Roger McGuinn's Rickenbackers: Chasing the Byrds Frontman's Flock of Ricks

Roger McGuinn plays a Rickenbacker for his current shows re-creating Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the 1968 Byrds album that's often credited with popularizing country-rock. He's played Ricks since 1964, so that's hardly a surprise. However, he won't be playing any of his Byrds-era Rickenbackers because, like many musicians whose careers have spanned decades, most of those original guitars are long gone from his possession.

Back in the early '60s, Roger (then called Jim McGuinn) was about to change the name of his group from The Jet Set to The Byrds. He'd been playing acoustic 12s, at first a Stella, then a Gibson that Bobby Darin had given him after accidentally destroying the one Roger was using in Bobby's stage backing band.

The Byrds were heavily influenced by The Beatles, and Roger shoved a pickup in his Gibson in an attempt to approximate George Harrison's luscious 12-string sound. But it didn't seem quite the same, somehow. Then came A Hard Day's Night, which appeared on movie screens across America in August '64. It offered Roger and his chums a closer look at all the Beatle hardware.

David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, 1966

"One night, we all went down to the Pix theatre in Hollywood to see A Hard Day's Night," Roger tells me. "We carefully noted the brands and models of their instruments. John had a little black 325 Rickenbacker, Paul had a Hofner bass, Ringo played Ludwig drums, and George had a Gretsch six-string and a Rickenbacker that looked like a six-string—until he turned sideways. The camera revealed another six strings hidden in the back. I knew right then the secret of their wonderful guitar sound. It was a Rickenbacker 12-string!"

That view of George's instrument came about 13 minutes into the movie, as The Beatles mimed to "I Should Have Known Better" in the mail-van on a train. The camera offered closeup if fleeting views of the Rick 12's unusual tuners arranged in two planes. More clues came later as the group fooled about on a TV set with "If I Fell." Roger and all the other fascinated guitarists who studied this Beatle movie were of course without YouTube clips or even freeze-frame DVDs. Instead, they made multiple visits to the picture house. And it was clear to the eagle-eyed Byrd that this was no regular six-string electric.

Later, the group's manager arranged for an investor to lend The Byrds $5,000 to buy new instruments. "We went down to the local music shop," Roger says, "and bought a Rickenbacker 360/12, along with a Gretsch six-string and a set of Ludwig drums. The new instruments gave us a sense of confidence that we hadn't had up to that point."

You'll be aware that there are two well-known '60s Rickenbacker two-pickup 12-string models: the 330/12, with dot markers; and the slightly fancier 360/12, with triangle markers. You'll also know that the 360 was offered in two body styles: with an "old style" square-edged body or a "new style" rounded body-front edge.

Roger's first Rickenbacker—let's call it Number 1—was a stock new-style 360/12, in other words, with that rounded body-front. It was made by Rickenbacker in October 1964, and Roger probably got it the following month, when The Byrds signed their deal with Columbia Records. The guitar was in natural finish, the type Rickenbacker calls mapleglo, and it had the regular two pickups, plus five controls and a selector switch.

Roger playing "Turn! Turn! Turn!" with Rickenbacker Number 1

He used the 360/12 Number 1 on The Byrds' first single, "Mr Tambourine Man," recorded at Columbia's Hollywood studios in January '65, alongside session players for this debut session, and it was released in April. Dylan's lyric included that most perfect (and now most clichéd) description of the Rickenbacker 12-string sound: "jingle jangle." He continued to play it through The Byrds' first year of gigs and recordings, and it's all over the '65 albums Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!.

For a classic cut featuring Roger and Rick, try "The Bells Of Rhymney" from Tambourine Man (released June 1965), with its mini-orchestra of Eastern-sounding electric 12s. When he reaches the short solo, Roger lifts his trebly guitar above the drone for a moment, then settles back down again. It showcases well his ability to build the perfect mood with his electric 12.

Roger McGuinn (Photo by John Chiasson)

While you're at it, listen to the impressive third single (released October '65), with the title track from Turn! Turn! Turn! as its A-side, and another pealing celebration that peaks with a twin-12 solo as Roger picks and slides around the G-string. The B-side is "She Don't Care About Time" (for some unfathomable reason left off the album), where he quotes Bach in another perfectly succinct solo.

"The Rickenbacker 12-string with the aid of electronic compression in the studio gave us the distinctive 'jingle jangle' sound that we would later be known for," Roger recalls. Compression originated in the studio, designed to limit the potentially wide dynamic range of a recording to match the limitations of existing recording media. Soon, though, compressors were being used as an effect, drawing on the way they could make loud sounds quieter and quiet sounds louder to provide a result that sounded smoother and with longer sustain.

Roger reckons the sound of a Rick 12 by itself is "thuddy" and without much of a ring, but he recalls how the engineer at Columbia, Ray Gerhardt, would run compressors on everything to protect the studio's precious equipment from loud rock'n'roll, and this technique alerted Roger to the way a compressor could benefit his 12-string sound. "That's what gave me my jingle-jangle tone," he says. "Kind of squashed down, but it would jump out of the radio."

In February '66, Roger modified Number 1. He asked Rickenbacker to add a third pickup, giving the look of the firm's model 370/12, and also had them install controls in a new layout he'd designed. The rewired result had three knobs in a curving line (a volume for each of the three pickups), one knob above (master volume), and two selectors (a three-way selecting each pickup and a tone-option switch).

Roger enhanced the sound of his guitar on-stage by adding a Vox V806 Treble Booster, a small box designed to sit between guitar and amp and provide what Vox described as "super extra glass-shattering treble." He learned about the gain increase the Vox box could provide from Jefferson Airplane's guitarist Paul Kantner, another keen Rick 12 fan. Roger added a small flick-switch to turn the booster on and off, situated next to the selectors in his revised control layout.

Roger playing Rickenbacker Number 2 at the Fillmore East, 1970

Unfortunately, Roger lost Number 1. "It was while we were performing at a college in New York," he remembers, "and I think I borrowed a fireglo 360/12 until I could replace the first one with another 'rounded' mapleglo model, in 1966. I also added a Vox treble booster to that one, and it became my main guitar." (Number 1 turned up later and was sold to the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen's enterprise in Seattle known today as the Museum Of Pop Culture.)

McGuinn's guitar in fireglo—Rickenbacker's name for its red finish—seems to have been a brief stopgap, a 360/12 with regular features that he got in early '66. In June that year, he acquired what we'll call Number 2, a new mapleglo Rick three-pickup 370/12 that replaced Number 1. Again, he asked for his special custom control layout. He used Number 2 from then until early 1971, playing it on a further sequence of great recordings and concerts.

Roger playing "Lost Broadcasts" with Rickenbacker Number 3

He replaced that roadworn guitar with another custom-wired 370/12, Number 3, which Rickenbacker made for him in June 1970. (Number 2 also surfaced later and was sold at an auction at the Dallas Guitar Show in 2004. Roger has Number 3, which at some point was modified back to a regular control layout, and he says it is “currently on loan to Marty Stuart”.) Roger had a few other Ricks at the time: he acquired a 1970 12-string "lightshow" guitar with slanted frets, Rickenbacker's model 341/12SF, and a few years later he got a model 362 six-and-12-string double-neck.

The Byrds had a Fender electric 12-string, too, the solidbody Electric XII model, which Roger says he used occasionally in the studio. You can see Gene Clark playing it during a rather fuzzy YouTube clip of one of the group's early TV performances of "Mr Tambourine Man," with Roger and his Rick 12 (Number 1) alongside. How odd for the group's tambourine man to play guitar on this of all songs. Or perhaps that was an in-joke?

Jump forward almost two decades, and Roger's signature-model Rickenbacker appeared in 1988, a 370/12 with new-style rounded-front body, in a limited edition of 1,000.

"When Rickenbacker's president John Hall called me to ask if I would be interested in participating in a limited-edition signature series, I was delighted," Roger says. "He asked what I wanted in my guitar. My first request was for an electronic compressor circuit to give my live performances the sound that we'd gotten on the Byrds records."

His other request on the signature guitar was for a 12-saddle bridge, a first for Rickenbacker.

Jump to today, and Roger will be playing one of his signature Rickenbacker 370/12RME1 guitars for the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo shows, alongside fellow founder Byrd Chris Hillman and backed by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. "Yes, I'll be using my Rickenbacker signature model," Roger confirms. "Chris will play his Martin signature guitar, and Marty will be playing Clarence White's B-Bender Tele." Sounds like the Sweetheart gigs should be a real treat for guitar fans—even before these guys play a note.

More on the McGuinn/Hillman/Stuart Sweetheart Of The Rodeo tour dates came be found here.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Rickenbacker Electric 12-String, The Bass Book, and The Gretsch Electric Guitar Book. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.


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