Roger McGuinn Interview - A Byrd in the Hand

When it comes to that jingle-jangle guitar chime so integral to the development of rock music, no one sounds like Roger McGuinn. Even when performing solo onstage with a plugged in Rickenbacker, when McGuinn strikes the opening notes of Byrd's classics like "Turn, Turn, Turn" or "Mr. Tambourine Man," a wash of harmonious transcendence permeates the room. Simultaneously exultant and melancholy, McGuinn's guitar playing captures the spirit of the human condition and elevates it eight miles high.

But while McGuinn did, indeed, pioneer psychedelic folk rock, his experience with the Byrds wasn't exactly a non-stop high; at times, it was more like a bad acid trip. The band's contract required them to record and tour practically non-stop, and when the group matured and evolved from folk-pop to country-rock, many of their fans failed to appreciate the exploration.

But McGuinn has never been driven by the commercial gain of mainstream acceptance, and the spirit and vitality of the Byrds continues to motivate him today. Even after many of his former bandmates have discovered fortune and fame in other musical pursuits, McGuinn still pays homage to both the Byrds and the traditional folk music that initially inspired him. What is it about Byrds songs that continue to strike a chord?

Roger McGuinn: I think the reason the riffs stand up is because they're grounded in folk music which is hundreds of years old. It's kind of an art form. Do songs like "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Eight Miles High" mean anything different to you today than they did in the '60s?

McGuinn: Because I play them so much, I have to keep re-evaluating what I'm thinking when I'm playing them. So they do mean different things, and every time I get to play them I think it's another opportunity to get it right. That jangly folk rock sound you pioneered has influenced generations of musicians. How did you conceive the style?

McGuinn: It was a natural process. It wasn't like we popped it out of the oven fully grown. I was playing folk music and we played a lot of fingerpicking stuff. And the only thing that really made it different was the electric guitar the addition of electronics -- because we were playing on acoustic guitars before that. And when I heard the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar in the movie A Hard Days Night, that's where I first got the idea to use that [in my music]. And it made a difference in the sound. It was a much cleaner and bigger and fuller sound. Why do you favor the Rickenbacker?

McGuinn: Just because of they way they sounded. I don't know how they do it, but it sounds different from any other 12-string on the market. I have a Fender 12-string and it sounds completely different even though I put Rickenbacker pickups on it. Maybe it's the wood or the dimensions of the wood or the semi-hollow-body construction. It could be a lot of different things. But it's got a distinctive sound. Also they do something different with the stringing. Normal 12-string guitars have an octave string and then the low string. Rickenbacker does it backwards. They have the low string first and then the octave. So the last thing you hear kind of rings out. It's like youre picking backwards. Your music is rooted in folk and rock, but there's a transcendent quality about it that's sort of indefinable. Does that come from within?

McGuinn: I've always been spiritually oriented, seeking spiritual oneness all my life through various means, and I think that comes through in the music. I was on a spiritual search after the Byrds. I was going through Eastern religions and I finally came back full-circle to my Christian roots. What led to that transformation?

McGuinn: I don't know. Just the truth in Christianity became evident to me. What they profess, I find to be true. And that spirituality still guides me. It's part of my life. People were skeptical when you transformed from folk-rock to a more country-based style. Were you struck by people's unwillingness to accept the band's musical development?

McGuinn: We were optimistic about their willingness to accept it when we did it and somewhat disappointed when they didn't. We didn't figure on the gulf between the left and the right wing attitudes about rock n roll versus country music because we didn't see it politically, we saw it musically. We were looking at it with blinders on, and we only loved it for its musical value and went into it with all sincerity. And the people in the country field didn't appreciate a bunch of hippies coming in and desecrating their wonderful music. And the rock audience thought that we'd sold out to the establishment, so they were kind of turned off. However, if you look at Rolling Stones top 100 albums, Sweetheart of the Rodeo rates number 40, so I think over the course of time it's been kind of exonerated from that exile that it was in. The record has also been extremely influential for the new school of country-rock bands like the Jayhawks and Whiskeytown. What do you think about the new school of alternative country rock?

McGuinn: I like it. There's artistic integrity and good musical value there. Of course, the jangly rock sound of the Byrds was even more influential to contemporary rock bands. Do you listen to music today and think about how they were inspired by you?

McGuinn: Yeah, I kind of smile. It's amusing and it's an honor to be part of the fabric of what is now almost a generic form of music. People don't even know where the sound comes from. It's just one of the colors on the palette and they just use it. Last year, Legacy reissued the final batch of Byrds records including the intriguing Live at the Fillmore February 1969, which features Clarence White on guitar. What are your memories of that show or that era? 

McGuinn: I didn't even know they were recording it and I don't have any memory whatsoever of doing the gig. We were doing about 200 gigs a year at that point so it's kind of a blur. When you're touring as a musician the stage is always the same. The lights are always in your eyes, the microphone is always in front of you and youre in the same place no matter where you are. In fact, it's hard to remember what town you're in. And people don't realize that and they ask you, Well, where are you going tomorrow? And you don't know because it's not your job to know. The road manager knows and he's gonna get you on a tour bus and you're gonna get there. And that's all there is to it. And when you get there you're at home. You're back onstage and the people are out there and you're doing your thing. So I had no idea I was even at the Fillmore the night we recorded that. And we certainly didn't know they were recording. The equipment was actually set up for Michael Bloomfield and his band and they were just running tape to check the levels. How do you feel about the record?

McGuinn: I like it very much. I was surprised at how good it came out. Clarence White's guitar playing is always remarkable and exceptional, and I think that's probably the number one reason why it's a valid work that should come out and that people should listen to because there's not that much live Clarence White guitar playing available. We had "Untitled," but this is a little different thing and he plays some rock stuff that he didnt play before. And the vocals are pretty good. They're pretty in tune and I like the Sweetheart of the Rodeo material on it and then the rock material we did on two different nights and they compiled it from the two. Today bands put out a record on average every two to four years. With the Byrds you were delivering albums at a much more rapid pace.

McGuinn: Our contract required a record every six months. It was too much work. It was too hard to come up with songs every six months and then tour behind the first album and then write and record the next one. That's all we did. We were overworked. Do you think the original lineup of the band would have lasted longer had you not been required to work so feverishly?

McGuinn: It's impossible to tell. It would have been nice, but that's the way it goes. You can't go back and change time. Do you ever talk to David Crosby or Chris Hillman?

McGuinn: I talked to Hillman last month on the telephone and I've been in email contact with Crosby a lot, but I haven't seen him in many years. I saw Chris about a year ago. We jammed together. After my set, he came up and did some stuff. Is there any chance of you getting back together?

McGuinn: I don't want to. I've been offered the opportunity a lot of times and I keep turning it down because I think the whole Legacy reissue campaign puts the Byrds in a wonderful place as a really good memory. It's sort of a non-linear thing. You can go to any part of the Byrds history and listen to it. And to try to compete with that or even match it would be unthinkable to me. I think it would be a big mistake. Were you at all bitter when you saw David Crosbys career skyrocket with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young after he left the Byrds?

McGuinn: You know what? Because we did ask David to leave, I was really happy that David got a good position again because I was wondering what would happen. He was out on the street for a while and it couldn't have worked out better. There have been numerous reports of friction between you and David

McGuinn: No, we were friends. Even after he left the Byrds I used to go to his house and hang out. Like with all the Byrds, we would have fights and get over them and be friends again, just like brothers. There's no bitter feelings right now and the reason I don't want to do the Byrds isn't because of any bitterness. I don't personally dislike these guys. I love these guys and were great friends when were not working together.

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