Monday, November 12, 2012

Electric 12-String: Mr. Tambourine Man

In the 50s and 60s (and to an extent today), the record label often retained creative control over new artists and required session musicians to record the studio tracks. That’s what happened with The Byrds’ first single release “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Although the band had learned the tune from a Bob Dylan acetate provided by Dylan’s publisher M. Witmark & Sons Music, they were not originally impressed with the tune; however, it would be come a #1 hit for The Byrds.

In time, they developed their own arrangement of the song (which Dylan actually gave his seal of approval) and cut a number of demos of it and other songs. You can hear these early recordings on the Preflyte album which was released by Together Records in 1969.

Columbia later reissued the album in 1973 and several other labels have released versions of the album and other early tracks over the years. I bought my copy in the early 70s and it is a little rough, but there are some gems on it; however, their original demo recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was not one of them.


I don’t think Roger McGuinn (known as Jim McGuinn in those days) played an electric 12-string on this demo as it sounds more like an acoustic 12-string guitar – but it may be his Rickenbacker 360/12 without the compression that created the jangly sound so familiar to The Byrds’ recordings.

On January 20, 1965, The Byrds entered the Columbia Records studio to record their rendition of Dylan’s tune. Producer Terry Melcher had doubts about the musicianship of the band and hired a session group called The Wrecking Crew to perform the majority of the instrumental tracks. McGuinn was the only member of The Byrds who played on both sides of the single. McGuinn, who sang lead, was joined by Gene Clark and David Crosby on harmonies. Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke did not appear on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

McGuinn played a mapleglo finish Rickenbacker 360/12 – the same model as George Harrison (although a different finish). He would later add a third pickup to his guitar which inspired Rickenbacker to create the 370/12 – known and the Roger McGuinn model. His playing style is a combination of flat-picking and finger picking. He holds the flat pick with his thumb and forefinger and wears metal finger picks on the middle and ring fingers.

This style allows him to play melody and accompaniment simultaneously and allows him to mimic banjo rolls as well. This style is especially noticeable on “Turn, Turn, Turn.” His jangly style was born in this session as the engineer compressed his guitar to prevent over-driving the equipment.

This technique produced what is now known as the distinctive Roger McGuinn sound. From that day, McGuinn has compressed the guitar’s output to get that unique jangly 12-string electric sound. The line of the song, “In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you” became prophetic, and the rest they say is history.

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