The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

The Beatles and the Free-Reed Instruments

by Henry Doktorski
copyright 1998

"Many bands have revolutionized music; only one has revolutionized the whole world." -- Marcos Ortiz F. Endnote 1

Although some people may not like the Beatles, none can deny their importance. As performers and song-writers (as well as pop culture icons) they not only changed the course of popular musical history by their trend-setting innovations, but they even had an influence on contemporary classical music. The English composer John Tavener, in particular, had a close association with the Beatles. Endnote 2

Although -- in the beginning at least -- they were known for their beat: driving electric guitars and (sometimes) screaming vocals, they often used free-reed instruments in their songs for special effect.

I have heard accordionists (mostly those born before 1940) lament that the Beatles killed the accordion. Before the advent of rock 'n' roll, the accordion was the number one instrument taught at private music schools. But after the Beatles hit the scene, young people in droves abandoned the accordion for the electric guitar.

In fact, the owner of the music school where I first took accordion lessons wrote, "The 'peak' study of the accordion lasted until 1963. . . . we had 600 students a week. 500 of which were accordion students. The skid started in 1958 with the advent of Rock and Roll. When the Beetles [sic] (ugh) came to appear on the Ed Sullivan show I knew it was all over. In spite of continuing to promote the instrument, accordion attendance fell to approximately 200 students. I decided to sell my school because I didn't want to join the guitar revolution." Endnote 3

Few people know, however, that the Beatles used free-reed instruments in no less than 28 recorded songs. The free-reed instruments appeared in all of the 13 British LPs except for two: those marked with an asterisk.

    1. Please Please Me
    2. With The Beatles
    3. A Hard Day's Night
    4. Beatles For Sale
    5. Help! *
    6. Rubber Soul
    7. Revolver
    8. A Collection Of Beatles Oldies
    9. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
    10. The Beatles
    11. Yellow Submarine
    12. Abbey Road
    13. Let It Be *

John Lennon Played the Harmonica

The original founder of the Beatles, John Lennon (1940-1980) had a particularly close connection with some of the free-reed instruments. He learned to play the harmonica as his first instrument. Lennon said, "I can't remember why I took it up in the first place -- I must have picked one up very cheap. I know we used to take in students and one of them had a mouth organ and said he'd buy me one if I could learn a tune by the next morning. So I learned about two. I was somewhere between eight and twelve at the time -- in short pants anyway. Another time I was travelling to Edinburgh on me own to see me auntie and I played the mouth organ all the way up on the bus. The driver liked it and told me to meet him at a place in Edinburgh the next morning and he'd give me a good mouth organ." Endnote 4

John Lennon also played accordion as a child. "I was constantly making up music; playing mouth organs, accordions, piano, anything I could lay my hands on as a kid. I sang and imitated others, but the real Pied Piper was rock 'n' roll. When I heard it I dropped everything else." Endnote 5

The Switch to Guitar

When Lennon heard recordings by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, he began learning the guitar. "I used to borrow a guitar at first. I couldn't play, but a pal of mine had one and it fascinated me. Eventually my mother bought me one from one of these mail order firms. I suppose it was a bit crummy, when you think about it. But I played it all the time and I got a lot of practice." Endnote 6

In 1955 Lennon teamed up with some classmates from his high school and formed a skiffle group, The Quarrymen, which played at parties or weddings, mostly for free. In 1956 fourteen year old Paul McCartney joined the group and in 1958 George Harrison joined. In 1960 they called themselves the Silver Beatles and got a contract to perform an extended 58 night engagement at a German nightclub in Hamburg -- playing between 4.5 and 6 hours hours each night. In 1961 Brian Epstein became their manager and in 1962 their first single was recorded on Parlophone, produced by George Martin. Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey) joined the group at this time. In 1963 Please Please Me hit the top of the charts and the phenomenon known as Beatlemania began. In 1964 they had their first United States tour and performed on the Ed Sullivan show.

During these years, Lennon did not forget his harmonica roots, as he often played the blues harp during performances and recordings. It is not clear to me whether or not he played harmonica during his days with the Quarrymen. The first mention of the harmonica in Shout!, the Beatles biography by Philip Norman, occurred in August 1960, when Lennon shoplifted a mouth organ from a store in Arnhem, Holland, while the entourage was en route to their first Hamburg engagement. Endnote 7

In 1962 he met the blues harpist Delbert McClinton who was touring England with Bruce Chanel and playing harmonica on his hit Hey Baby. McClinton taught Lennon how to play cross harp style. Endnote 8

The Beatles songs which include harmonica are:


    I Remember You (Johnny Mercer/Victor Schertzinger)
    from the album The Beatles Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany; 1962
    (released by Lingasong LS-2-7001 in 1977).

    Love Me Do
    Please Please Me
    There's A Place
    (by Gerry Goffin/Carole King)
    from the album Please Please Me (released by Parlophone: March 22, 1963)

    From Me To You and
    Thank You Girl (single; Parlophone:April 12, 1963)

    I'll Get You -- the B side from the single She Loves You (Parlophone: August 28, 1963)

    Little Child, from the album With The Beatles (released by Parlophone: November 22 , 1963)

    I Should Have Known Better
    from the album Hard Day's Night (Parlophone: July 10. 1964)

    I'm A Loser,
    from the album Beatles For Sale (Parlophone: December 4, 1964)

Peter Krampert wrote in The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica, "Many of their early hits including Love Me Do, Please Please Me and others featured harmonica playing by John Lennon. He stopped playing harmonica after the first few albums." Endnote 9

Why did Lennon stop playing harmonica? Beginning in 1965, the music of the Beatles began expanding beyond the blues-based rock 'n' roll Liverpool/Mersey beat. The simple blues harp, although suitable for early rock 'n' roll, did not work with the new, more sophisticated rock style which was rapidly evolving.


The harmonica did not appear at all in the album Rubber Soul (Parlophone: December 3, 1965) although the harmonium appeared in two songs from this album: If I Needed Someone and The Word. The harmonium also appeared in the single We Can Work It Out (Parlophone: December 3, 1965).


In their next album, Revolver (Parlophone: August 5, 1966), the harmonica is absent again, yet the harmonium appeared in Dr. Robert, played by Lennon.


Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles' musical language expanded incredibly in their consummate masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone: June 1, 1967). The album was a potpourri of rock 'n' roll, Western classical music, Indian classical music, early 20th-century vaudeville music, and modern electronic music employing compositional techniques such as indeterminacy and playing tapes backwards, as pioneered by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen whose photo appeared on the album cover along with a host of other celebrities. Endnote 10

The Beatles' producer, George Martin wrote about Sgt. Pepper's: "Certainly this album was entirely different to anything which had gone before, and although it has been much imitated since, it remains today a unique, epochal record, one which revolutionized the entire recording industry and caused such vast repercussions that its influence will very probably be felt for as long as music is written and performed." Endnote 11

In this new modern rock style, the free-reed instruments still had a place in the Beatles' music.

One song from Sgt. Pepper included harmonium and harmonicas. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite was based on an old Victorian poster John Lennon had purchased in an antique shop which advertised a circus that actually took place in 1843 in a field near Rochdale, Lancashire. George Martin wrote, "The events shown on the poster fired his imagination and inspired him and Paul to write the song that was to become such a fundamental part of Pepper. 'I'd love to be able to get across all the effects of a really colourful circus,' John told me. 'The acrobats in their tights, the smell of the animals, the merry-go-rounds. I want to smell the sawdust, George' How to achieve that? . . .

Martin replied to Lennon, "'What we should do is create a special backing track with organs and mouth-organs -- a pumping kind of sound.' We began by using just the harmonium, the big beast that was part of the furniture at Abbey Road. This was the beginning: then we had to overlay the special effects using a Hammond and a Lowry organ, together with our well-beloved roadie, Mal Evans, playing a massive bass harmonica. . . ." George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Neil Aspinall also played harmonicas in For The Benefit of Mr. Kite.

George Martin, however, became extremely fatigued from playing the harmonium during the nearly-all-night recording session. He wrote, "I remember only too well pumping away with my feet at that bloody harmonium for hour after hour, trying to get it right, and being absolutely knackered, heart going at about 130 beats to the minute. It was like climbing up a steep flight of stairs non-stop. We would complete a take, I'd heave a sigh of relief, mop my sweaty brow, and then the dreaded call would come from John: 'I wouldn't mind doing that again, George. You all right there?' The harmonium was a good idea, though, because it established a vaguely circusy atmosphere to the song straight off." Endnote 12

George Martin also played the harmonium on A Day In The Life, to add reinforcement to the three pianos which played the final 45 second-long E major chord.

Magical Mystery Tour

The bass harmonica (as well as the chord harmonica) appeared in Fool On The Hill from the Magical Mystery Tour album (Capitol: November 27, 1967), as an accompaniment to the flute solos. The lumbering bass harmonica part conveyed the feeling that the fool, although brilliant, was not accepted by the mainstream society which poked fun at him.

In Penny Lane (first released as a single by Parlophone: February 17, 1967), John played two-tone high-pitch whistles from a harmonium (fed through a Vox guitar amplifier) and in Your Mother Should Know Ringo played bongos, piano and harmonium. All You Need Is Love (first released as a single by Parlophone: July 7, 1967), included an accordion part played by Jack Emblow, as well as parts for harpsichord, banjo, double-bass, four violins, two tenor saxophones, two trombones, two trumpets and flugelhorn.

Note: a photo of Jack Emblow can be seen at

Shirley's Wild Accordion

One of the most unusual occurrences of the free-reed instruments in the Beatles' music appeared in the Lennon/McCartney song Shirley's Wild Accordion. It was recorded on October 12, 1967 for the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack in studio 3 at De Lane Lea Music Recording Studios, produced by John Lennon with recording engineers Ken Scott and Richard Lush. (This was John's first official credit as a producer in a Beatles session.)

The musicians were:

    Paul: maraca, background yelling
    Ringo: drums
    Reg Wale: percussion
    Shirley Evans: accordion
    Mike Leander: arranger and notater.

Although Shirley Evans personally appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie, playing accordion on the bus and leading the passengers in a sing-along (consisting of excerpts from popular tunes such as Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye, The Happy Wanderer, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along, Never on Sunday, and Offenbach's Can Can), the song Shirley's Wild Accordion was never released. Endnote 13

Magical Mystery Tour, unlike the Beatles' first two films A Hard Day's Night and Help! was written by the Beatles, directed by the Beatles, and produced by the Beatles. Although they may have been magnificent musicans and song writers, they were entirely unskilled in the dramatic arts. The film, broadcast by British television on December 26, 1967, was a huge flop. The Daily Express called it "blatant rubbish" and the Los Angeles Times' headline read "Beatles Bomb With Yule Film." An American TV deal was cancelled on account of the reviews. After viewing the film, I concurred with their opinion.


The harmonium (played by Rijnam Desad) appeared in George Harrison's The Inner Light, the B side of the single Lady Madonna (Parlophone: March 15, 1968), along with other Indian instruments such as the bansri, esraj, tampoura, pakavaj, shanhais, sitar, sur-bahar, santorr, flutes, taar shehnai, dholka, and tabla-tarang. (The harmonium, besides being a Victorian English instrument, is also extremely popular in India in the smaller table-top hand-pumped version.)

Rocky Raccoon

The harmonica and accordion appeared in the song Rocky Raccoon from the double white album titled The Beatles (Apple: November 22, 1968) and helped give the song it's cowboy flavor: it is set in the American wild west of the 19th century. Other factors which contribute to its bawdy saloon atmosphere are 1) Paul McCartney's half-spoken sprechgesang introduction in a mock cowboy dialect and 2) an extensive honky-tonk piano solo.

The song tells the story about a young boy -- Rocky Raccoon -- who loses his girlfriend to another suitor who called himself Dan. Rocky decides to get back at his rival and shoot him. However, as Daniel was the better marksman, he drew first and wounded Rocky who collapsed in a corner.

The harmonica appeared in this song briefly at the end of the first verse and more extensively during the third verse:

    Now she and her man who called himself Dan
    Were in the next room at the hoe down
    Rocky burst in and grinning a grin
    He said Danny boy this is a showdown.

The accordion (with a distinctive musette sound) appeared during the verse:

    Now the doctor came in, stinking of gin
    And proceeded to lie on the table
    He said "Rocky, you met your match."
    And Rocky said, "Doc, it's only a scratch
    And I'll be better. I'll be better doc as soon as I am able."

The accordion sounds like a 12-bass instrument and it is played badly, as if the performer was as drunk as the doctor stinking of gin. (Actually, the Beatles made it a point NEVER to perform while under the influence as the music suffered, but once John Lennon accidentally ingested some LSD before a Sgt. Pepper's recording session and consequently had to stop for the rest of the night.) Endnote 14

Considering the high quality of all the other performances on the album -- and the sloppiness of the accordion part -- it is possible that Paul McCartney (the actual composer of Rocky Raccoon), intended the accordion to represent the drunk doctor and therefore deliberately had the instrument played badly. However, I doubt if this "word painting" was intentionally planned. I suspect that Paul or John simply had difficulty controlling the bellows and coordinating the right and left hands. Endnote 15

The harmonium also very briefly appeared on this album in the beginning of Cry Baby Cry.


The harmonica appeared in All Together Now from the Yellow Submarine album (Apple: January 17, 1969).

The harmonium appeared in Sun King from Abbey Road (Apple: September 26, 1969) as well as Here Comes The Sun. Endnote 16


No free-reed instruments appeared in the album Let It Be (Apple: May 8, 1970), although the harmonica appeared in You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), the B side of the single Let It Be (Apple: March 6, 1970).

The free-reed instruments (most notably the harmonica and harmonium) played an important but supporting role in some of the songs of the Beatles. With the exception of the early numbers which included harmonica, many of the appearances of the free-reed instruments were used to convey a special programmatic effect, such as a circus calliope in Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, an eccentric genius in Fool On The Hill and a cowboy saloon in Rocky Raccoon.

Although it cannot be denied that the Beatles emphasis on guitars and drums contributed to the decline of the accordion, one must remember that they included free-reed instruments in more songs than any other major rock band of the 1960s.

End notes:

1 Marcos Ortiz F., Santiago, Chile (South America), from Marcos' Beatles Page:

2 Elliot Schwartz and Daniel Godfrey, "Music Since 1945," (Schirmer Books: New York, 1993), 442.

3 Ralph Stricker, "The Great Accordion Crash" (posted in September 28, 1998)

4 John Lennon, cited by Miles in "John Lennon In His Own Words." (Omnibus Press: London, 1980), 14.

5 Anthony Fawcett, John Lennon: One Day At A Time (Grove Press: New York, 1976/1981), 155-156.

6 John Lennon, op. cited (Miles), 17.

7 Philip Norman, Shout! (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1981), 87.

8 Peter Krampert, The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica (Tantanka Publishing: Arlington Heights, Illinois, 1998), 31.

9 Krampert, Ibid.

10 George Martin wrote, "Paul was very much into what we called the avant-garde in those days: modern art, literature, modern music by the likes of John Cage, Stockhausen. . ."

George Martin, With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper (Little, Brown and Company: London, 1994), 81.

11 George Martin, CD booklet notes for The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" CD release (Apple Records: London, 1987)

12 George Martin, op cit, With A Little Help From My Friends, 89-93.

13 The following biography Shirley Evans was taken from the program of the World Premiere of the ballet "Twin Flame" for which she composed the majority of the music and the words for the songs and introduction.

14 Ringo said, "We took several substances, but not when we were actually playing, because we found out very early on that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way it was really shitty music, so we would have the experience and then bring that into the music later."

Ringo Starr, cited by George Martin, ibid., 110.

15 According to Rich Marten (Rich M's Discographies at the harmonium was played (by John Lennon), not the accordion, but I don't believe it. The harmonium, even if it had the biting musette reeds, couldn't crescendo like an accordion.

16 Victor Muñoz at Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile in "A Beatles Index" (URL: claimed that Ringo played the harmonium in Here Comes the Sun and Rich Marten (ibid.) claimed that Paul played the harmonium in Sun King, but I can't hear it in either song.

About the Author

Wayne Pulda, Richard Pulowski and Henry Doktorski performing at the VFW post, Milltown, New Jersey (ca. 1970)

Although Henry Doktorski claims to be a classical accordionist, the truth is that before he discovered classical music, he played accordion in a rock 'n' roll band. In 1969 (at the age of 13) he formed a duo with his buddy Wayne Pulda, a fellow 8th grade classmate at Our Lady of Lourdes Grammar School in Milltown, New Jersey. They performed the songs of the Beatles, among others, at school functions

They were soon joined by Ken Fickas and Rich Pulowski on electric guitars and Mark Orsini on electric bass; they performed at local dances and other events. Their repertoire included songs by the Beatles, Santana, Chicago, Iron Butterfly, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad and other popular rock groups.

After a few years, Doktorski became frustrated by the incongruity of the accordion in this style of music (he also thought that teenage girls seemed to prefer rock keyboardists more than accordionists) so he put his accordion in the closet and bought a Farfisa electric organ in order to better realize the "authentic performance practice" of rock groups in the 60s and 70s.

However, within a short time he discovered classical music in high school and abandoned rock 'n' roll, although he has never lost his appreciation for the rock classics he used to play, such as Get Back, Yesterday, Let It Be, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, Ob La Di Ob La da, as well as songs by other groups such as In A Gadda Da Vida, Evil Ways, Color My World, Iron Man, Stairway to Heaven, and others. Sometimes he wistfully wishes that he had stuck it out in rock when he was younger; perhaps he might not have made more money, but he thinks he might have met more girls than he did while working as a church organist and choir director!


Date: Mon, 19 Oct 1998 22:03:59 -0700 (PDT)
From: Gary Dahl --

The beatle article is very well done! The beatles didn't kill the fact if a strong musette accordion could have been used the decline may not have happened...also the problem was too many so-called teachers didn't know how to teach rock, play it and basically were just too cornball to understand it. (most are still that way)


Other groups besides the Beatles used accordion: John Evans played accordion with Jethro Tull in Jethro Tull Live (1978) and Keith Emerson played accordion with Emerson, Lake & Palmer in Brain Salad Surgery (1973). Thijs Van Leer from the Dutch group Focus used accordion on their hit Hocus Pocus (1974). Another member of the group, Jan Akkerman, also played it on occasion. I even went to hear them in concert when they came to New Brunswick, NJ.

In addition, Paul McCartney and Ringo used accordion in several of their solo albums and Bruce Hornsby played accordion with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden in 1990. I feel that we are just scratching the surface. Also, I just heard a Beach Boys song on the radio and I swear accordion was used in the chorus. Unfortunately, I forgot the name of the song. Anyone out there know this one?


Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 19:00:39 -0300
From: Mantovani Propaganda --
Subject: Re: Hocus Pocus

Hi Henry!

I'm sure Mike Oldfield, Steely Span, Fairport Convention and PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi) plays the accordion in some of its albums! I hope it can help. Kind regards


PS: Don't forget Astor Piazzolla!

Date: Mon, 12 Apr 1999 15:29:17 -0400
From: Domenic --
Subject: Henry Doktorski's article

I would like to thank Henry D. for this thorough, comprehensive and informative article on the Beatles and the accordion. Perhaps he would be interested in my Accordion Beatles Page, which can be seen at

I'd like to put a link to the article from my site, and hope that you would reciprocate with same.


Domenic "the Accordion Beatles guy" Amatucci

"If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then we'd have peace." John Lennon, 1940-1980

Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 20:50:33 EDT
Subject: Beatles Article

Dear Henry:

Congratulations on a great article about the Beatles and their uses of the free-reed instruments. I could never have been as thorough as you were.

Now for the bad news. I was (and still am to some extent) under the impression that the harmonica players you listed for "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was correct. Now, go get a copy of the "Beatles Anthology 2" CD and inside the booklet you'll see a lovely picture of John Lennon and George Harrison playing bass and chord harmonicas while wearing their Sgt. Pepper outfits, obviously in the studio.

Gee. Just when we had everything all figured out, somebody had to come along and screw us up with facts. Que Sera Sera. Such is the fate of all who try to report history. (It's just a mystery)

Keep up the great work and I hope to see some more of your great work in the future.

Your fan,

Peter W. Krampert


Dear Mr. Krampert,

It was a great pleasure to hear from you. I was thrilled to receive a review copy of your book, The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica which I reviewed in the pages of The Free-Reed Review. In fact, I discovered some interesting facts about John Lennon and the harmonica in your book which I used in my article. Truly I have been (and still am) a great fan of the Beatles. This article was simply an expression of my appreciation for their music.

Thank you for the information regarding the photograph in the Beatles Anthology 2. I will have to take a look at it! I wonder if they actually played the harmonicas in the recording or whether the photo was simply a publicity shot. As far as I can imagine, it could have been either, or, or both!

Thanks again for your letter.


Henry Doktorski, founder
The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.

From: Pat Missin -
Subject: Beatles again
Date: Mon, 21 Oct 2002 11:45:37 -0400

Hi Henry.,

Regarding my article: What harmonica did John Lennon use to play the intro to "Love Me Do" and other songs by The Beatles?

I finally managed to get a copy of "12-bar Original", the one remaining track mentioned in Greg Panfile's article that I hadn't heard. Greg wrote:

>The song is itself in the key of E, but the playing is extremely
>blue. Solo passages alternate with chordal-accompaniment
>efforts. The predominant placement of G and D notes indicates
>an out of key harmonica, possibly the G chromatica given that
>we've seen how comfortable Lennon was with that instrument

I'm not surprised he had trouble figuring out the key of harmonica used, as there is no harmonica on this piece at all! There IS a melodica, which I assume is what he was hearing.

This means that out of the 18 songs mentioned in this article, he is correct about the choice of harmonica and key six times, sort of half-right four times, makes no suggestion about two of them and is plain wrong six times. Not a great success rate, especially if you add to that some other comments in the article which are either wrong or questionable.

Anyway, whilst doing a quick web search on the Beatles and the melodica, I found several references to a clip of film from their first US tour which shows John Lennon playing one. This and their usage of the instrument on"12-bar Original" might be worth mentioning as a footnote to your article on The Beatles and free reed instruments.

All the best,


From: Roger Stormo
Date: December 16, 2009
Upon researching a photo of Paul McCartney carrying an accordion, I stumbled upon an old article of yours, The Beatles and the Free-Reed Instruments. You'll find the photo in my blog post here:
And here's a close-up:

The photo was taken two days before the recording session for Rocky Raccoon, so the speculation is whether or not this is that instrument. In your article, you refer to a distinctive musette sound and that it's probably one with 12 basses. Could the instrument Paul is carrying here fit that description?
Roger Stormo
(Editor's Note: The photographer is Egil Gjerde)

Henry Doktorski responds:
Hello Roger,
Many thanks for your note & photo. It is impossible to tell simply by looking at the photo if this was the instrument used in Rocky Racoon, but it is entirely possible.

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