Video: How I taught The Beatles to play guitar

Folk singer Donovan recalls how he helped to influence White Album

Legendary Welsh singer-songwriter Donovan is in Trinity College this evening where he will demonstrate som of his famous guitar techniques.


The Beatles were at the height of their powers after the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

They could have luxuriated in the belief that they had nothing to learn from their peers, but their celebrated visit to India in February 1968 was to provide an incentive for them to expand their musical education.

Last night folk singer and Beatles contemporary Donovan gave a sold-out lecture at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub on how he influenced the band’s sprawling 1968 masterpiece, The White Album. It was one of a series of 12 lectures on each of The Beatles’ albums taking place to mark the 50th anniversary of the band’s only Irish concert.

Donovan accompanied the band on their six-week trip to India to meet the Maharishi and practise transcendental meditation away from the relentless glare and expectation at home.

They only had three acoustic guitars with them and Donovan showed them a couple of guitar techniques he had picked up from his interest in folk, country, jazz and flamenco music which found their way on to The White Album.

The lecture was inspired by comments made by George Harrison in the documentary The Beatles Anthology, first broadcast in 1995, when he said that “Donovan was all over The White Album”.

While they were in India, Donovan taught them the clawhammer style of guitar picking developed by Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family in the 1920s.

“One day John asked me to show him how to do the fingerstyle. I remembered how to do it and he was fascinated. Being the genius that he is, he developed it so fast that he could do it on any chord structure.”

He recalled that he could not show the same technique to Paul McCartney because he was left-handed. “It was upside-down and back-to-front for him, but he was a genius too. He picked it up just by listening,” Donovan said.

New technique
The new technique was evident in John Lennon’s compositions Dear Prudence, Julia and Mother Nature’s Son.

Donovan also taught them an A minor descending bass pattern first used by Bach but later used by American jazz musicians. It was to provide the inspiration for McCartney’s Blackbird and George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

“I didn’t own these techniques, I just passed them on, but this simple guitar style and those chords had given them a whole new horizon,” he said.