mention of this guitar by The Beatles themselves was at a radio interview with Kenny Everett on 6th June 1968, when John and George had the guitar with them, and referred to it as a "mad guitar".

A friend of George Harrison, Jan Gorski-Mescir, confirmed the band left the Bartell Fretless at the Abbey Road locker for several months, until, stuck for the right guitar sound while recording some tracks on the White Album, they finally decided to use the Bartell:

"During Happiness Is A Warm Gun, neither John nor George were very happy with the bend notes on the 'I need a fix' section. That's when they remembered the fretless in the cupboard. Both John and George played played several versions of the very bendy guitar line on the fretless, with compression and a Vox distortion pedal."

But, that was about it - one little known comment by a friend of The Beatles, a brief radio interview from 1968 and a fuzzy photograph. Until, in 2020, the actual guitar re-surfaced on BBC's Antique Roadshow, bringing it finally back to attention.

Beatles Fretless on BBC's Antique Roadshow

Ray Russel and his Bartell fretless

Ray Russel and his Bartell fretless, formerly owned by George Harrison

On a recent episode of BBC's Antique Roadshow, the mysterious Bartell fretless finally re-surfaced, when session musician Ray Russell brought it for an evaluation and told the incredible story - it used to belong to George Harrison.

Russell was given the guitar in 1984 by George Harrison, when he was working on music for a film being made by Harrison's production company Handmade Films.

He told Antiques Roadshow that Harrison asked him to have a go and then said: "It's doing better for you, why don't you have it."

Auction house Bonhams described the Bartell Fretless as an "iconic guitar from a remarkable man" during the bidding in London. Though valued at £400.000, the guitar eventually sold for little less than half this amount - a still respectable £190.000.

More evidence that The Beatles played the Bartell Fretless

Crucial for the evaluation of the guitar, was the input of two respected names in musicology, Kenny Jenkins, of Leeds Beckett University, and Dr Richard Perks, of the University of Kent, who both agreed, separately, that the guitar was indeed used on the tracks 'Helter Skelter' and 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun', from The White Album.

Eastwood Guitars had the opportunity to interview Dr. Perks, who told us how Bonhams got in touch, and why he believes the Bartell Fretless was used by The Beatles:

"As a recognised expert in this field, I was approached by Bonhams auction house, the guitar’s current owner Ray Russell and amateur organologist Paul Brett to help determine whether this guitar was used on the iconic The Beatles (‘White Album’)." Dr Perks told us, "I provided track-by-track transcriptions, analyses and synopses, and sections of my notes and testimony were employed by both Bonhams as ‘specialist evidence’ for the auction brochure, as well as Paul for his forthcoming book Finding Fretless - The Story of the Bartell Fretless Guitar."

Dr. Perks, who is one of Europe’s leading exponents of the fretless electric guitar, has extensive experience as a session musician and has performed all over the world. He took a careful approach to studying whether The Beatles really used a fretless guitar, and his results leave little room for any doubts:

"I concluded that there is a distinct possibility that the Bartell fretless may have been used for various lead guitar overdubs throughout the album, the most likely track being Helter Skelter; there is also a possibility that it features on Happiness is a Warm Gun."  

"Despite the aural complexities involved in timbral analysis (e.g. a thick ‘dirty’ fuzz is used on many of the lead guitar parts), Harrison’s ‘non-conventional’ approach to soloing (which frequently combines uneven bends and slides) creates an air of ambiguity throughout, making it plausible that a fretless was used in some instances." Dr. Perks concluded.

Regrettably, due to the COVID-19 restrictions he was unable to access the guitar in person, but his conclusions pretty much match the one done by Ably House on their YouTube Channel last year, which featured an Eastwood Black Widow with its frets removed, giving it similar specs to the Bartell Fretless (semi-acoustic with P90s) as - we now believe - was used by The Beatles:

Dr. Perks told us:

"I have seen this video yes... several of the sections they highlight are the same as those that were identified as potential fretless ‘candidates’ during my own analysis (and have also been put forward by other music academics); so, the fact that multiple sources are agreeing on the same passages, at the very least, emphasises their unusual sonic/timbral quality."

So... did the Beatles actually play the Bartell Fretless, after all? No one is 100% sure. But the fact the Bartell is the only fretless they are known to have at Abbey Road at the time those tracks were recorded, and that so many different sources separately came to the conclusion a fretless was used in particular sections of particular songs,  seems to be enough evidence that that was the case. What do you think?

Own a replica of the Bartell Fretless... the new Eastwood PB Fretless

Eastwood PB Fretless (mockup)

Eastwood PB Fretless (mockup)

We are proud to announce that one of our new Bring It Back projects is a tribute to that rare, and mysterious, guitar... the Eastwood PB Fretless, which now can also be considered a "must" for Beatles fans as well.

Of course, you don't need to be a Beatles fan or care whether they've used a Bartell, to appreciate the quality and versatility of this new fretless guitar, and of fretless guitars in general.

Fretless instruments are very versatile, and musicians as diverse as Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix (who both also owned a Bartell, incidentally) have also experimented with fretless. Lou Reed is another famous musician who is said to have used a fretless (by removing the frets of a Gretsch semi-acoustic) with the Velvet Underground.

Talking to us about fretless guitars, Dr. Perks said:

"The fretless guitar can afford the player various expressive and performative benefits which are simply not possible on a fretted guitar. These include, for instance, an array of vibrato and slide types, slid natural harmonics, fingernail fretting, the facilitation of microtonal tuning systems and various additional timbres, textures and augmentations. More detail on specific fretless guitar techniques and notations can be found here in my peer-reviewed article".

FIND OUT MORE

Eastwood PB Fretless info

Fretless Guitar article by Dr. Richard Perks

Beatles guitar sells for £190k after Antiques Roadshow valuation

With thanks to Dr. Richard Perks:

Dr Rich Perks is Lecturer in Music Performance at the University of Kent (UK). He is one of Europe’s leading exponents of the fretless electric guitar, has extensive experience as a session musician and has performed all over the world. His current research interests include the extended performance possibilities of the fretless electric guitar, guitar-focused musicology/analysis and the combination of composition with improvisation. In 2019 he was awarded a research grant to explore the fretless guitar scene of West-Asia. His most recent academic publications have addressed fretless electric guitar techniques, modern innovations/advances in electric guitar performance and new approaches to intercultural collaboration. He is currently co-editing a monograph for Bloomsbury Academic entitled 21st Century Guitar – Evolutions and Augmentations, which will include serval contributions/sections relating specifically to fretless guitar.