What The Beatles Played in Hamburg

The Silver Beatles (1960). Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

Sixty years ago, in August 1960, the five Beatles were busy loading a Morris minibus ready for a trip to the north German port of Hamburg. The three original guitarists were there: 19-year-old John Lennon, 17-year-old George Harrison, and 18-year-old Paul McCartney. At the start of the year they’d gained a bass player, 20-year-old Stu Sutcliffe, and now they’d added a drummer, 18-year-old Pete Best, to complete the line-up for the daunting two-month residency secured by their manager, Allan Williams. Crucially, Allan also owned the minibus.

Hamburg boasted a lively music scene in the bars and clubs and strip-joints that centered on a street called the Reeperbahn. None of the group had been out of the UK before, and excitement was high as they packed their gear on the roof of the little bus. John, with a casual last-minute flourish, picked up his passport on the day they were set to depart.

The Hamburg jaunt of 1960 marked the first of three working trips that The Beatles would make there over the next few years. The city’s clubs demanded long sets for the clientele to drink and dance to, and this fierce regime would turn the ramshackle young group into an efficient and fearless unit ready for anything. Even worldwide fame.

The Beatles performing live in Hamburg, pt.1, 1962.

Hamburg Take One, 1960

The guitar players in The Beatles had already suffered a few knockabout instruments before the Hamburg visit. Inevitably they’d begun with cheap acoustics, like most other guitarists starting to play in Britain in the late ‘50s. John’s first guitar was a Gallotone Champion flattop, George shifted from an Egmond/Rosetti flattop to a Hofner President archtop, and Paul grappled with a Zenith Model 17 archtop.

A Futurama ad in a 1959 Selmer Catalog.

Soon they wanted electrics. George tried a pickup on his President, but that didn’t cut it, so during 1959 he traded the guitar with a Swinging Blue Jean for a Hofner Club 40—a single-pickup hollowbody electric made in Germany. John also got a Club 40 that year, and his was a new model that he acquired on hire purchase (credit) from Hessy’s music shop in Liverpool.

Paul tried sticking a pickup on his Zenith, but soon gave up on it. In summer ’60, he too dived into Hessy’s, committed himself to ten shillings a week ($1.40 at the time), and emerged with a Rosetti Solid 7 guitar, made by Egmond in The Netherlands and offered as standard with a two-pickup pickguard assembly. Paul’s left-handed style meant he played the Solid 7 “upside down.”

Back at the minibus, The Beatles had almost finished loading their gear for the Hamburg trip. Paul packed his Solid 7, John his Club 40, but George had a new guitar ready for the German residency.

Late in 1959, he’d visited the ever-busy Hessy’s and stumped up a £10 deposit for a new guitar and case, agreeing to pay 16 shillings a week (about $2.20 then) for his hire-purchase deal. The prize was a Resonet Grazioso solidbody electric made by Dřevokov in what was then Czechoslovakia—a European copy of a Stratocaster brought into the UK by Selmer, who renamed it the Futurama.

Stu had joined the group in January, becoming the bass player when they convinced him to spend some of the money he’d won in a painting competition as a deposit (guess which shop?) on a new Hofner 500/5 bass. Stu loaded his bass onto the Morris alongside the other guitars, a set of Premier drums, and a trio of amps by Selmer, Elpico, and Watkins. Ready to rock!

During their German stay, the group found time to redistribute some of the Deutschmarks they earned. Stu bought a Gibson GA-40 Les Paul amp, a combo that would soon become George’s. John bought a ’58 Rickenbacker 325, and while it had evidently been on the Hamburg shop wall for a while, it must have seemed quite a catch compared to the guitars they were used to. John called the three-pickup short-scale 325 “the most beautiful guitar,” and this first Beatle Rickenbacker would not be the last.

A Vibrolux ad from a 1958 Catalog.

John bought an amp, too, a Fender Vibrolux, and thus became the first Beatle with that most enviable duo: an American guitar and an American amp. “You have to imagine that in those days,” George told the BBC, “when we were first out of Liverpool, any good American guitar looked sensational to us. We’d only had beat-up crummy guitars at that stage. We still didn’t really have any money to buy them, but I remember that John got that Rickenbacker … what they call ‘on the knocker,’ you know? [Money] down and the rest when they catch you! I don’t know if we ever really paid them off.”

The Beatles’ first Hamburg trip turned into a protracted visit full of drama—atrocious accommodation, several deportations, Stu’s decision to stay in Germany with a girlfriend—but the intense musical education they gained was of enormous value to the developing group.

Hamburg Take Two, 1961

By the time The Beatles made their second trip to Germany for three months starting in April 1961, they had begun to play regularly at the Cavern club in Liverpool, and Paul had modified his Rosetti into a “bass” with some piano strings. In Hamburg, however, Stu returned to play bass.

Rosetti Super Solid 7 1960. Photo by Albert's Collection.

John brought his Rick 325 and Fender Vibrolux, George his trusty Futurama and Selmer Truvoice amp, Stu had his Hofner 500/5 and Gibson GA-40, Pete played his Premier kit, and Paul switched to piano. They were joined for some performances by fellow Brit Tony Sheridan, who played a Martin D-28E electric flattop, and they recorded a few tracks in Hamburg with him for the Polydor label.

Despite Stu’s reappearance, it seemed he wouldn’t last in the group. Paul realized how things were going, but with the Solid 7 in a less-than-solid mess, now it was his turn to go guitar-shopping in Hamburg. “It was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player,” Paul told me. “And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me. I was a bit lumbered with it, really; it was like well—it better be you, then. I don’t think you would have caught John doing it, he would have said ‘No, you’re kidding, I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker!’ I didn’t have a guitar at the time—it had been smashed up and I was playing piano on stage then—so I couldn’t really say that I wanted to be a guitarist.”

He found a shop in Hamburg that could get what he wanted. “I saw this violin-shaped bass guitar in the window, the Hofner,” he said. Paul bought a left-handed Hofner 500/1, a hollowbody similar to Gibson’s Electric Bass model. It was the first of a couple of Hofner violin basses he would own, and they would define his stage image during the years to come.

The Beatles performing live in Hamburg, pt. 2, 1962.

Hamburg Take Three, 1962

The group’s final visit to Hamburg might have seemed an anticlimax in the midst of their rapidly changing fortunes by the early months of 1962. They had a tenacious new manager in Brian Epstein, who landed them an audition with Decca at the start of the year and spruced them up with suits and ties. And this time they travelled by plane to Hamburg. Shocking news greeted them when they arrived: Stu had died three days earlier following a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 21. It was countered by better news from Brian, who told them EMI had signed the group.

Meanwhile, the club they played this time in Hamburg was an improvement, too, providing a backline of Fender amps for The Beatles to use. They brought with them their current line-up of instruments, as well as Paul’s new "Coffin" speaker cabinet, custom built by Big Three guitarist Adrian Barber. John had his Rickenbacker 325 and Paul his Hofner 500/1 bass, but in the meantime George had acquired a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet.

George got his Gretsch in Liverpool from a merchant seaman who’d bought it new in New York City. The sailor wanted £90 but George had only 70 with him, so he signed an IOU for the remaining money—which was never paid. But he had what he wanted. "It was my first real American guitar," George told Dan Forte in Guitar Player, "and I’ll tell you, it was secondhand, but I polished that thing. I was so proud to own that."

On their return home, The Beatles resumed a relentless schedule for the rest of ’62, which had them playing an ever-bulging diary of gigs and recording their first two singles for EMI. Hamburg had served its purpose as a springboard to a much bigger place. And where was that? John explained for Playboy: "In those days, when The Beatles were depressed, we had this little chant. I would yell out, ‘Where are we going, fellows?’ They would say, ‘To the top, Johnny,’ in pseudo-American voices. And I would say, ‘Where is that, fellows?’ And they would say, ‘To the toppermost of the poppermost!’"

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book and Paul McCartney: Bassmaster, and he is the editor of Andy Babiuk’s Beatles Gear. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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