Before Roger McGuinn took off with his band the Byrds in the mid-1960s, soaring up the charts with hits including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Eight Miles High,” McGuinn was a Chicago folkie, a young kid plunking away on the – in his words – “totally unplayable” Harmony guitar that he got for his 14th birthday.
At least that’s the picture most people have of McGuinn (then called Jim). Nope, first McGuinn was a young wannabe rocker.
“I liked Elvis and Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins, but then I saw [folksinger] Bob Gibson play at my high school,” said McGuinn, 72, by phone from his home in Orlando. “He played five-string banjo, did a lot of intricate fingerpicking, and told stories. He’d start off all the songs with a description of what the song was about and where it came from. I found that fascinating, and I wanted to do that. It was like what happened when I saw Elvis, and I wanted to be like Elvis. But I kind of graduated from that and went into the folk thing, and then my music teacher steered me over to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and that was it for me.”
After some stints with the folk groups the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, McGuinn, who had become proficient on guitar, started playing with Bobby Darin when the pop star added a folk side to his repertoire. Then living in New York, McGuinn packed up his guitar and headed to Los Angeles, played solo at hootenannies and clubs, often covering Beatles songs, then became acquainted with singer-writer Gene Clark and singer-writer-guitarist David Crosby, the first members of what would become the Byrds.
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