The 5 Best Guest Appearances on Beatles Songs

The Beatles succeeded for countless reasons, but their chemistry as four instrumentalists had a lot to do with it. For the vast majority of their songs, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, with some production expertise from George Martin, made the magic in the studio without any outside help.

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On occasion, they looked for guest performers who could augment their sound. Some of these folks were relatively unknown outside their fellow musicians, while others were stars in their own right. Here are five special guests who made a big difference on specific songs of the Fab Four. (Listed in chronological order.)

Alan Civil (French horn on “For No One”)

Alan Civil wasn’t the first guest to appear on a Beatles record, but his part on “For No One” made an impact that seemed to open the doors for the group to try it again. The song features McCartney singing about a guy whose relationship is crumbling before him, even though he’s too far in denial to see it. If McCartney’s vocals can’t get through to him, Civil’s lovely, melancholy horn part should do the trick. McCartney and Martin forced him to hit a high note that the instrument doesn’t normally reach, but Civil came through in spectacular fashion.

David Mason (piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane”)

The Beatles made the decision to quit touring in 1966, giving them more time in the studio. It’s only natural the guest appearances they commissioned started to increase as well. Many of these guests appeared as parts of ensembles (string sections, horn sections, etc.). But occasionally, one part would stand out. In the case of “Penny Lane,” McCartney came into the sessions in awe of a particularly high trumpet on a televised classical music performance. Martin immediately knew the instrument in question, and he brought in David Mason to charmingly pipe his way through the upper reaches of the song.

Sheila Bromberg (harp on “She’s Leaving Home”)

McCartney saw a newspaper item about a teenage runaway, put the song inspired by the story together with Lennon, and turned “She’s Leaving Home” into a heartbreaking slice of life. The arrangement was written by Mike Leander, called on in a pinch when Martin was stuck on another session. Leander wrote a prominent part for a harpist, which isn’t what you’d immediately imagine on a song by a rock band. But Sheila Bromberg managed to deliver the goods with a part that seconds the emotions of the runaway and her grieving parents.

Eric Clapton (guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)

Most people know that Eric Clapton plays lead on this unforgettable White Album track written by George Harrison. You might not know that Harrison brought him into the sessions, not so much because of his guitar wizardry. Instead, he was trying to get his bandmates to take his composition more seriously, which they only did once Clapton arrived. To his credit, Clapton didn’t try to impose his trademark sound onto the proceedings, instead finding a wobbly tone that fit very much with the group’s typical approach at that time.

Billy Preston (organ on “Let It Be”)

Billy Preston is the only one of the guests listed here who actually received credit on the sleeve for his efforts. Like Clapton, he was called upon by Harrison when tensions between The Beatles were reaching a fever pitch. The Get Back documentary shows how the temperature of the room seemed to rise the second the amiable Preston arrived. But he was far more than a peacemaker. He played on several songs on Let It Be and a few on Abbey Road. His high point with the group came on “Let It Be,” when his organ playing helped McCartney reach the gospel uplift for which he was reaching.

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