Their Back Pages: The Byrds - Roger McGuinn & David Crosby Thumb through Their Flight Log

By Epstein, Dan | Guitar Player, May 1997 | Go to article overview
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Their Back Pages: The Byrds - Roger McGuinn & David Crosby Thumb through Their Flight Log


Epstein, Dan, Guitar Player


On January 20, 1965, a young guitarist walked into a session at Hollywood's Columbia Recording Studios. His mission: Lay down lead 12-string on a rock arrangement of a year-old Bob Dylan song, "Mr. Tambourine Man." Unfazed by the presence of such top-flight session cats as Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, he recorded his track with ease, unaware that the Bach-derived arpeggio that opened the song would rocket both him and the guitar he played to worldwide fame. * The guitarist, of course, was Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn, and the guitar was a Rickenbacker 360/12. Many a guitarist who picks up a Rickenbacker 12-string for the first time plays McGuinn's ten-note intro to the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." Though George Harrison was the first to record with a Rick 12 (on 1964's "You Can't Do That"), it was the trebly chime of "Mr. Tambourine Man" that placed the instrument squarely in the consciousness of the record-buying public. Which is more than a little ironic--after all, it was only because Harrison played a Rickenbacker that the Beatle-mad McGuinn bought one.

"We were really stoked on the Beatles," McGuinn remembers, "and we really wanted to emulate them. We went to see A Hard Day's Night a couple of times, and took notes on the instrumentation. It took me a couple of times to see that the Rickenbacker was actually a 12-string, because from the front it looks like a 6-string. It was both the sound and the fact that George was using one that made me want a Rickenbacker, although I was already into the 12-string sound. The Searchers and the Seekers, even though they weren't using 12-strings--I think they were using 6-strings and octaves, overdubbed--were getting that paired-octave sound, like on `Needles and Pins.'"

It's equally ironic that, in the wake of "Mr. Tambourine Man," a group of Beatle-booted anglophiles--McGuinn, vocalist Gene Clark, guitarist/vocalist David Crosby bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke--would go on to create such a profoundly American sound. Merging pop and rock with folk, country and jazz influences, the Byrds have influenced R.E.M., Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, the Eagles and countless other jangly pop bands over the past three decades. "There are certainly a lot of influences in there," says McGuinn of the Byrds' albums. "That's what happens after a while--you put all the ingredients in the pot, and pretty soon it comes out gumbo!"

McGuinn's began cooking at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. After witnessing a mind-blowing performance by folk guitarist Bob Gibson during the late '50s, the teenager signed up for classes with instructor Frank Hamilton. "Frank taught me everything," McGuinn fondly recalls. "I started with 6-string guitar, and then I picked up 5-string banjo and 12-string guitar. Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson all played 12-strings, so it was a natural progression for me. 12-string guitars resurfaced around 1957, although Seeger had been playing one for a while. But it just dawned on me around then that, `Wow, there's a 12-string! I should get one!' And I did. It was a Stella acoustic, but it wasn't the plywood version--it had a spruce top and a really good sound. I lent it to Hoyt Axton and I never saw it again! [Laughs.] He said, `I don't know what happened to it.'"

A quick study, McGuinn was already working Chicago's coffeehouse circuit by the time he was 17. He toured as a banjo player for the Limelighters and Chad Mitchell Trio before Bobby Darin hired him to play banjo and 12-string during the "folk" segment of his Vegas revue. When Darin accidentally broke McGuinn's custom Gibson Hummingbird, which had a 12-string headstock, the singer bought him a replacement Gibson. "But this guitar didn't quite have the same sound as a Hummingbird," Roger says. "It was an acoustic 12, the kind that they were manufacturing around '62. I got one of those DeArmond pickups put on it.

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