Why Roger McGuinn Loves Rickenbacker Guitars: Exclusive Interview
As the Byrds said in 1967, if you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, “Just get an electric guitar, then take some time and learn how to play.”
For many budding artists in the 60s, the electric guitar of choice was a Rickenbacker, which the Beatles popularized with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. John Lennon slung a Rickenbacker in 1964; George Harrison also frequently used one on tour, effectively cementing the Rickenbacker as the guitar for budding rockers. Since then, few instruments have held such an iconic place in rock music history as the Rickenbacker guitar. It’s instantly recognizable by seasoned musicians and casual fans alike, thanks to its distinct shape and searing Fireglo finish.
The Rickenbacker had a fascinating history before the Beatles, as recounted in the recently released book Rickenbacker Guitars: From the Frying Pan to the Fireglo by Martin and Paul Kelly. (The couple also authored 2010s Fender: The Golden Age 1946-1970.) The evolution of the instrument, from initial design plans to its place on the international rock ‘n’ roll scene, is chronicled inside the book.
“Electronic music and popular culture have evolved simultaneously and it’s something that has always fascinated me – how technology has enabled musicians and how musicians have helped push that technology forward,” Martin Kelly told UCR . “It changed our world. Cutting 90 years of history into a 330-page book was certainly a challenge, but I’m happy with the result.”
From the frying pan in the Fireglo also includes sections dedicated to artists who introduced the sight and sound of the Rickenbackers to the general public, such as Lennon and Harrison, but also Tom Petty, Paul Weller, Susanna Hoffs, Johnny Marr, Geddy Lee, Rock Buck and probably the instrument’s biggest fan, Roger McGuinn. The Byrds co-founder first saw Rickenbackers used by the Beatles in A hard day’s Night. He had seen the film with his bandmates, who had all fallen in love with the idea of becoming real rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
“When we came out of the theater, David Crosby was swinging around a lamppost like Gene Kelly in Sing in the rain saying, “That’s what I want to do, that’s awesome!” “, recalls McGuinn in the book. At the time, Gibson and Fender were the most popular brands available. Rickenbacker was still fairly obscure, but Harrison’s 12-string, in particular, caught McGuinn’s attention. “George used it in a really cool way – he played melodic lines up and down the G string. I thought it was really effective, great sound.”
Watch The Beatles Perform “A Hard Day’s Night”
McGuinn traded in a few more guitars for his first Rickenbacker, and he was hooked from the start. “Tim Dixon, our first manager asked me to describe the sound of it,” McGuinn told UCR. “And I said it was like a uranium isotope in a toffee ball.”
With McGuinn’s help, the guitar grew from a fairly obscure American brand into a coveted instrument the world over. McGuinn frequently used his 12-string Rickenbacker on Byrds’ songs, lending an air of light, airy charm to classics like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “eight miles high” and “Round! Round! Round!“Within a few years, it would be hard to tear the folk rock sound of Laurel Canyon from the rattle of a 12-string Rickenbacker.
The influence of the Beatles will come full circle in 1965. Harrison rubber core the track “If I Needed Someone” was, as McGuinn was informed by Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, directly inspired by The Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney”.
“We all lived in Laurel Canyon and [Taylor] came to my house with this reel-to-reel tape…a little three-inch reel of tape,” McGuinn recalled. Bells of Rhymney.”…I couldn’t believe it. It was such an honor.”
Listen to The Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney”
Years later, the pair would spend time together at Harrison’s Friar Park estate, where Harrison brought out the same Rickenbacker he had used on A hard day’s Night.
In many ways, says Kelly, the visibility of the Rickenbacker – on television or on famous album covers, like Petty’s To hell with the torpedoes – is a huge reason why the instrument stuck. “The players’ association has been a big part of Rickenbacker’s success and longevity. When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll and pop culture, image is everything,” he says, noting that after the appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan ShowRickenbacker’s CEO, FC Hall, was savvy enough to travel to New York to meet the band and provide them with more instruments.
“[McGuinn] was the first American player to really put Rickenbacker on the map, and his endorsement led Mike Campbell and Tom Petty to pick Ricks,” Kelly explains. “The baton has always passed from Radiohead to younger players like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!“
For guitar aficionados, there’s a lot of technical discussion in From the frying pan in the Fireglo, but the book isn’t just for gear geeks. “You don’t have to be a painter to appreciate art, and you don’t have to be a guitarist to appreciate Rickenbacker’s book,” Kelly notes. “As objects, Rickenbacker guitars are works of art, but the book is as much about the music and the musicians who played them as it is about the guitars themselves.”
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