Fifty years back, on January 30, 1969, George Harrison stepped on to the roof of his group’s Apple headquarters in London and plugged in a Fender Telecaster. Famously, it would be The Beatles’ last ever public performance. Not quite so famously, his guitar was an unusual model, a new Rosewood Telecaster that he’d recently received from Fender.
In fact, it was the fourth Fender guitar that The Beatles had acquired. During their early years, the group hadn’t owned any Fenders, although George had written to a friend in 1960 that the guitar he “might manage” was a Strat. Instead, he decided to indulge his passion for Gretsch guitars—the brand used by one of his six-string heroes, Chet Atkins—and bought a secondhand Duo Jet, and, later, a couple of Country Gents and a Tennessean.
But George didn’t have to wait too long to get his Fender: in 1965, he and John Lennon each acquired a secondhand Strat for studio use. Two years later, Paul McCartney bought an Esquire. Paul was becoming increasingly confident with six rather than four strings. After all, he’d started in the group as a guitarist. He soon put the new Esquire to good use, for example playing it for his soaring, concise solo on “Good Morning, Good Morning” during the Sgt Pepper’s sessions at Abbey Road.
On stage, though, it was a different story, and the public face of The Beatles remained distinctly Fender-less. This was the image that almost every fan had of the group, and it was an image that troubled Don Randall, the sales boss at Fender. Understandably, he wanted the world’s most famous band to be seen to play Fender.
At first, Don tried to persuade the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, to get the boys more visibly into the brand. “It was the only time we ever tried to buy somebody off,” Don told me. “I sent a member of my staff to try and buy Brian Epstein off.” That plan backfired, and The Beatles continued to be seen on stage with guitars by Gretsch and Hofner and Rickenbacker and the rest.
In summer 1968, Don tried again, and this time he managed to set up a meeting with John and Paul at the Apple HQ. He was still interested in getting them to visibly play Fender guitars. Don turned up at Savile Row and found himself sitting down with Paul at a big conference table. Paul turned out to be an animated conversationalist, brimming with ideas. John wandered in with Yoko, later on, and made a somewhat less positive impression on Don.
Nonetheless, the Fender boss came away happy with a deal to supply the band a pile of Fender gear: a Fender VI six-string bass, some Fender Rhodes pianos, a Fender Jazz Bass, a selection of amplifiers, including a PA system, and the guitar that we’re interested in, a Fender Rosewood Telecaster for George.
Fender had decided to introduce solid-rosewood versions of its venerable Telecaster and Stratocaster, and Roger Rossmeisl was charged with producing custom prototypes, which the company planned to give to George Harrison (Telecaster) and Jimi Hendrix (Stratocaster) to provide publicity for the planned models.
Roger had worked at Rickenbacker, designing their most iconic guitars, and moved to Fender in 1962. Roger and Phil Kubicki at Fender apparently made four of the custom Rosewood guitars, two Teles and two Strats, and planned to choose the best of each to present to George and Jimi. Phil had worked at Fender since 1964, and after leaving nine years later he would create in the ’80s his extended-E-string Kubicki Ex-Factor basses.
The body of the prototype Rosewood Telecaster had a thin layer of maple sandwiched between a rosewood two-piece top and back, with a clear satin poly finish to highlight the beauty of the natural wood, and a two-piece rosewood neck fitted with (what else?) a rosewood fingerboard.
Roger and Phil selected the best body and neck, assembled and double-checked the guitar, and put it in a case. A courier took it to the airport and flew with it in the seat next to him, delivering it to The Beatles’ Apple HQ at the end of 1968, just after the release of the group’s White Album.
The fate of the other three prototype Rosewood models is less clear. The Rosewood Stratocaster intended for Jimi was completed around April 1970, but for some reason it was never sent to the guitarist, and he died that September.
That instrument, the other Rosewood Strat, and the second Tele disappeared, although online chatter suggested that around 2012 a Chicago dealer sold a guitar as the Rosewood Strat that never reached Jimi, and a Rosewood Tele prototype said to have been sent to Elvis Presley went unsold at an auction in 2018.
Later in 1969, George gave away his Rosewood Tele to Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie. Delaney kept the instrument until he sold it at auction in 2003, two years after George’s death. It fetched a staggering $434,750, bought by an intermediary for George’s widow, Olivia Harrison.
As planned, Fender put the Rosewood Telecaster into production later in 1969, and it lasted a couple of years in the line. The rosewood-and-maple sandwich of the body made for an unusual and heavy Tele, and Fender tried to lighten the load by shifting to a modified construction with hollowed chambers inside. However, the weight and unusual tonality of this short-lived model meant it was never a popular instrument.
There have been occasional reissues (including a 1985 Made-in-Japan model), and the George-related guitar has been revived a few times in more recent years, including in 2016 a Custom Shop model, the Fender George Harrison Tribute Rosewood Telecaster—announced as a limited edition of 100—and a regular version the following year, the George Harrison Rosewood Telecaster, limited to 1,000 units.
Back in January 1969, The Beatles famously staged that last “concert” on the Apple rooftop in London. Ringo played his Ludwig Hollywood kit, Paul his ’63 Hofner bass, John his stripped Epiphone Casino, and George the new Rosewood Tele. All the amps were Fenders. Billy Preston was there, too, playing a Fender Rhodes Seventy Three. It’s hard to imagine that Don Randall wouldn’t have allowed himself a satisfied smile for a job well done when he saw the Fender-laden performances in the subsequent movie, Let It Be.