In the months after Britain’s 1964 musical invasion of the United States, a new wave of American acts began to take shape. The Byrds, featuring singer-guitarist and former folk musician Roger McGuinn, launched the folk-rock sound that included Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas and the suddenly electric Bob Dylan.
Inspired by the Beatles, McGuinn and fellow Byrds David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke mixed folk music with electric guitars and a rock ’n’ roll beat.
The group’s first hit recast Dylan’s originally spare and acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man” with ethereal vocals, a thundering bass line and McGuinn’s jangling 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar.
McGuinn, Clark and Crosby had attended a screening of the Beatles’ 1964 movie, A Hard Day’s Night, for the purpose of studying the phenomenally popular young Brits.
“We took notes on what the Beatles were doing,” McGuinn remembered. “George (Harrison) was playing an electric 12-string. I’d been playing an acoustic 12-string with a pickup in it. It had a big, thuddy sound. It didn’t have the sound of the Rickenbacker.”
McGuinn traded his long-necked banjo, a Gibson 12-string acoustic guitar given to him by his former boss, singing star Bobby Darin, and some cash for his own Rickenbacker 12-string electric.
“It was an expensive, sought-after instrument and the guitar store only had one,” he recalled. “Probably cost around six-, seven-hundred dollars back then. If you adjust for inflation that would be thousands now.”
Although McGuinn missed his long-necked banjo, his Rickenbacker guitar soon was heard around the world via the Byrds’ chart-topping 1965 hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
First of all, McGuinn said recently from his home in Orlando, Fla., the Rickenbacker looked great.
“It’s very cool, very artistic,” he said. “It’s got a lot of ’50s rock ’n’ roll look to it. Besides the great looks, it has a great sound. Because it’s a thin hollow body, it gets a trebly ring that other guitars don’t have.”
Harrison’s influence upon the pre-flight Byrds turned full circle when the Beatle wrote and recorded “If I Needed Someone,” a song inspired by McGuinn’s guitar riff in the Byrds’ electrified take on the traditional folk song “The Bells of Rhymney.”
Harrison thought the connection between the two recordings so important that he asked the Beatles’ press agent to personally play a tape of “If I Needed Someone” for McGuinn.
“Derek Taylor flew over from London and came to my house. He said, ‘George wants you to know that he wrote this song based on your 12-string riff.’ ”
After Harrison’s death in 2001, McGuinn recorded his rendition of “If I Needed Someone.” It’s the opening song for his 2004 album Limited Edition.
A solo act for many years, McGuinn tours with a banjo, a 12-string acoustic guitar, a seven-string Roger McGuinn signature Martin acoustic guitar and a 12-string electric guitar that was among the limited run of McGuinn signature model Rickenbackers produced in 1989.
One of McGuinn’s musical heroes, Pete Seeger, inspired his solo show.
“He’d stand up or sit down, play different instruments, a banjo and then maybe a 12-string guitar and a six-string guitar and a recorder. He’d get the audience singing along. When I saw him do that, I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. I wanna do that.’ That was when I was about 16, so I’ve wanted to do that ever since.”
McGuinn’s lead vocals for many of the Byrds’ recordings and his 12-string electric guitar are two defining Byrds characteristics. He also stayed with the group through membership and stylistic changes, including the band’s move from the psychedelic rock of 1966’s Fifth Dimension to the country-rock sound of one of music’s most influential albums, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
By 1995 the solo McGuinn was exploring his folk roots again through his pioneering Internet site, http://folkden.com.
With an ear toward preserving folk songs, he began recording a song a month to post at the site. Lyrics, guitar chords and notes about the selections are included.
“I noticed that there was an absence of attention to the traditional side of folk music,” he explained.
McGuinn’s latest CD, an album of sea shanties, is another example of his enduring love of folk music.
“People like that kind of music,” he said of the shanty collection. “It’s one of our biggest sellers. I do love the sea songs and the freedom you get when you’re out at sea.
“And I love the blues and the old work songs and prison and cowboy songs. I love them all, really.”