Interview:Musician's Friend Artist Spotlight Exclusive Interview with Roger McGuinn Part I

12-String Ornithology: An inside view from one of the masterminds of modern rock, Part I. (Part II)


As cofounder and frontman of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn had as much to do with the evolution of the music we now call rock as almost anyone else. By combining the protest sensibilities of folk greats such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan with the rock backbeat of The Beatles, McGuinn created a truly unique sound that would be followed by thousands. McGuinn's influence in all forms of modern rock and pop is everywhere and incalculable.


A far-ranging and powerful songwriter and guitarist, McGuinn launched his solo career with the dissolution of the Byrds in 1973. Thousands of dates and dozens of albums later, McGuinn is still making musical waves around the world. Martin has honored him with two signature guitars--the Roger McGuinn HD-7 and D-12-42RM--and his inimitable jangly fretwork has made the Rickenbacker electric 12-string one of the world's best-recognized sounds.


We caught up with Roger at his home in New York. In his humble, laid-back manner, he talked freely about the early days when he walked with giants and became one in the process. Be sure to tune in next week when McGuinn gets down to the nuts and bolts of his gear and his very public fight for Internet music.


Musician's Friend: You studied at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago?


Roger McGuinn: Yeah.


MF: What did that training consist of? Did you have to learn theory?


RM: There was some theory but there was more practical experience. It was pretty much a one-to-one teaching experience with Frank Hamilton, who was in the Weavers. Frank would sit across from a few of us and show us a couple of licks. We'd learn 'em and we'd write them down. It would usually be in conjunction with a song. You'd learn the whole song with a picking pattern--like Travis picking or maybe a five-string banjo roll or something like that--take it home and work on it a couple of days, and come back. It was informal but it was very, very educational. I learned a whole lot of different licks and styles--how to play claw banjo and 12-string guitar and all kinds of different things from it.


MF: How long had that school been going on when you went there?


RM: Oh, it had just opened up that year. I was one of the first students there. It's still around now.


MF: That's great. Did you have any theoretical background in any other context? In school or . . .


RM: In school I had music classes and they taught us some theory but it wasn't really important to me to learn a lot of theory. I was more of a hands-on play-it-by-ear kind of artist. My interest was in playing music and not learning about the nuts and bolts of it.


MF: You did a few recording sessions around LA in the early '60s. Were you a regular session guy there for awhile?


RM: No. I wasn't really a regular session guy in LA, I was more in New York. I did quite a few sessions in New York around '62 and '63. I worked on Judy Collins and Tom and Jerry, which later turned into Simon & Garfunkel.


MF: Do you remember that date?


RM: Well, they wanted the 12-string, so they hired me. I came in and sat there and the track was already recorded. So I was just an overdub.


MF: Were either of them there? Or was it just you?


RM: I don't think they were there. I wouldn't have known them, they weren't famous then.


MF: Right. [laughs]


RM: I don't know if they were there or not. [laughs]


MF: So you were already playing the electric 12-string?


RM: No . . . well it was an acoustic 12-string. I may have had a pickup in it but I'm not sure. I think I was just using it acoustically miked at that point.


MF: In those days was your session work mostly guitar or did you also get called in for other jobs?


RM: I did guitar and banjo. I wasn't known as a vocalist. I was known as an instrumental musician.


MF: At the time you started putting folk songs to a Beatles beat in the Village in the early '60s, did you know of anybody else who was doing the same thing, or were you the first guy doing that?


RM: I was the first guy doing that. Actually it came out of my experience working for Bobby Darin's publishing company in the Brill building. The Beatles came out and my instructions were to listen to the radio and write songs like the ones that were coming out. So I started experimenting with the Beatle beat and putting it to various folk songs that I knew. I took it down to Greenwich Village and played it for the people down there. They weren't really into it, you know, because they're kind of purist in folk music. They thought it was kind of bubblegummy or something. One guy who owned one the coffee houses put a sign outside that said "Beatle Imitations." [general laughter] It was kind of embarrassing. So, I left town. That's when I went to LA. I got a gig at the Troubadour doing pretty much the same thing. That's where I ran into Gene Clark. He and I had a shared interest in The Beatles, which was unusual for folk people. I remember telling John Phillips about The Beatles and he put it down like it was lightweight stuff. The folkies didn't get it.


MF: When you were doing this were you feeling like you were onto something? I mean, did you have any idea what was going to happen?


RM: Yes, I did. I knew I was onto something, for a couple of reasons. Dion came over to where I was living in the Village. Bobby Darin had sent him around because Dion was looking for a guitar player to do some gigs with. He came up and hung out with me for a while and I showed him what I was into. He said, "Hey, that's really . . . You're onto something there." And I said, "Well, I'm just sort of doing The Beatles." He said, "No, no, man, you're not. You're doing your own thing. This is really different." So, that was a good sign. Then, I was walking down Bleeker Street and I saw a couple of club owners talking. They said, "What we need is four of him." I went, "Oh, right." So that was kind of the spark there that showed me I was definitely onto something.


MF: And how old were you at that point?


RM: I was 20, 21.


MF: Wow.


RM: Twenty-one I went out to LA. I was 22 when the Byrds hit.


MF: When did your aspiration change from just playing a little bit to thinking about being a musician for life?


RM: That was in 1960 when I was hired by the Limeliters. They were having a jam session down at the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago. And I would go there. I had a coffee house gig up the street on Rush Street. And after I got done with that I would walk down to the Gate of Horn and I had my guitar and banjo with me. I walked into the Gate of Horn and Theodore Bikel and Alex Hassilev and Glenn Yarborough were all having a jam session. And Alex Hassilev said, "What you got there, kid?" and I said, "I got a banjo and a guitar." He said, "Break out the banjo. We've already have 3 guitars going." So I did and I played with them till five o'clock in the morning, which was closing time. And at that point he said, "We're planning to do a record and Glenn here doesn't like to play the guitar. He likes just to sing. So we want somebody to back him up." And, I thought "great." He said, "Would you like a job?" And I said "Sure!" So he said, "Okay, meet us tomorrow at one o'clock at Mr. Kelly's for an audition." So, I went home and didn't sleep much. I went over to Mr. Kelly's and auditioned for 'em and they said, "You got the job, when can you start?"


And I said, "Well, I get out of high school in June." [laughs] They said, "Wow, you're in high school, huh? Well, you know, when you get out we'll send you a plane ticket." So I said okay. I went back to school, this was probably in the middle of winter, somewhere like February or March and I kind of forgot about it. But June came around and they sent me a plane ticket. And I went out to LA and recorded with them on RCA, a record called Tonight: In Person with the Limeliters. That was my first professional gig. Before that I had just been playing coffee houses.


MF: And you were hooked at that point?


RM: Well, I knew that was what I wanted to do, yeah.


MF: Why didn't you stay with the Limeliters?


RM: They didn't really need me anymore. They just wanted me on the album, just as a backup.


MF: How long did you stay in LA after that?


RM: Not long. I hung out and met David Crosby and he and I went up to Santa Barbara and hung out for a couple of weeks. Then I went up to San Francisco because I heard about the Hungry I and the scene up there. I wanted to see that, so I went up and was hanging around San Francisco and I met the Kingston Trio and actually auditioned for them. They were looking for a replacement for Dave Guard but I was a little too young and didn't sing loud enough for them. Anyway, I got an offer from the Chad Mitchell Trio to be a backup musician for them. So, I started doing that and I worked with them for a while. And then after that I went with Bobby Darin.


MF: So from the minute you got out of high school you were making a living as a musician?


RM: Yeah, yeah. I never had to do anything else.


MF: That's great. When you met David Crosby, was it totally a social thing or did you guys get together and play?


RM: He wasn't much of a player at that point, he was an actor when I met him at the Ash Grove and he played a little guitar. But I showed him some stuff. He was still learning. And we hung out, we got to know each other and he was a nice guy. I liked him at the time and so we hung out for awhile.


MF: At that time did you guys have any inkling you were going to make a band?


RM: No, not in 1960. In fact, there were just folk groups. Rock bands were something else. We weren't interested in that. We were just into making folk music--mostly in folk music clubs, like the Ash Grove and the Troubadour and the Hungry I, the Village Gate, the Gate of Horn in Chicago. There were about six or seven places around the country that had clubs.


MF: At what point did you start writing? I mean doing your own songs?


RM: I started writing around '62, I think. I was in living in New York. And met Mike Settle, who was a waiter. He was in the First Edition with Kenny Rogers. But at that point he was a singer. He was a solo artist and he was singing around at the Bitter End when I met him. He and I wrote some songs. That was my first experience with songwriting.


MF: What was the first song that you wrote?


RM: It was a Christmas song, called "Early Christmas Morn." I don't even know it anymore, but it was the first song we wrote. I remember we took it up to Al Brackman at TRO music on Columbus Circle and signed a contract with him and in the contract it said we were supposed to get a dollar. And I said where's my dollar? [laughs] He said, "Nobody ever asked me that before." But he pulled out his wallet and gave me a dollar. [laughs]


MF: What was the first song you wrote that really had a lasting impression?


RM: I think it was when I was working at the Brill Building with Bobby Darin. But he didn't write it with me. I wrote it with Frank Gari. Frank Gari and I wrote this song called "Beach Ball." It got up to number six in Australia. It was done by Jimmy Hannan. He was an Australian variety show host, singer, and entertainer. Bobby and I recorded it as the City Surfers on Capitol. [laughs]


MF: About the end of your time with the Chad Mitchell Trio, you opened for Lenny Bruce. Did you get a chance to hang out with him at all?


RM: I did. I met him a little. I didn't talk much, but I saw him and I admired him. He was kind of a hero.


MF: What kind of a guy was he personally?


RM: He was very cool. He was a hipster. He was one of those very hip people. Like meeting Jack Kerouac or something.


MF: [laughs] That's cool. Your song "Turn, Turn, Turn" is one of the few songs out there with such a direct Biblical lift. How did you come to perform it?


RM: The history of that song is Pete Seeger wrote it. He was at his publishing company, his publisher's office in New York. And the publisher said, "Pete, you gotta stop writing these protest songs because I can't sell them." And Pete said, "Well, you've got the wrong songwriter 'cause that's all I do is write protest songs." But Pete remembered that he had written down some little notes. He was thumbing through the Bible one day and he saw this thing that caught his attention. He wrote down some notes on "to everything there's a season and a time to every purpose under heaven," and he developed it into a poem. He kind of changed it around a little bit. But he added that little zinger at the end, "The time for peace, I swear it's not too late," so it was kind of a protest song. [laughs] He took it back to his publisher and the guy said, "That's great. That's good. We can use that." So Pete did it in concert and that's where I heard it. I used to go to all Pete's concerts. And then Judy Collins did it on her third album. I was the musical director on that album. So I knew the song from there and then when the Byrds were already going, we had a hit with "Mr. Tambourine Man." Somebody asked me if I knew "Turn, Turn, Turn" and I did. I started playing sort of a rock version of it instead of a folk version. And that's the way we recorded it. Columbia Records wasn't going to release it; they were kind of scared of it because of the Biblical connotation. But Terry Melcher, rest his soul, was really in love with the track, he thought it was great. So he took it up and down the California coast to all the DJs and they started playing it locally. It got to be a regional hit in California and gradually spread across the country. So Columbia was forced to release it because it was a hit already.


MF: What a great song! It's one of your favorites, right?


RM: Yeah, I love the song. It's a really good melody and I like what it says.


MF: Did you ever hear any feedback directly from Bob Dylan regarding what you did with "Mr. Tambourine Man"?


RM: Yeah sure. Actually he gave us feedback before we even recorded it. He came to our rehearsal studio and he and Bobby Neuwirth were hanging out there. We played a few songs for him and at one of the songs, he said, "What was that?" and I said, "That's one of your songs, man." [laughs] He said, "I didn't recognize it." He didn't recognize it. [laughs] So they liked it, they gave us their approval right away.


MF: It's been said that the Byrds had a huge impact on him in getting Dylan into more electric music.


RM: Well, you know, he's a bright guy. He was hearing The Beatles and the Stones, too. So, I'm sure it was only a matter of time. But we were probably a catalyst to get him to go that direction, yeah.


MF: It's kind of cool how everybody was influencing everybody else so heavily in those days.


RM: I know, it was great. Yeah, even the Byrds influenced The Beatles a little bit with "If I Needed Someone." That was kind of a cool thing. We did a riff on the Byrds, "The Bells of Rhymney" and George Harrison liked it so much he wrote "If I Needed Someone" based on that lick.


MF: Wow! [laughs]


RM: It was really cool.


MF: You met The Beatles.


RM: Yeah, we met The Beatles. We hung out with them, we got to be friends with them.


MF: Was that pretty cool?


RM: It was great. It was . . . are you kidding . . . it was incredible! [laughs]


MF: They were huge already so that would've been monumental even right then, huh?


RM: Yeah, it was. It was, I mean, six months before we met them we were on the street kind of starving and then we got this catapult into fame and got to meet The Beatles and hang out with them and it was a wonderful time. They were always the big stars, you never lost sight of that. But George and I hung out and we exchanged guitar licks and it turned out that he and I were into the same riff on the same song around the same time. It was the lead break on the flip side of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula"--a song called "Woman Love." So we had a lot in common. We were coming from the same place, like a rockabilly background and then they had done a skiffle thing. So they were kind of folkies too. George and John were my favorite Beatles. We really got along okay. First thing Lennon said to me, "What's with those little glasses?"


MF: [general laughter] Listening to Back from Rio I was really struck by how much Tom Petty's been influenced by your music. He was on that record, wasn't he?


RM: Yeah, he was. He and I wrote "King of the Hill" together. We were on tour over in Europe with Dylan. And we'd just read John Phillips' autobiography. We thought that would be good material for a song, so we wrote "King of the Hill."


MF: You guys hung out a lot?


RM: Yeah we used to hang out a lot when I was living in LA. I used to go over to his place all the time.


MF: So it was a very direct influence. How did you come up with "Mr. Spaceman?"


RM: I was sitting in my living room looking out a the front lawn and I was kind of bored and I thought it would be really cool if a flying saucer landed out there [laughs] and took me for a ride. So, it was just a goofy concept that hit me.


MF: But it never landed?


RM: No, it didn't.


MF: [laughs] That's good to know.


RM: Still waiting.

Check out Part II for the exciting conclusion when Roger talks about his rippin' Rickenbackers, marvelous Martins, and his role in the controversy over Internet music.

Back to Musician's Friend Exclusive Artist Spotlights.