A real rocker for the 50th Anniversary of The White Album! «Helter Skelter» was Paul McCartney’s response to The Who’s «I Can See for Miles», and represents The Beatles’ foray into the hard rock/heavy metal sound that would become popular in the ensuing years. The guitar work is dirty and the vibe is raucous, with a highly distorted rhythm guitar by Paul McCartney and tight leads by George and Paul.
Due to the highly distorted tone on the rhythm and George lead guitars, I believe that they used the Vox Conqueror solid state amplifier cranked loud, and perhaps with the fuzz activated. To get close to this tone, I used my Mattiboo Custom «Pepper Tone» pedal, which was designed to emulate the Vox UL series, but does a fair job with the Conqueror as well. This pedal was run into a Vox AC15C1, which provided most of the distortion, with the pedal used to shape the EQ.
«Helter Skelter» blasts off with a screaming slide from the 12th on Paul’s Epiphone Casino (0:00). The riff is played between the high E and B strings, but Paul inadvertently hits the muted G string at 0:04. With a couple strums of the open strings at 0:11, he transitions to a G barre chord, and then to an open E. For this first verse, the strumming largely follows a» hit low E, down, down, down» pattern, with a number of variations that I recreated in this video. It’s very important to hit the low E hard so that it goes slightly out of tune, as this contributes to the raunchy sound of the record. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with this one!
George’s Gibson Les Paul slides in at 0:40, playing the classic descending riff on the A and C chords. The part is double tracked. In the original mix of «Helter Skelter», this part was left solely to the left channel. However, in the 2018 remix for the 50th Anniversary of the White Album, Giles Martin mixed each double tracked guitar to the left and right of the stereo field, creating a HUGE sound. This is the mix I recreated in my video. Notice that in the first chorus only, George adds an extra note to the riff. If the riff were to be sung with the lyrics of the song, it would normally go «Hel-ter Skel-ter», then the descending part. In the first chorus only, it goes «Hel-ter Skel-ter-ter». See if you can recognize this in the video and on the original recording!
For the second verse, Paul transitions his strumming pattern to a «hit low E, down» two-time pattern (0:55). The second chorus is played without any noticeable deviations (1:17). At the end (1:26), however, Paul’s Casino begins feeding back. This feedback throughout the song led me to believe that Paul used his Casino for the rhythm guitar instead of the Fender Esquire. Likewise, George’s Les Paul warbles in and out of tune on the low E note at 1:29, which I recreated by shaking one of the double tracked guitars and slightly detuning the other while the note rang out.
The solo (1:33) sounds to me like Paul’s playing, with the shaky bends, loose vibrato, and sparse phrasing. The attack on the notes and focused nature of the tone makes me believe that it was played with the Fender Esquire. There are a lot of low mids in the tone, which may have been added in the mixing stage of «Helter Skelter».
Paul’s rhythm guitar feedback leads into a repeat of the intro riff (1:44). He adds light pulsing bends to the C note at 1:52. Notice a mystery guitar riff at 1:50! It is barely audible on the original recording, and it is highly reverbed. Perhaps they originally intended to include this riff louder, but decided against it and was never fully mixed out? Or maybe it was a mistake? Who knows!
Another lick is played at 2:03, with a slightly different tone than the solo. There is more treble and distortion, but it still sounds like Paul on the Esquire. This riff may have been added at a different time than the solo, hence the slightly different tone.
George adds a deviation to the final descending lick at 2:29 with a hammer on. The final E note is left to ring out longer than normal (2:29). Paul strums double on the corresponding E chord (2:29).
A droning, double tracked, clean repetition of the descending riff is then introduced (2:35). This sounds like the Esquire to me as well. One of the double tracked guitars at 2:45 misses the riff and plays two open E notes instead. George’s meandering slide guitar comes in at 2:44, with an extra slide string scrape at 2:52.
Paul McCartney Rhythm Guitar: Epiphone Casino Elitist
George Harrison Lead Guitar: 2006 Gibson Les Paul Standard
Paul McCartney Lead Guitar: 2016 Fender American Standard Telecaster Surf Green w/ Rosewood Neck
Amp: Vox AC15C1
Pedal: Mattiboo Custom “Pepper Tone”