Roger McGuinn’s best songs

By Sergio Ariza

Roger McGuinn is to the Rickenbacker what Chet Atkins is to a Gretsch or Les Paul to a Gibson. It’s impossible to think about one without the other, which is normal if we consider that McGuinn and his 12-string guitar defined not one, but three different musical genres, folk-rock, psychedelia and country rock. His mark and influence are infinite, so from Guitars Exchange we want to honor him by choosing 10 of the most important songs of his career in front of seminal The Byrds.

Mr. Tambourine Man

The Byrds were a group of folk singers (Roger McGuinn, David Crosby
and Gene Clark) whose lives were changed by the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night. Together they would combine their music with the lyrics of Bob Dylan creating what was known as folk rock. The song that would make them famous would be their electric version of Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, a song that, despite being recorded with session musicians, contains the two main elements of the Byrds sound, the angelic vocal harmonies of Crosby and the tinkling sound of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker 360, the only member of the group who was able to play his instrument alongside the members of the 'Wrecking Crew'. The sound of that guitar would be one of the most influential of its time, reaching up to the Beatles themselves (just listen to Rubber Soul's If I Needed Someone) and extending over time, with much influence on people like Tom Petty, Johnny Marr and Peter Buck.


Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)

Perhaps the best example of the jangle sound of McGuinn's guitar and the Byrds' folk rock stage is this Turn! Turn! Turn!, the title of his second album, in which McGuinn combines the pick with the fingerpickin' on the riff and solo, achieving that characteristic sound that is a fundamental part of the DNA of the Byrds and that makes McGuinn the most important member of the band when it comes to building their sound. The song was a Pete Seeger
cover who took its lyrics, almost completely, from the Book of Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament, which makes it, almost certainly, the song with the oldest lyrics that has ever reached number one on the U.S. charts.

Eight Miles High

After the success of their first two albums, with the USA flooded with bands imitating the folk rock sound of the Byrds and Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker, the Californian band decided to completely renew their sound. Once again McGuinn's guitar would lead the way. This time the influence would come from not so conventional ways. During a tour Crosby had started to continuously play a tape with John Coltrane on one side and Ravi Shankar on the other. McGuinn would pick up the trail and try to reproduce those sounds with his Ric in one of the best songs Gene Clark had ever composed, Eight Miles High, where Coltrane's influence is evident. In January 1966 they would record it and open the doors to the psychedelic revolution, once again captaining a movement. By that time the leader of the Byrds already had the guitar most associated with him, a 12-string Rickenbacker 370, with which he would make one of the most influential and strangest solos of all time.  

Mr. Spaceman

Just after recording Eight Miles High Gene Clark left the band. His absence was very noticeable as he was the band's main, and best, composer, so McGuinn stepped forward and began writing songs. One of the best was this Mr. Spaceman in which he gave hints to his later flirtations with country. It is one of his most interesting songs of his career, mixing influences from all his stages: folk, psychedelic (especially during solo) and country rock. No wonder that some of his most outstanding disciples, Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco, covered it live, with McGuinn himself, a few years later. 

5 D (Fifth Dimension)

The song that gave title to the third album of the band also was written by McGuinn, it is a song that, no more and no less, tries to explain Einstein's theory of relativity and has one of his best vocal interpretations. Musically he masterfully mixes his folk origins with a psychedelic touch, accentuated by the baroque organ interpreted by Van Dyke Parks and the excellent harmonies by Crosby.


So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star

The Byrds always seemed to be one step ahead of their peers, in February '67 they moved a few months ahead of the summer of love and delivered one of the first masterpieces of psychedelia, Younger Than Yesterday. The album opened with So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star, a song in which, from the first few bars, you can see a group without fear of experimenting. In this cynical look at the world of pop music, composed by McGuinn and
Chris Hillman, they put in the wonderful trumpet of South African Hugh Masekela, although it is the riff of McGuinn's Rickenbacker and Hillman's bass that lay the foundations of it. McGuinn continues to be the mainstay of the group's sound, now immersed in the psychedelic effluvia.

Renaissance Fair

A song composed by McGuinn and Crosby that doesn't last two minutes but where a lot of things happen. It's a fantastic baroque pop song that anticipates the good vibes of the Summer of Love and the Monterrey festival (when Eric Burdon and his Animals review the festival they won't forget to quote it). It's like a hippie dream where the voices of his two composers mix as well as their two guitars, McGuinn's Ric and Crosby's Gretsch Country Gentleman, with those initial McGuinn arpeggios answered by Crosby's powerful chords. Meanwhile, Chris Hillman demonstrates that his bass lines are as melodic as McCartney’s.

Wasn't Born To Follow

By the time they finished recording their fifth studio album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, only McGuinn and Hillman remained from the original line-up. Even so, this album is one of the most representative of the band (Crosby, Clark and even the future member Clarence White participate in it), serving as a perfect sum of their passage through multiple styles, many times within the same song. One of its best moments comes with Wasn't Born To Follow, a song composed by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, which would end up on the Easy Rider soundtrack. It's a song in which you can see the country rock path they were going to take without forgetting to put in a distorted and psychedelic guitar on the bridge. It can be considered one of the best examples of the genre, with Red Rhodes on the steel pedal and White with his Telecaster providing the best country flavor.


You Ain't Going Nowhere

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,
the Byrds' sixth album, was the cornerstone on which country rock was built. McGuinn and his bunch managed, for the third time, to put themselves at the head of a movement, after folk rock and psychedelia, with the invaluable help of the newly incorporated Gram Parsons, who would be the ideologist of what he called 'Cosmic American Music', a mix of roots music, mainly country, and a rock attitude. But McGuinn was still the pillar of the band's sound, if in 1965 he had created folk rock doing a cover of a Dylan song, he decided to lead the record with another one, this time You Ain't Going Nowhere, from Big Pink's basement where he recorded The Basement Tapes
with The Band. But this time the Rickenbacker would be in the background leaving stardom for the legend of the steel pedal, Lloyd Green.

Chestnut Mare

After Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman left to form the fundamental Flying Burrito Brothers
and McGuinn had to reform the group drastically. His main incorporations would be the wonderful guitarist Clarence White and the drummer Gene Parsons with whom he would record several albums, the best of which would arrive in 1970, called Untitled. In that double album, with a live side in which it was verified that this formation had the best sound in concert, shone this marvel composed by McGuinn and Jacques Levy, where there is a wonderful interaction between  McGuinn`s Ric of and White’s Martin D-28, and in the end he also uses the Tele with the B-bender. And then there's that wonderful bridge, almost baroque, with the jangle sound of McGuinn and White shining brightly with the Martin over it, which is one of the most exciting moments of this wonderful musician's career.