The Rickenbacker Sound

By Sergio Ariza

Roger McGuinn is one of the most influential guitarists in history. Few have made more people buy a guitar looking to unravel his sound. McGuinn is to Rickenbacker what Chet Atkins is to Gretsch, the man who comes to mind when you think of one of these guitars. Perhaps there were others before him who played one, but it seems evident who Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Peter Buck from R.E.M. and Johnny Marr were thinking about when they got one. With it on his shoulders he led several revolutions throughout his career with the Byrds, defining the jangle sound of folk/rock forever, becoming the guitar of psychedelia or returning to the roots of country.

James Joseph McGuinn III came into the world July 13, 1942, in Chicago. Like so many other teenagers of his generation, he decided he wanted to play the guitar after listening to Elvis Presley sing Heartbreak Hotel, but his initial love for rock & roll slowly turned to the world of folk, and he started playing the banjo additionally of the guitar. He began to play alone in folk clubs and little by little he was making a name for himself which led to being contracted by some of the most popular artists of the genre, like the Chad Mitchell Trio and Judy Collins. In the early 60s he moved to Los Angeles and heard a group that would reignite his faith in rock: the Beatles.

From there he went on to play Beatles songs and covers of folk songs with the ‘Beatle’ touch during his stint at the Troubadour club. The public didn’t respond well to his performances which pissed McGuinn off. One night he was approached by one of the few in the crowd who liked what he was doing, one Gene Clark, another veteran of the commercial folk scene who had fallen for the Liverpool lads. He proposed McGuinn to write songs together and they began to play as a duo. It was the seed that grew into the Byrds. They already had a concept and the sound was McGuinn’s responsibility, Clark wrote the songs but something was missing, another big element, the harmonies. That would come with the arrival of David Crosby, who heard them and suggested joining them. Their 3 voices mixed to perfection, with McGuinn and Clark singing in unison and Crosby with his unmistakable high harmony over top.

Crosby's arrival also brought Jim Dickson as band manager. What they were doing was very different, blending traditional folk with the beat of the Brit Invasion, and it started to generate a lot of expectations around them. They decided the best way forward was to form an electric band, so drummer Michael Clarke came aboard, more for his resemblance of Brian Jones than his musical abilities. The summer of 1964 brought with it two very important events for the band, Dickson got hold of a copy of a Bob Dylan song that hadn’t been released, Mr. Tambourine Man, and thought it would be a perfect cover song for the band, which was called The Jet Sets at the time.  The other one was the debut of A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ film. They went several times to see it at the cinema, which left McGuinn smitten with the 12-string Rickenbacker 360 George Harrison was playing, so he bought one. The band had found a defining sound and a song to launch them, now the only thing missing was let the world know.

After bassman Chris Hillman joined the group they signed a contract with Columbia in November and changed their name to The Byrds, looking for something like their beloved Beatles. On January 20, 1965 they went to record Mr. Tambourine Man, and their side B was I Knew I’d Want You, an original song by Clark, but they found out producer Terry Melcher had hired members of the legendary Wrecking Crew to play in their place. The only one who could play his instrument was McGuinn, his jangle Rickenbacker had become the band’s DNA. His intro is one of the most important moments in rock history, getting that sound purely by accident. The sound engineer in charge of the session wasn’t used to rock bands so he put a compressor on to protect his equipment. The resulting sound gave a more sustained tone, making each note longer, so McGuinn decided to get another compressor and plugged his Rickenbacker directly into the mixing table, creating one of the most influential sounds of all times.

Before the song was released the band started playing in the Ciro club where they became the favourite band in California, with Dylan himself taking the stage with them, hence approving of their adaption of his music . In April of ‘65 the single was released and soon became #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Folk Rock was born and the U.S. had found its first band to confront the British Invasion. Once the rest of the album was recorded, their experience at the Ciro had given them a major packaging  and the group could record with their own instruments, reflecting a dirtier sound but also more authentic on songs like Chimes of Freedom and I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better, one of the first examples of what would become known as ‘power pop’, where McGuinn’s Rickenbacker is joined by Crosby’s Gretsch 6119.  

Mr. Tambourine Man was so important in rock history not only as a launching pad for Folk Rock or for the fact that it didn’t have a single weak song , but because of its influence on two of the artists that served as the basis of the group: the Beatles and Dylan. The former wouldn’t take long in adding that sound to their music, with Harrison borrowing the riff from The Bells of Rhymney on If I Needed Someone (a curious case of reverse influences) and the latter ended up electrifying his music almost at the same time.    

In October of 1965 Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season) was put out, a cover of a  song by folk figure Pete Seeger, with words lifted from the Bible. It became their second #1 hit and a statement against the escalating war in Vietnam. Once again McGuinn’s guitar plays a starring role together with the vocal harmonies. Not long after the album with the same title was released, following the same path as their first, with other covers of Dylan material and Clark as their main composer, like on the excellent Set You Free This Time. Of course the world at the time was flooded with folk groups copying their sound.  

So now was the time to reinvent themselves, and they did it on the back of McGinn’s guitar. This time the inspiration would arrive from less conventional means. During the tour Crosby kept putting on a tape he had of John Coltrane on one side, and Ravi Shankar on the other.  McGuinn would follow by trying to reproduce those sounds on his Rick on one of the best songs Clark had written to date, Eight Miles High, where Coltrane’s influence is clear, and on Why, the B side, where he copies the sound of the sitar. In January, 1966 they would record them and the doors to revolutionary psychedelic sound would open, spearheading a new movement. By then he had the guitar he is most associated with, the 12-string Rickenbacker 370.

The most important single of their story came with some bad news with it, the exit of Clark, their main composer. Their 3rd record, Fifth Dimension, was affected by this, despite McGuinn stepping forward and delivering 2 of his best original songs, the title cut, and Mr. Spaceman, one of the first samples of a genre that would also have the Byrds as its founders: country- rock.

The Byrds always seemed a step ahead of their contemporaries. In february of ‘67 Younger Than Yesterday was released, a record where he changed his from Jim to Roger McGuinn. From the first bars of So You Want to Be a Rock n Roll Star, you can see the group was not afraid of experimenting. On this cynical view of the pop world, written by McGuinn and Hillman, you can hear the marvelous trumpet of South African Hugh Masekela, although it’s McGuinn’s Rickenbacker riff and Hillman’s bass that lay the foundations for it. Of course if McGuinn became the band’s main arranger, it was Crosby and Hillman who brought the best songs. Especially the bassman, who debuted as composer and singer, and delivered the ‘beatle’ Have You Ever Seen Her Face (with a beautiful solo by McGuinn on his Country Gentleman, which gave it a different flavour than usual) flirting with LSD on Thoughts and Words, and ahead of its time in The Flying Burrito Brothers with Time Between and The Girl With No Name, where Clarence White and his Telecaster appear for the 1st time with The Byrds.  

The Notorious Byrd Brothers is the most troubled Byrds album, and the most reflective of their career as well. In a certain way this record is the culmination of the path taken with Fifth Dimension and Eight Miles High through psychedelia and experimentation. It’s a step beyond where they look for new sounds that would prevent them from being labeled, but it is, as I was saying, a record in which many influences flow together harmoniously and beautifully, just as the jangle folk/rock from their beginnings and the future path to country/rock as you can hear on the gorgeous rendition of Goin’ Back, where the characteristic harmonies and McGuinn’s distinct Rickenbacker are joined joining in by no less than a marvelous pedal-steel. Or, as in Wasn’t Born to Follow, in which you can see the country/rock road they were going to take without forgetting about distortion and psychedelic guitars. But this album also meant the uncomfortable departure of 2 more band members, Clarke and Crosby.  

McGuinn and Hillman managed to reform the band, including getting a new member that proved to be fundamental, Gram Parsons. McGuinn had this ambitious idea for their next record, one that would encompass the whole history of American popular music, with bluegrass, country, jazz, R&B, and rock, culminating in electronic experiments, yet Parsons had another idea that was called ‘Cosmic American Music’, a mix of musical roots, mainly country, with a rock attitude. First he convinced Hillman, and then McGuinn to record a serious record of country/rock. To get this he offered the two best compositions himself, Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years from Now, and his fabulous voice. McGuinn put the icing on the cake with an opening new version of another Dylan song You Ain’t Going Nowhere, clearly in country territory but with his unmistakable Rickenbacker. The Byrds made it, for the 3rd time, spearheading the movement of country/rock.

However, Parsons soon quit the band, followed by Hillman, to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, and McGuinn was the last remaining original member of the band. But he kept going and formed another great band around him with the great Clarence White as lead guitarist. This produced Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, Ballad of Easy Rider, (Untitled) and Byrdmaniax, albums to be praised in a band that had never sounded better live. But commercial success had long since abandoned them, and Farther Along was the end of this time in 1971. Two years later the 5 original members would reunite for a comeback album that was quite disappointing.

That same year McGuinn began a solo career with two major highlights, Cardiff Rose from ‘76 and Back From Rio in 1991. The first was produced by Mick Ronson and resulted in Rock and Roll Time, making McGuinn sound like the Clash, one year before they had even formed a group. The second was his comeback record after 14 years without recording. That’s when he got a helping hand from a band that did a lot to revive his work, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, not surprisingly when McGuinn heard their first ever single, American Girl, he exclaimed, When did I compose that song?”.
But his sound fingerprint goes beyond Petty, having greatly influenced thousands of groups worldwide, those who tried to reproduce his famous ‘jangle’ sound, and those who sought his return to his roots or his trips trying to copy Coltrane on a Rickenbacker. Mcguinn is one of the true innovators of the electric guitar, and his shadow is cast farther than it looks. Numerous styles and guitarists have grown from the seed he sewed.