Thursday, December 09, 2010

Guitar Workshop:
Roger McGuinn and Folk-Rock Plugged-In

For a few years, right up until 2004, I was playing the guitar a lot, and had at the time been more in touch with the electric side than with the acoustic. I had made some inroads with cajun and zydeco bands that came up from Louisiana. Sometimes I joined them for performances, but mostly it was limited to house parties and midnight jams.

It was at those late-night sessions, armed with my Fernandes Nomad, that I developed a certain kind of sound to accompany the covers that we'd drift into, one after the other. A major influence of that sound was Roger McGuinn, the founding member and guiding light for The Byrds. With a lineup that, at any given time, included prolific songwriter Gene Clark, pioneering country-rockers Chris Hillman and Gene Parsons, bluegrass guitar legend Clarence White, and best known of all, David Crosby (who later teamed up with Stills, Nash, and occasionally Young), the band pioneered an electric folk-rock sound, which at first defied convention. It wasn't accepted by the "Hootenanny" crowd, and was a bit cerebral for teen magazine readers who swooned over The Beatles. But McGuinn, and by extension The Byrds, made their mark on rock and roll history.

In the first video clip (above), McGuinn explains the discovery of his signature sound. It starts with a 12-string Rickenbacker electric, similar to the one first used by George Harrison ("If I Needed Someone," 1966). Then he incorporates classic banjo rolls, even using metal fingerpicks to brighten the sound, creating a series of triplets. The result consists in large part of sixteen beats to four bars going like this:

| 1-2-3-1 | 2-3-1-2 | 3-1-2-3 | strum-and-strum-and |... so on.

In the second clip, McGuinn shows this technique up close and personal, with the group's 1966 Billboard Number One hit “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season).” In the third clip is a band we mentioned yesterday
with a guitar sound reminiscent of McGuinn, Gin Blossoms, doing their 1993 Billboard hit, "Until I Fall Away."

Now, I know what is on the minds of everybody: “Yo, Mister Black Hat Dude, why did you stop playing regularly? You coulda been somebody. You coulda been a contender!”

Yeah, I know the feeling.

There were two main factors. One was when I began studies in web design at the Art Institute, and found the work so time-consuming, that at least one thing had to go. But the other was a bit more poignant. The bands I hung with loved having me around. The promoters were another story. I'd get chased away sometimes, on the premise that folks came to see what they called "the authentic Louisiana experience." Apparently frustrated, middle-aged white women knew better what this amounts to, than Acadians and Creoles who were actually from Louisiana. * Eventually I had to back off, and that was a bit discouraging. I know it shouldn't have been, but at the time ...

Fortunately, if you play for many years, it's like riding a bike, and I keep thinking of getting back on again. You don't go into high gear right away though.

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* For what it's worth, most of the musicians in the zydeco genre are African-American or Creole (French-speaking of Afro-Caribbean origin), and one wonders if patronizing certain cultures can be a subtle form of racism, like keeping a modern minstrel show on the payroll, and in character. Ah, 'tis another story for another day ...

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