In Like McGuinn
The ex-Byrd who invented the jingle jangle 12-string sound natters on the jingle jangle 12-string sound.
More influential than Adam and Eve, says Jon Lewin who sits down for a jingle jangle conversation with Roger McGuinn.
ROGER MCGUINN is one of the 20 or so people who created modern popular music. He was the guitarist, vocalist, and main creative force behind The Byrds. As we said in Issue One (Influences), The Byrds invented folk rock, space rock, and country rock, helped start psychedelia, and influenced everybody, including Dylan. Nowadays, you can hear McGuinn's jangling Rickenbacker 12-string sound echoed in REM, Tom Petty, Richard Thompson, The Smiths, the Long Ryders, and many more.
But The Byrds split up a long time ago. Since then, McGuinn has made five solo albums, done a lot of gigs, had a band called Thunderbyrd, and has worked with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Most recently, he has played guitar with The Beach Boys, both on stage and on their recent 'California Dreaming' single. Early Byrds producer Terry Melcher was McGuinn's contact there, and it is with Melcher that McGuinn is planning a new solo LP, hopefully to be recorded early in the new year. In the meantime, McGuinn is having a good time (and making a living) touring while he looks for a new record deal.
McGuinn's a hero of mine, so it was somewhat nervously that I approached him before his recent appearance at London's Town & Country Club. Would the man mind talking about things that happened more than ten years ago? Does he get bothered if people ask him to play 'Mr Tambourine Man' (the Byrds' first single) every night?
"No, it doesn't bother me at all. I do the songs that people want to hear the most, and I do the songs that I like to do as well... new material and old material."
He doesn't even get bothered when people ask him how he got into electric 12-string guitars, even though that was more than 20 years ago?
"I was playing an acoustic 12, and I put a pickup in it, and it sounded OK. Then I saw the electric Rickenbacker 12-string, so I went and got one, because it had a better sound. I hardly ever use electric six-string, or any six-string at all. I had a Gretsch for a while, but I don't have it any more."
Emboldened, I asked Roger how he developed his distinctive 12-string style.
"I dunno. Naturally... I just started playing. I think it's probably the result of having played folk music, and fingerpicking five-string banjo. I applied some of those techniques to the 12-string. I don't just play single strings or strum, I use my thumb and forefinger on a flat pick, and I use metal finger picks on my second and third fingers."
Do you find it awkward using the electric as a lead instrument?
"Well, I'd been playing lead before on acoustic 12-string so the changeover wasn't difficult. I practised jazz scales for a while to get my dexterity up so I could jump around the neck more. I listened to a lot of John Coltrane, and applied that. 'Eight Miles High' was inspired by Coltrane, though I don't think he ever heard it. Actually I lifted some of the licks that he did, on 'India' or 'Africa' — I don't have the album anymore. It was that 'doo doo dee doo' riff at the beginning..."
Didn't you play most of The Byrds' songs played with your bottom E-string dropped down to D?
"I've done it on a couple of songs — 'Bells Of Rhymney' and I think 'I Come And Stand At Every Door' or something like that — but I don't normally do it. Mostly I just leave it where it is."
With McGuinn's Rickenbacker, The Byrds invented (though it was Dylan's phrase from 'Mr Tambourine Man') jingly jangly guitar. So how did you get that fantastic sound, Roger?
"I didn't use an amp in the studio — went straight through the board, with a little compression. The original sound, I guess, on 'Mr Tambourine Man', was an Epiphone amp, but it was stolen, and I never used an amp in the studio again after that."
But you were the only member of the group to play on 'Tambourine Man', weren't you? Didn't it feel odd using sessionmen on your debut single?
"I didn't mind because I knew a lot was riding on that one single — we didn't have an album deal, and if that single failed we didn't have anything. I wasn't opposed to it, 'specially since I got to play on it."
How did you work in the studio? I read in Johnny Rogan's 'Timeless Flyte' biography that 'Turn Turn Turn' took 78 takes to record...
"I don't remember, it could have done. It varied. Some songs came easily, others didn't. We used to whip 'em out sometimes, but most of the time it was a tedious process because we weren't studio musicians as a group. I'd done some studio work, but basically it was kind of an amateur band, so to get a really professional sound took a long time. That was because of the lack of experience of the band members. We just hadn't played a long enough time to really get it together."
Did it bother you?
"Yeah — it drove me crazy, I couldn't stand it. It would drive me nuts to not have things be in tune, to have things be out of time, or harmonies out of tune, and all that. It used to really be frustrating."
The Byrds had a lot of labels attached to them, like raga rock, space rock...
"We were not into labels. That was something that the press manufactured for convenience. 'Folk rock' described what we were doing I suppose better than anything else. We hated being pigeon-holed. We just wanted to make whatever music we wanted to make."
Were you conscious of being innovators?
"We were doing it on purpose. We wanted to, that's why we kept changing styles."
Which do you think was the most successful?
"In retrospect, aside from the blending of folk music and rock 'n' roll, it was the country rock thing. I think the original Byrds was the best band, but on stage, the country rock band with Clarence White was excellent. We were musically proficient on stage. We used to get a lot of encores, and it was really exciting. The audiences used to go away feeling they'd really got their money's worth, which is always nice."
What led you into the idea of folk rock?
"I think my work with Judy Collins (before The Byrds were hatched) was what inspired me to do 'Turn Turn Turn' later, and 'Bells Of Rhymney', stuff like that. My singing is influenced by people like Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson — folk singers.
"As for the harmonies — mainly we were listening to the Beatles and other groups coming out of England at the time. We were inspired by those harmonies, the fourths and fifths. And we had David Crosby, he was an excellent singer..." McGuinn pauses, and I remember that Crosby has just been released from jail, weighing nearly 20 stone, with obviously serious problems. "...he still is."
Ahem. I read that you used to modify guitars, building treble-boost units into them.
"I used to do that — I'm a tinkerer. The sound I was going after was really a sustain, and I think a compressor does a better job of that now than a treble booster.
"I customised a couple of guitars — took the plate off and put in little electronic circuits and stuff just for fun. Basically there was a treble booster, and some resistors to change the sound. It was a Vox Treble Booster that I took out of its box and put into the guitar, with the battery, so it was like a pre-amplified guitar. The most successful? For that time, the treble boost one was very successful — it definitely gave me a lot of boost for my solos, which I wanted."
You also managed to make your Rickenbacker sound like a sitar.
"I put this thing together from junk parts — actually it was an old two-watt Philips battery operated record player I found in the trash. I saw it and thought, 'I bet the amplifier's still good.' So I took it apart and took a two-inch loudspeaker from a walkie-talkie, and screwed it on to the side of a cigar box. I put the amplifier into the box and connected up a couple of guitar jacks, batteries and all that. I plugged it in, and it got the best sustain I ever heard. It would sustain for minutes on one note — eeeeeeeeh — just on and on. I don't know whatever happened to that. But any three-watt amp with a walkie-talkie speaker should give that kind of sound."
McGuinn's search for innovation led him into buying one of the first Moog synthesisers, back in 1968.
"It was a huge one, maybe nine feet wide, three feet high, and it used patch cords to plug it up. And it only did one note at a time. I think you can hear it most on 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers', and between 'Younger Than Yesterday' and the 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' albums."
Why did you carry on using the name for such a long time, then?
"Because I was making money at it. We were making about a million dollars a year, gross — it's not a lot by today's standards, but at the time... 'The Byrds' was like a convenient brand name to use." [He hesitates for a moment.] "I think that I was lacking in artistic integrity for a few years there, using that brand name, and I regret it."
Would you ever use The Byrds name again?
"No. I have some artistic integrity now, and I really just want to be myself, for whatever that's worth."
On the evidence of that evening's gig, he's still worth plenty. Fitted out with a 1979 Rickenbacker 360-12 and a borrowed Fender Twin, McGuinn completely captivated the audience with over an hour of Byrds' songs, strong new material, and stories from his 20 year musical career. He's as good a player as he ever was, and you missed something special by not seeing him. A living legend, if you'll pardon the expression.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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