Roger McGuinn’s Signature Sound

Roger McGuinn is largely responsible for one of the most distinctive sounds in popular music. Though his musical career began in the folk idiom, McGuinn – like countless others in 1964 – was captivated and inspired by The Beatles. He formed a Los Angeles band, first called The Jet Set and soon renamed The Byrds. With its animal name and alternate spelling both nods to The Beatles, the group’s sound was innovative. “The combination of putting a Beatle beat to folk songs seemed like a really great idea,” says McGuinn. Even then he knew his band was doing something groundbreaking.

And when McGuinn and his band mates saw the Beatles’ debut film A Hard Day’s Night in the movie theater, George Harrison’s chiming Rickenbacker guitar caught their attention. McGuinn soon applied the electric 12-string’s signature sound to his band’s rock arrangement of a Bob Dylan folk song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The rest is history.

Photo by John Chiasson

“I just love the sound” of a Rickenbacker, McGuinn says today, some 59 years after The Byrds’ recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man” hit record store shelves. “It’s one of the greatest sounding instruments in the world.” And McGuinn looks back at the time when that record – The Byrds’ second single – topped the charts. “It reached number one for a couple of weeks,” he recalls. “The fans were screaming and following us around. It was a wild, surreal thing: it was just like A Hard Day’s Night!”

Though The Byrds’ lineup would be in constant flux – none of its ‘60s-era lineups would make more than two consecutive albums – the band scored seven hit singles on the Top 40 charts, and placed every one of its dozen-plus albums on the Billboard 200. More significantly, The Byrds inspired a generation of musicians. And as members went on to other projects, those groups found success as well. Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Firefall and the Desert Rose Band would all count ex-Byrds among their numbers.

During The Byrds’ time together (1964-73) Roger McGuinn was the group’s sole constant member. When the group finally disbanded, he went on to a successful solo career. Since The Byrds’ dissolution, the singer-songwriter-guitarist has released nearly a dozen studio albums under his own name, plus nearly twice that number of live and/or collaborative albums. And while McGuinn’s solo music has explored musical areas beyond that of his old group, that Rickenbacker jangle still figures prominently in his work. Few musicians are as closely associated with a single instrument model as McGuinn is with his 12-string Rickenbacker.

And McGuinn brings that signature instrument along with him when he plays live, though it’s merely one of several guitars. Each has its place in a set filled with Byrds classics, solo songs and stories. McGuinn describes the format of concerts on his current run of dates as “a one-man play.” It’s an autobiographical evening of music and memories. “The whole thing is about my career,” he explains, “how I got into music, the people I met along the way, and the songs that came up.”

Those stories shine a light into some areas of McGuinn’s past that fans might not know about. For example, in his pre-fame days, McGuinn worked in the Brill Building, the New York City edifice legendary as the base of operations for a generation of hit songwriters. A list of those who worked at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan could fill a book; some of most well-known names include Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Otis Blackwell, Sonny Bono, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Shadow Morton, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon and Phil Spector.

And Roger McGuinn.

“I had been working as a sideman for Bobby Darren,” he recalls. McGuinn played casinos in Las Vegas, Tahoe and Reno, backing Darren on guitar and vocal harmony. But when Darren developed problems with his voice, the singer took time off from performing. “He decided to open up a publishing company in the Brill Building,” McGuinn says. “And he invited me to move to New York and learn how to become a songwriter.”

Unlike Darren, McGuinn missed the road, so that time behind a desk would be a short one. But he holds memories of just what a special place the Brill Building was. “It was an early iteration of ‘vertical integration,’” he explains. “Because it had publishing companies, record companies, and recording studios all in the same building. You could take the elevator, get a record deal, get a publishing deal, [cut] a record and put it on the street, all without leaving the building.”

McGuinn says that his time in the Brill Building did serve him well. “I learned how to put songs together,” he says with a smile and a chuckle. “And that came in handy.”