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After The Byrds broke up in 1973, Roger maintained an electric band until 1981, and then began performing solo and has been ever since. Now in his mid-sixties, Roger and Camilla, his wife/road manager, tour in a well-equipped van carrying only the essentials: several guitars, a banjo, and a few electronic devices (he’s always been a lover of gadgetry and collects vintage transistor radios) along with their personal belongings. McGuinn picks and chooses his gigs carefully, avoiding outdoor shows, clubs, bars and church venues. He continues to sell out shows wherever he plays—no simple feat for this folk/rock survivor and member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I questioned Roger extensively about a possible reformation of The Byrds. Although some of that conversation remains on the cutting room floor, McGuinn’s position is clear. He has no interest in putting the Byrds back together.
Let’s start by discussing your current stage equipment. What are you using right now?
All the guitars I use are signature models, such as the Rickenbacker 370/12/RM— similar to a triple pickup 370—a Martin D12-42/RM and Martin HD-7, the seven string model Martin designed with input from me. I also use a banjo that I got from Bernie Leadon, formerly of The Eagles, and in return I gave him a new Fender Mastertone banjo. It’s a combination of old Vega and Ode banjo parts. It’s one of the best banjos I’ve ever played. I took it to Pete Seeger’s house recently and he played it and gave it his stamp of approval.
You are most closely associated with the Rickenbacker 12-string. Would you tell us how you came to use that guitar in the early days of The Byrds? Also, what that guitar has meant to you as your sonic “signature” over the years?
We went as a group to see A Hard Day’s Night multiple times and were totally taken with The Beatles. I liked George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 12, but I couldn’t find one that looked like his with the pointy cutaways, so I bought the blonde 360 model. I thought it was beautiful, like a golden palomino and the checkerboard binding reminded me of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. I loved that guitar and played it eight hours a day.
It was later stolen and I discovered that it was auctioned off in England for over $100,000. Given the statute of limitations and the difficulty in dealing with laws in a foreign country, there wasn’t much I could do, even though I considered myself the legal and rightful owner.
Your sound has always been marked by the use of compression on the Rick 12. You used to record directly into the board. What brand of compressor was it?
I don’t know what they used in the Columbia Studios, but I do know they were tube-driven. Using compression was the idea of Ray Gerhardt, one of the house engineers at Columbia. They had no experience working with rock n’ roll bands and were scared we’d blow out their equipment, so they used compression in an attempt to protect themselves! I know they were very nervous about recording us. [Author’s Note: Ray Gerhardt was an award-winning engineer, famed for his work on records by Percy Faith and other easy listening artists of the day.]
How did you recreate your compressed studio tone onstage back in the days when stompboxes were in their infancy?
I never did. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who also played a Rickenbacker 12, turned me on to the Vox Treble Booster in 1966. I took the Rick apart and installed it in the guitar. It really was an outboard box that gave me some gain, but no compression. Later, we got a rack compressor that we used on gigs, but in the early days, I couldn’t get compression onstage until we got that rack. I tried all the compressors available, including the Dyna-Comp and the Boss, but didn’t like any of them. Not until Rickenbacker designed my signature guitar with the built-in compressor, did I find one that worked for me.
Were you involved in the design of your onboard compressor?
No, an engineer from Rickenbacker designed it. He left shortly after and went to work for Fender, I think. John Hall could tell you who he was. [Author’s Note: See John Hall sidebar.]
When Rickenbacker stopped producing your signature guitar, that compressor was discontinued along with the guitar. I’m surprised they never marketed a stompbox version of it.
It was the best sounding compressor I ever used until the Janglebox came along. I suppose it was because Rickenbacker is not in the effects business. I did the entire Back From Rio album with that Rick compressor. The Janglebox is now the bestsounding compressor on the market in my opinion—I use it all the time. It’s clean and quiet, and it sounds very close to the built-in one I have in the 370/12/RM. As far as that guitar goes, they produced a thousand and sold every one. John Hall won’t reissue it because he wants to keep the collectible mystique alive, I suppose, but I wish he would reissue it.