From 1965 until their breakup in 1973, the Byrds were a bona-fide guitar powerhouse.
During the California band’s initial—and most popular—incarnation, Jim McGuinn turned the 12-string Rickenbacker 360 guitar into an institution. Its glorious trademark “chiming” sound actually became the band’s trademark sound—a sound that even inspired the Beatles when they were at the height of their fame.
McGuinn’s 12-string Rick remained the band’s calling card until 1967. As the years went by and the hits piled up—”Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Eight Miles High,” “My Back Pages,” “Chestnut Mare” and beyond—the band’s original lineup—Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Mike Clarke—went their separate ways, leaving McGuinn to pilot the plane himself.
Luckily, a true guitar legend was waiting in the wings: Clarence White.
A master of chops-busting bluegrass guitar, White, who initially recorded with the band as a session guitarist and became a full member in 1968, intertwined his formidable fingerpicking, flatpicking and hybrid-picking technique on his Tele with the use of a device he helped invent (with Gene Parsons), the Parsons-White StringBender, which allowed him to recreate pedal steel guitar licks with stunning accuracy.
It also should be noted that three members of the Byrds—White, McGuinn and Chris Hillman—have (or have had) their own signature model guitars. This, I assure you, is uncommon.
If you’d like to find out more about White, be sure to check out Ode to the Original B-Bender, Clarence White of The Byrds and Kentucky Colonels.
Below, we take a look at 10 of the band’s greatest guitar moments, taking the band’s entire official output—including recently released live albums—into consideration. The songs are presented in no particular order. Enjoy!
Editor’s Note: Even though Roger McGuinn went by his birth name, Jim McGuinn, prior to 1967, we refer to him as only as Roger throughout this story.
(Untitled) | 1970 | Main Guitarists: Roger McGuinn, Clarence White
Although it’s not the first track that comes to when when assembling a list of the Byrds’ finest guitar tracks, “Chestnut Mare,” an epic song about one tenacious man’s quest to capture a very special horse (so special that “she’ll be just like a wife”), is actually a perfect choice.
It combines McGuinn’s trademark electric 12-string picking with White’s top-notch acoustic work—with a bit of White’s electric B-bender Tele thrown in for good measure. The guitars, which—let’s face it—are everywhere on this track, are the canvas on which the song’s story is so vibrantly painted; perhaps the guitar high point is the fine interplay between McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and White’s Martin during the song’s emotional breakdown section.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”
Turn! Turn! Turn! | 1965 | Main Guitarist: Roger McGuinn
Live at the Fillmore—February 1969 | 2000 | Main Guitarist: Clarence White
Feel free to argue, but if you had to choose one album that best demonstrates White’s electric-guitar prowess, it’d be Live at the Fillmore—February 1969. The musicians on the album are McGuinn on his 12-string Rickenbacker 360, Gene Parsons on drums, John York on bass and White on his B-Bender Tele. He never puts it down, so there’s no escaping it.
Simply put, the most impressive guitar track on the album is the band’s cover of Buck Owens’ killer-catchy instrumental, “Buckaroo,” which finally exists on YouTube. White opens up his bag of B-bender licks and never closes it. Even his mistakes sound good, like the random open note at :32. Play this one good ‘n’ loud!
“The Bells of Rhymney”
Mr. Tambourine Man | 1965 | Main Guitarist: Roger McGuinn
Although the Beatles were rock’s foremost trendsetters, they still were influenced by other artists.
Case in point: George Harrison’s 12-string riff on “If I Needed Someone.” Played in a second-position D-chord shape with a capo on the seventh fret, the line was based on McGuinn’s shimmering guitar work in the mesmerizing 1965 track “The Bells of Rhymney,” which you can hear below.
All McGuinn really had to go on was Pete Seeger’s version of the song, which was based on a poem by Welshman Idris Davies. While Seeger also played the song on a 12-string, and even embellished the solo portion with brilliant, out-of-nowhere minor chords, McGuinn took simply it to new heights.
In the mid-Sixties, Harrison and McGuinn had formed a mutual-admiration society: “If I Needed Someone” featured Harrison’s second Rickenbacker 360/12, a rounded-off 1965 model that resembled McGuinn’s 1964 Rickenbacker 360/12, which McGuinn bought after seeing Harrison’s first Rick in A Hard Day’s Night.
“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo | 1968 | Main Guitarists: Lloyd Green, Clarence White
Yes, we’re bending (that’s a play on words) the rules and including a pedal steel guitar performance on this list. The studio version of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a cover of a Basement Tapes-era Bob Dylan tune, features a stunning performance by Nashville pedal steel legend Lloyd Green. His tone is actually a bit confusing, because it sounds like a guitar (I thought it was a guitar for years when I was a young’n).
We’re also included a live version of the song (second video) featuring White’s B-bender spin on Lloyd’s original pedal steel part. This 1968 TV appearance puts the emphasis on White, his still-Nudie-sticker-free Fender Telecaster and his Parsons/White StringBender (not to mention some fine-looking Sixties women).
“Black Mountain Rag”/”Soldier’s Joy”
Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971 | 2008 | Main Guitarist: Clarence White
Meet Clarence White, the bluegrass shredder. Before joining the Byrds, White was blowing minds (including the mind of Doc Watson) as a member of the Kentucky Colonels.
His brilliant acoustic flatpicking, which incorporated lightning-fast fiddle lines played on a vintage Martin D-28, helped the bluegrass world recognize the guitar as a lead instrument. Several masters of the genre, including Tony Rice and Norman Blake, even site him as a key influence.
After the Colonels he became a session player in Los Angeles (even playing on several Byrds albums before officially joining the band in mid-1968). Through his time with the Byrds, this high-octane bluegrass medley stood out as a high point at the band’s shows.
Note that the version below is not the recommended Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971 version (which isn’t available on YouTube), but it’s pretty much just as good—and it even shows him in action, which is a rarity.
“Lover of the Bayou”
(Untitled) | 1970 | Main Guitarist: Clarence White
“Eight Miles High”
Fifth Dimension | 1966 | Main Guitarist: Roger McGuinn
“We started out with the folky thing, mixing Dylan and Pete Seeger with the Beatles, then we dabbled in a bit of jazz fusion with ‘Eight Miles High,’ which was misconstrued as psychedelic.” McGuinn told Uncut earlier this year. “It wasn’t meant to be, but it was branded that way.”
“‘Eight Miles High’ is out there,” McGuinn adds. “It’s spatial. I was trying to emulate Coltrane’s saxophone with my Rickenbacker. It’s got a lot of what Coltrane was going for on ‘India,’ which was to capture the elephants in India with his wails, and there’s that tabla beat. He was trying to incorporate Indian music into jazz, and we were trying to incorporate his attempts to do that into a rock’n’roll song. So there’s a lot of things going on.”
“Sing Me Back Home”
Live at the Fillmore—February 1969 | 2000 | Main Guitarist: Clarence White
If you read the “Buckaroo” entry above, you already know about em>Live at the Fillmore—February 1969, which gets my vote as the Byrds’ official “guitar album.” A few years ago, it even made Guitar World’s list the the best shred-guitar albums of all time.
Although I don’t think of White as a shredder (except for when he played bluegrass), he certainly works his way toward “shred country” on the Fillmore version of this Merle Haggard tune, which also was a favorite of former Byrd Gram Parsons.
It’s another B-bender masterpiece that shows off White’s bouncy, psychedelic-cowboy style, complete with a brilliant turnaround at 1:24. It’s cool to hear the Fillmore crowd show their appreciation after the solo at 1:43, while McGuinn is already singing the song’s next verse.
“She Don’t Care About Time”
Non-album B-side of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” now included on Turn! Turn! Turn! | 1965 | Main Guitarist: Roger McGuinn
“She Don’t Care About Time,” one of many brilliant compositions by the Byrds’ Gene Clark, is known for its very early incorporation of classical music into popular music. Notice how McGuinn cleverly inserts a heaping helping of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” into his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar solo.
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. Fanelli, a former member of Brooklyn jump-blues/swing/rockabilly band the Gas House Gorillas and New York City instrumental surf-rock band Mister Neutron, also composes and records film soundtracks. He writes GuitarWorld.com’s The Next Bend column, which is dedicated to B-bender guitars and guitarists. His latest liner notes can be found in Sony/Legacy’s Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram.
The Byrds' 10 Greatest Guitar Moments
Source: Guitar World