George Harrison’s most celebrated song on The Beatles’ White Album, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was inspired by the I Ching, and featured his friend Eric Clapton on lead guitar.

Harrison began writing the music for the song in India, although the lyrics were mostly completed upon his return to England.

I wrote ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ at my mother’s house in Warrington. I was thinking about the Chinese I Ching, the Book of Changes… The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose.

‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory. I decided to write a song based on the first thing I saw upon opening any book – as it would be a relative to that moment, at that time. I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.

George Harrison

A demo version of the song was recorded by The Beatles at Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, Surrey, in May 1968. It featured several lines which were later left out:

I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
Problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping
Still my guitar gently weeps

I look at the trouble and hate that is raging
While my guitar gently weeps
As I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing
Still my guitar gently weeps

A solo version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was recorded at Abbey Road on 25 July 1968, featuring just Harrison on acoustic guitar, with a subtle organ part appearing towards the end. These early versions deploy the fingerpicking guitar style taught to The Beatles by Donovan in Rishikesh.

Recorded in a single take, the June version was later included on Anthology 3, and, with a new orchestral arrangement written by George Martin, on the Love album.

It also included a verse that was dropped from later recordings:

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
Still my guitar gently weeps

Harrison later complained that John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not give ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ the attention he felt it deserved. The presence of Eric Clapton on lead guitar, at Harrison’s request, made the rest of the group take the song more seriously.

We tried to record it, but John and Paul were so used to just cranking out their tunes that it was very difficult at times to get serious and record one of mine. It wasn’t happening. They weren’t taking it seriously and I don’t think they were even all playing on it, and so I went home that night thinking, ‘Well, that’s a shame,’ because I knew the song was pretty good.

The next day I was driving into London with Eric Clapton, and I said, ‘What are you doing today? Why don’t you come to the studio and play on this song for me?’ He said, ‘Oh, no – I can’t do that. Nobody’s ever played on a Beatles record and the others wouldn’t like it.’ I said, ‘Look, it’s my song and I’d like you to play on it.’

So he came in. I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better. Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.

George Harrison

In the studio

Following the 25 July solo demo, The Beatles returned to ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on 16 August. They recorded 14 takes with George Harrison on guitar, John Lennon on organ, Paul McCartney on bass guitar, and Ringo Starr on drums.

The song was left alone until 3 September, when a series of overdubs were added – the first on Abbey Road’s new eight-track recording equipment. Harrison worked alone, spending the entire eight-hour session trying to record a backwards guitar solo.

On 5 September Harrison recorded two lead vocal parts, and maracas, drums and lead guitar were also added. However, upon hearing a playback of the recording so far, he decided to scrap it and begin afresh.

The remake was started that same day. The Beatles recorded 28 takes; the basic track had Harrison on acoustic guitar and guide vocals, Lennon on organ, McCartney playing piano, Starr on drums, and Eric Clapton on electric guitar.

Clapton played on each of the takes in this session, playing live with The Beatles in the studio. He used the Gibson Les Paul guitar, nicknamed Lucy, that he had given to Harrison a month previously. Clapton’s presence in the studio reportedly made the other Beatles more attentive and enthusiastic about the song, doubtless to Harrison’s relief.

‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was completed on the following day, 6 September, with the addition of a distorted bass part, played by McCartney, some organ by Harrison, and percussion by Starr. Finally, Harrison taped his lead vocals, with backing harmonies from McCartney.

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