The jangle factor
Byrds founder and guitarist Roger McGuinn turned his 12-string Rickenbacker into one of rock music’s signature sounds
There are many great sonic signatures in classic rock and soul.
A few sounds that are instantly identifiable: the double-stop locomotive urgency of Chuck Berry’s guitar solos, the dancing wallop of Charlie Watts’ drums on Rolling Stones records, and the pulsating bottom line of James Jamerson’s bass on any 1960s-vintage Motown platter.
Here’s one more: The grand cathedral of sound erected by Roger McGuinn’s electrified Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.
You can hear it on old Byrds records, like in McGuinn’s stunning solo break on “The Bells of Rhymney,” or his intro to the band’s first big hit, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The sound comes rushing like a flurry of chiming notes, the musical equivalent of red, gold and yellow leaves cascading earthward in the azure sky of a perfect fall day, some leaves briefly exploding with illumination from a distant sun.
What’s remarkable is that McGuinn is still making the same joyful noise today. On a CD titled Limited Edition, released earlier this year on his own label, McGuinn applied the magic from his Rickenbacker 370/12 model electric guitar to a number of classic tunes, including such public-domain staples as “Shenandoah,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Saint James Infirmary” and “Shady Grove” (the latter a rather sketchy experiment at fusing folk music with hip-hop). “I did this new record because I was getting a lot of requests from people to do another Rickenbacker-oriented CD,” he admitted.
Most of those songs can be found in a section of McGuinn’s Web site (at www.mcguinn.com) titled McGuinn’s Folkden, where he has archived more than 100 downloadable MP3 files of old songs, with lyrics and chord notations. “I started doing that back in November 1995,” he explained, “because the traditional side of folk music was becoming obscure. The singer-songwriters were taking over folk music, and it was all new material, none of the old.” The Folkden presented an opportunity for McGuinn to use the Internet’s potential for grassroots distribution. (Two years later, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings reissued folklorist Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music sets, which turned many 1950s and ’60s folkies on to the same kind of 78-rpm-era source material, as a six-CD box.)
To open Limited Edition, McGuinn duplicated the Byrds’ sound—with soaring harmonies mated to a conventional, Byrds-like rock track and the Rickenbacker supplying the ear candy—on a version of the familiar George Harrison-penned Beatles song “If I Needed Someone.”
“George was a friend of mine,” McGuinn said. “He had turned me on to the 12-string Rickenbacker back in 1964. When he died, I wanted to do something—and actually, the song ‘If I Needed Someone’ was based on a lick that I did with the Byrds, on the Pete Seeger song ‘The Bells of Rhymney.’”
McGuinn, a Chicago native who cut his teeth in that city’s folk-revival scene, first heard the Rickenbacker 12-string in the Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night. He was living in Los Angeles—after a stint at New York’s Brill Building, where he wrote for Bobby Darin—and began playing Beatles covers at folk-music gigs. What resulted from that was McGuinn’s band the Byrds, which wedded the Beatles’ electric urgency and harmony singing to Bob Dylan’s reinvention of folk music. In 1966, McGuinn added John Coltrane’s free jazz into the mix—listen to McGuinn’s solo on “Eight Miles High”—and two years later, he and bandmate Gram Parsons invented country rock via the Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
When McGuinn, who now lives in Orlando, Fla., performs live these days, he goes solo, running his Rickenbacker into a Sennheiser wireless device hooked up to what he calls a “jangle box,” which is connected via direct input into the sound board. “I don’t use an amp,” he said, although back in the Byrds’ early days, he plugged into an Epiphone amp. “It was all I could afford then,” he said.
McGuinn’s concert in Sacramento on Saturday will mark the return of the recently remodeled 24th Street Theatre, inside the Sierra 2 Community Center in Curtis Park, as a performing venue.