Roger McGuinn, John Coltrane, and the banjo

Something about Sunday mornings leads me to really enjoy listening to folk and other acoustic music. These guys ended up being electric, though.

The Byrds were a Los Angeles-based group that grew out of the folk music scene in 1964. The original line-up was Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke. The distinctive sound of the band came from the electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar of McGuinn - in fact, all three guitarists played 12-strings.

i-00c4770fee6958ff5062f926f37f0995-200px-Byrds-MrTambourineMan.jpgOn the recommendation of jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader, Miles Davis, Columbia Records offered The Byrds a contract to record one single in January 1965. Bob Dylan had previously written and recorded the song "Mr. Tambourine Man" but one of the background vocals was off and the version was not released. The Byrds changed the timing of the song and used only one of Dylan's verses to keep the song under two minutes and thirty seconds, the unwritten limit for a 1965 pop song.

The single was released June 5, 1965 and reached #1 on Billboard's Top 40 chart three weeks later. An album of the same name followed.

The Byrds subsequently recorded other big hits that included Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Feel A Whole Lot Better," and "Eight Miles High," among others. The Byrds influenced many bands since but especially Tom Petty and R.E.M. The band kind of trickled to a stop in the early 1970s leaving just McGuinn to work on a solo career which continues today - here's an article by Jeremy Goodwin about his gig last night at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Earlier this week Professor Paul Jones retweeted a link from Roger McGuinn to this video of McGuinn talking about the origination of his playing style - I had not known of some of his influences.

Paul is the originator of, the original internet "collection of collections." Paul hosts a great deal of McGuinn's content there including his main website, his Folk Den project and The Byrds FAQ from which I borrowed heavily in writing this post (correct me if I'm wrong, Paul).

Rolling Stone Etheridge Crosby 02.03.2000.jpgAnd yes, the David Crosby who started off in The Byrds is the same David Crosby of Crosby, Still, Nash, +/- Young. The younger generation may also know of David Crosby as the sperm donor for the two children of singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher. The mystery of the father of the adorable Bailey Jean and Beckett was Crosby, as detailed in this February 3, 2000 cover story of Rolling Stone.

As the former leader of The Byrds is enjoying continued success with another generation that has discovered his music, new fans are often confused as to the relationship between Roger McGuinn and Jim McGuinn. Here is the story from Roger's FAQ:

Jim was born James Joseph McGuinn III. He changed his name in 1967 because a guru in Indonesia said that a new name would vibrate better with the universe. The guru sent Jim the letter "R" and asked him to send back ten names starting with that letter.

Because Jim was into gadgets and Sci-Fi, he sent names like "Rocket" and "Ramjet."

He included the name Roger only because they use it for radio messages to indicate "OKAY."

Roger was the only "real" name in the bunch and the guru picked it. Jim only changed his middle name from Joseph to Roger but used Roger as a stage name.

As far as the vibrating with the universe ... he didn't notice any change and would have changed his name back to Jim (which he liked) but that would have been too confusing.

A study of the '60s would help you to understand all this.

Click here for high-quality video of The Byrds performing on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 12, 1965 (embedding is disabled).

Here is a terrific reunion version of Turn! Turn! Turn! - you'll see that the years have been much kinder to McGuinn than Crosby:

And for the players reading, here is a clip from McGuinn's instructional DVD for Turn! Turn! Turn! which demonstrates how he keeps the rhythm going with the banjo fingerpicking technique while playing the leads.

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Hah! Always good to hear from another Byrdbrain!
Have you seen Roger in concert yet? He does a great show, lots of old and new tunes, and interesting anecdotes as well. He's also involved in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a pickup band composed of various authors, including Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan and Ridley Pearson. How cool is that? Here's the info on the next tour in April (with McGuinn sitting in on the 21st).
I like to play 12 string as well, but I haven't mastered the banjo roll fingerstyle yet. Someday...

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 29 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thanks, Mike - it amazes me that they were doing this stuff in 1964-5. Few people under 40 can grasp the influence The Byrds have had.

Sadly, Bruce, I've never seen McGuinn live despite spending five years in north central Florida, barely two hours from where he lives. Very glad to hear that you are a 12-string fan. I have a Taylor 855 acoustic but really want a Rick - I keep talking about the 360/12 but it still has yet to show up under the Christmas tree.

And yes, I had known about the book writers' band. Amazingly, I'll be in DC on 4/21 so I may actually be able to catch him with them.