While My Guitar Gently Weeps (as made famous by The Beatles)

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1968 double album The Beatles (also known as “the White Album”). It was written by George Harrison, the band’s lead guitarist. The song serves as a comment on the disharmony within the Beatles following their return from studying Transcendental Meditation in India in early 1968. This lack of camaraderie was reflected in the band’s initial apathy towards the composition, which Harrison countered by inviting his friend and occasional collaborator, Eric Clapton, to contribute to the recording. Clapton overdubbed a lead guitar part, although he was not formally credited for his contribution.[4]

Harrison wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as an exercise in randomness inspired by the Chinese I Ching. The song conveys his dismay at the world’s unrealised potential for universal love, which he refers to as “the love there that’s sleeping”. Harrison first recorded it with a sparse backing of acoustic guitar and harmonium – a version that appeared on the 1996 Anthology 3 outtakes compilation and, with the addition of a string arrangement by George Martin, on the Love soundtrack album in 2006. The full group recording was made in September 1968, at which point the song’s folk-based musical arrangement was replaced by a production in the heavy rock style. The recording was one of several collaborations between Harrison and Clapton during the late 1960s and was followed by the pair co-writing the song “Badge” for Clapton’s group Cream.

On release, the song received praise from several music critics, and it has since been recognised as an example of Harrison’s continued maturity as a songwriter beside his Beatles bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Rolling Stone ranked “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” 136th on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”,[5] seventh on the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”,[6] and at number 10 on its list of “The Beatles 100 Greatest Songs”.[7][8] Clapton’s performance was ranked 42nd in Guitar World’s 2008 list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Solos”.[9] In 2011 it was voted the sixth best collaboration of all time in a Rolling Stone readers poll.[10] Harrison and Clapton often performed the song together live, during which they shared the lead guitar role over the closing section. Live versions featuring the pair were included on the Concert for Bangladesh album in 1971 and Live in Japan in 1992. Backed by a band that included McCartney and Ringo Starr, Clapton performed the song at the Concert for George in November 2002, a year after Harrison’s death.

George Harrison wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” after his return from India, where the Beatles had been studying Transcendental Meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during the spring of 1968. The visit had allowed Harrison to re-engage with the guitar as his primary instrument, after focusing on the Indian sitar for the previous two years,[12] and also marked the start of a prolific period for him as a songwriter.[13][14] Inspiration for the song came to him when he was visiting his parents in Warrington, Cheshire, and he began reading the I Ching, or “The Book of Changes”.[11] As Harrison put it, “[the book] seemed to me to be based on the Eastern concept that everything is relative to everything else, as opposed to the Western view that things are merely coincidental.”[15] Embracing this idea of relativism, he committed to writing a song based on the first words he saw upon opening a book, which happened to be “gently weeps”.[16] Harrison continued to work on the lyrics after this initial writing session.[15]

The song reflects the disharmonious atmosphere within the Beatles following their return from India.[17][18] Harrison had led the band in their highly publicised endorsement of Transcendental Meditation[19][20] and viewed this spiritual pursuit as superior in importance to their career momentum.[21] When discussing another song he wrote at this time, “Not Guilty”, Harrison said it referred to “the grief I was catching” from John Lennon and Paul McCartney for leading them to Rishikesh[22] and supposedly hindering the group’s career and the launch of their Apple record label.[23] Eric Clapton, with whom Harrison collaborated on several recordings throughout 1968 as a distraction from the Beatles,[24] said that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” conveyed Harrison’s spiritual isolation within the group.[25][nb 1] Author Jonathan Gould writes that, although in the past each of the Beatles had become temporarily subsumed in fads and personal interests, the level of Harrison’s commitment to Indian spirituality as an alternative to the band was unprecedented.[28]

A demo that Harrison recorded at his home in Esher includes an unused verse: “I look at the trouble and see that it’s raging / While my guitar gently weeps / As I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing …”[29] This version also includes the line “The problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping”, which he similarly discarded. An early acoustic guitar and harmonium performance of the song features a slightly different third verse: “I look from the wings at the play you are staging / While my guitar gently weeps / As I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing …”[29] This version was released on the 1996 compilation Anthology 3 and was used as the basis of the 2006 Love remix, with a string arrangement by George Martin.[30]

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was one of the few Beatles compositions from early 1968 that changed markedly from demo form to the official recording.[31] Harrison’s demos suggest the influence of folk music, yet the Beatles’ version is in the heavy rock style typical of much of the band’s late 1960s work.[32] While noting the importance of Harrison’s return to the guitar during this period, Gould describes the song as “virtually a declaration of his recommitment to rock”.[33]

The song as originally issued by the Beatles is in the key of A minor,[34] changing to A major over the bridges.[35] Aside from the intro, the composition is structured into two rounds of verse and bridge, with an instrumental passage extending the second of these verse sections, followed by a final verse and a long instrumental passage that fades out on the released recording.[35] All the sections consist of an even sixteen bars or measures, which are divided into four phrases.[35]

The chord progression over the verses includes a shift to a ♭7 (Am/G) on “all” (bass note G) and a 6 (D9 (major 3rd F♯)) after “love” (bass note F♯) to a ♭6 (Fmaj7) on “sleeping” (bass note F). According to musicologist Dominic Pedler, the 8–♭7–6–♭6 progression represents a hybrid of the Aeolian and Dorian modes.[36] The change to the parallel major key is heralded by a C chord as the verse’s penultimate chord (replacing the D used in the second phrase of each verse) before the E that leads into the bridge.[35] Musicologist Alan Pollack views this combination of C and E as representing a sense of “arrival”, after which the bridge contains “upward [harmonic] gestures” that contrast with the bass descents that dominate the verse.[35] Such contrasts are limited by the inclusion of minor triads (III, VI and II) played over the E chord that ends the bridge’s second and fourth phrases.[37]

In his lyrics to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, Harrison revisits the theme of universal love and the philosophical concerns that were evident in his overtly Indian-influenced compositions, particularly “Within You Without You”.[38] The song is a lament for how a universal love for humankind is latent in all individuals yet remains unrealised.[38][39] In the description of theologian Dale Allison, the song “conveys spiritual angst and an urgent religious point of view without being explicitly theological”.[40] Harrison sings of surveying “you all” and seeing “the love there that’s sleeping”.[41] Musicologist Walter Everett comments that the change from the minor-mode verse to the parallel major might express hope that “unrealized potential” described in the lyrics is to be “fulfilled”, but the continued minor triads “seem to express a strong dismay that love is not to be unfolded”.[37] During the bridges, Harrison adopts a repetitive rhyming scheme in the style of Bob Dylan[42] to convey how humankind has become distracted from its ability to manifest this love.[41] He sings of people that have been “inverted” and “perverted” from their natural perspective.[43]

According to Harrison biographer Joshua Greene, the song’s message reflects the pessimism encouraged by world events throughout 1968, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the United States, and the Soviet Russian oppression of Czechoslovakia.[44][nb 2] Allison writes that the lyrics represent the “antithesis of spiritual triumphalism”, in which Harrison “mourns because love has not conquered all”.[43]

The Beatles recorded “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” several times during the sessions for their self-titled double album, also known as “the White Album”.[46] The recording sessions, which began in late May 1968, were characterised by a lack of cooperation among the four band members,[47][48] and by what Lennon’s bandmates regarded as the overly intrusive presence of his new romantic partner, Yoko Ono.[49][50] In this atmosphere, Harrison had initially been reluctant to present his new compositions to the group.[51][52] Take 1 on 25 July – the version later issued on Anthology 3 – was a solo performance by Harrison, playing his Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar, with an overdubbed harmonium part.[30][37][nb 3]

Sessions on 16 August and 5 September produced full band recordings of the song. In the case of the 16 August version, an overdubbing session on 3 September marked the first time that the Beatles had used eight-track recording at EMI Studios.[51][55] At the same session, Harrison overdubbed a backwards (or “backmasked”) guitar solo, as he had done two years before on “I’m Only Sleeping”, on the Revolver album, but he was not satisfied with the results.[56] The Beatles then remade the basic track on 5 September[37] – a session that marked Ringo Starr’s return to the group after he had walked out on 22 August, upset at the unpleasant atmosphere.[57] While Harrison led the band in welcoming back their drummer, by installing a large flower display all over Starr’s drum kit,[58] he continued to think that his bandmates were not giving their best to the song.[59][60]

On 6 September, during a ride from Surrey into London, Harrison asked Clapton to play guitar on the track. Clapton, who recognised Harrison’s talent as a songwriter,[61] and considered that his abilities had long been held back by Lennon and McCartney,[62] was nevertheless reluctant to participate; he later recalled that his initial response was: “I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on Beatles records.”[63] Harrison convinced him, and Clapton’s lead guitar part, played on Harrison’s Gibson Les Paul electric guitar “Lucy” (a recent gift from Clapton), was overdubbed that evening.[4][64] Recalling the session in his 2007 autobiography, Clapton says that, while Lennon and McCartney were “fairly non-committal”, he thought the track “sounded fantastic”, adding: “I knew George was happy, because he listened to it over and over in the control room.”[65]

Harrison recalled that Clapton’s presence also ensured that his bandmates “tr[ied] a bit harder” and “were all on their best behaviour”.[4] The Beatles carried out the remaining overdubs, which included an ascending piano motif, played by McCartney, over the introduction,[66] Hammond organ by Harrison, and further percussion by Starr.[64] McCartney also added a second bass part, played on his Fender Jazz Bass[66] rather than on either of his preferred Höfner or Rickenbacker models.

Still wary that his contribution might present too much of a departure from the band’s sound, Clapton requested that Harrison give the lead guitar track a more “Beatley” sound when mixing the song.[67][68] During final mixing for the White Album, on 14 October,[67] the guitar part was run through an ADT circuit with “varispeed”, with engineer Chris Thomas manipulating the oscillator to achieve the desired “wobbly” effect.[69][nb 4] According to Everett, Lennon’s tremolo-rich guitar part, recorded on 5 September, was retained only in the song’s coda.[71]

Clapton’s guitar contribution has been described as making this a “monumental” track. As particularly notable features, Everett highlights the increasing lengths of thrice-heard first scale degrees (0:17–0:19), the restraint shown by rests in many bars then unexpected appearances (as at 0:28–0:29), commanding turnaround phrases (0:31–0:33), expressive string bends marking modal changes from C to C♯ (0:47–0:53), power retransition (1:21–1:24), emotive vibrato (2:01–2:07), and a solo (1:55–2:31) with a “measured rise in intensity, rhythmic activity, tonal drive and registral climb”.[66] In October 1968, Harrison reciprocated by co-writing “Badge” with Clapton and playing on Cream’s recording of the track.[72][73] Released on Cream’s final album, Goodbye, “Badge” reflected Harrison’s pop sensibilities[73] and helped Clapton transition from the heavy blues style and its reliance on extended soloing, and onto the more song-based approach that he and Harrison admired in the Band’s 1968 album Music from Big Pink.[74]

Apple Records released The Beatles on 22 November 1968.[75] One of four Harrison compositions on the double album, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was sequenced as the penultimate track on side one in the LP format,[76] between Lennon’s “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”.[77][78] The song was issued as the B-side of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”,[79] a McCartney-written song that had also tested the Beatles’ patience during the White Album sessions.[80][81] This single was an international hit, topping charts in Australia, Austria, Switzerland[82] and West Germany,[83] but was not released in Britain or the United States.[54][79][nb 5]

A mostly plain white album cover, with the words “the Beatles” towards the center and a serial number towards the lower right corner
LP cover of The Beatles. Some music critics have recognised “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as a highlight of the Beatles’ 1968 double album.
According to music critic Tim Riley, Harrison’s writing contributions “regain[ed] the promise” evident in his three songs on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.[85] Recalling the release in his 1977 book The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Schaffner said that, in returning to pop/rock songwriting after his excursions into the Indian classical style, Harrison’s four White Album songs “firmly established him as a contender” beside Lennon and McCartney. In Schaffner’s description, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the most instantly popular of “a quartet of more conventionally accessible pop songs [written by Harrison] that many felt were among the finest on the album”.[86]

Among contemporary reviews, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone said that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was “one of George Harrison’s very best songs”, and likened it to “Blue Jay Way” in that it “recalls California, the simple Baja California beat, the dreamy words of the Los Angeles haze, the organic pace lapping around every room as if in invisible waves”. Wenner found the lyrics “slightly self-righteous and preaching”, representing “a general set of incidents, a message, like a sermon, impersonally directed to everyone”, and concluded: “I am willing to bet something substantial that the lead guitarist on this cut is Eric Clapton, yet another involution of the circular logic on which this song [is] so superbly constructed as a musical piece.”[87] In his review for the International Times, Barry Miles said the song was a “great tune” with “nice hi-hats” but a “lifeless” guitar part.[88] Alan Smith of the NME credited the “warm voice” and “very strong melody” to McCartney and said that the track was one of the “highlights … moving into a slightly Hendrix thing” and was bound to be “Another hit for somebody”.[89] Three weeks later, Smith acknowledged that the singer and composer was in fact Harrison, and added: “the words are evocative and the melody line is creeping into my mind to stay.”[90] Geoffrey Cannon wrote in The Guardian: “George Harrison has seen the truth, and is anxious that we should see our truth. He’s a preacher, man of fire. When his songs speak of ‘you’, the address is direct. He achieves his character in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, which, with Phil Ochs’s ‘Tape from California’, is the first track I know that succeeds in making magnanimous love serious and touching.”[91]

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became a staple of US rock radio during the early 1970s,[92] on a par with songs such as “Layla” by Clapton’s short-lived band Derek and the Dominos, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.[85] In 1973, it appeared on the Beatles’ double album compilation 1967–1970,[93] as one of only three tracks representing the White Album.[94] Capitol Records included it on The Best of George Harrison in 1976;[95] a year before this, Harrison released a sequel to the song, titled “This Guitar (Can’t Keep from Crying)”, which also served as the final single issued by Apple in its original incarnation.[96][97] The Beatles’ recording also appeared on the soundtrack to Withnail and I, a 1987 comedy film set in late-1960s London and produced by Harrison’s company HandMade Films.[98]

Despite his reluctance to record “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, McCartney later identified it as one of his favourite selections on the 1995–96 Anthology outtakes series,[99] and he grouped the song with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” as candidates for Harrison’s “greatest track”.[100] Starr paired it with “Something” as “Two of the finest love songs ever written”, adding: “they’re really on a par with what John and Paul or anyone else of that time wrote.”[100] In their written tributes to Harrison following his death in November 2001, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards each expressed their admiration for the song.[101] Jagger said: “It’s lovely, plaintive. Only a guitar player could write that …”[102]

Harrison played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at every one of his comparatively rare concerts as a solo artist. Writing for Mojo in 2003, Ashley Kahn attributed the track’s “classic” status to its evocation of “a band falling out of harmony” and, with regard to the enduring musical bond between Harrison and Clapton, its standing as “their song”.[103] At Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, held at Madison Square Garden in New York on 1 August 1971, Clapton performed the song on a Gibson Byrdland, a hollow-body guitar more suited to jazz[104] or country music than rock.[105] He later said that this was a poor decision and, as with his substandard playing at the event, one indicative of his descent into heroin addiction.[105][106][nb 6]

The version performed by Harrison during his set at the 1987 Prince’s Trust Concert reunited him with Starr and Clapton,[108] and features an extended coda with the guitars of Harrison and Clapton interweaving. On their 1991 tour of Japan, Harrison and Clapton performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with additional background vocals. An edit combining parts of the 14 December and 17 December Tokyo Dome performances of the song was included on Harrison’s 1992 double album Live in Japan.[109]

Harrison also featured the song in the set list for his only other tour as a solo artist, a series of North American concerts over November–December 1974 with Ravi Shankar.[110] Harrison shared the lead guitarist’s role with Robben Ford, often extending the piece to eight minutes.[111] While it was a popular inclusion in a set list that barely acknowledged Harrison’s past as a former Beatle, his alteration of some of the lyrics – so that his guitar “gently smiles” and “tries to smile” – disappointed many concert-goers and reviewers.[110][112] Author Simon Leng comments that on Harrison’s return to Madison Square Garden towards the end of the tour, his playing on the song nevertheless received a standing ovation.[113]