BYRDS LEGEND ROGER MCGUINN HAS ALWAYS
had a knack for blending the old with the new.
He artfully married traditional folk stylings
with Beatles-approved rock and catapulted
tunes such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr.
Tambourine Man” to the top of the charts. He
teamed up with Gram Parsons and Clarence
White and created a seminal country-rock
album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And for the
past 14 years, McGuinn has been doing his
part to keep classic folk music alive and kicking
with his Folk Den Project, where each
month he records a tune and posts it on his
website for free download. Now he’s taking
that one step further by lending his tracks
to kompoz.com—a musical collaboration
site—where fans can add their own parts,
with the winning composition chosen by
McGuinn himself. He’s basically still the
same guy who got his start playing folk songs
in coffeehouses, only now the coffeehouse
has wi-fi access and laptops with digital audio
Talk about the inspiration for the Folk Den Project
and how it has evolved over the years.
I started it back in 1995 out of a concern
that the folk catalog was being neglected in
favor of the singer-songwriter. It was just
cooler to be a singer-songwriter, and you can
make more money if you publish and write
your own songs. There wasn’t the same kind
of appreciation for the old folk songs that
there had been and I thought somebody
needed to do something to spark it a little.
The internet had just kind of opened up to
civilians and I thought it was a great way to
publish things and get them around the
world. I started recording the songs at home
and putting them up for free downloads.
Back then we didn’t have mp3s, so I put up
11khz 8-bit WAV files. It took a while to
download but it sounded okay. I went to Real
Audio and then finally to mp3s.
How do you go about choosing the songs?
I know a lot of the songs from the Old
Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where
I studied as a teenager. There’s also a site
called Mudcat Café, a traditional folk song
database. They have about 8000 songs there
and sometimes even have little MIDI files
of the songs and the lyrics. I choose them at
random, whatever pops into my head.
How elaborate are your arrangements?
Not super elaborate. I’ll put down a
scratch track, then vocal, guitar, banjo, maybe
mandolin, and then harmonies. Lately I’ve
been adding my Rickenbacker to some tunes,
and some people really like that. I don’t do
anything as a rule, I just do whatever comes
Folk music has a tradition of adaptation. Do
you adapt the songs you post on the Folk Den Project?
Yes. Charles Seeger, Pete’s father, came
up with the term the “folk process” to
describe how folk songs get passed on from
one generation to another through the oral
tradition. The song will change and you’ll
end up with 50 or 60 different versions,
which is really fascinating. I adapted an old
song called “The Colorado Trail” that I
learned at the Old Town School. My wife
Camilla and I changed the lyrics to reflect
our experience of the road.
Will you change up the chords as well?
Sometimes. I did that with Pete Seeger’s
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” He put that together
from the book of Ecclesiastes. His version
just had D, G, and A and I put in the passing
chords, the F#m and Em. I completely
rewrote it and the last time he published it
he used my arrangement because he said he
Is it tough to strike a balance between respecting
tradition and putting your own stamp on a
Yeah, it is. You run the risk of having the
old guard criticize you but I was never really
worried about that. The Byrds ruffled a lot
of feathers. I remember Tom Paxton wrote
an article for Sing Out magazine called “Folk
Rot,” and he thought we were being disrespectful
to the tradition. But a few years later
he was doing folk rock and so was everyone
else. I was always on the periphery of folk
music and never front and center like Bob
Dylan or Pete Seeger. I was a session musician
in New York, so I felt like I had nothing
to lose by violating the traditional side of
folk music. Folk music as it stood back in
’65 was starting to wear a little thin and was
over-commercialized, specifically because of
the Hootenanny show. Then the Beatles came
out and it seemed natural to put that together
with the Bob Dylan thing. I saw the niche
there. In fact, I tried to sound like a cross
between John Lennon and Bob Dylan on “Mr.
Tambourine Man.” I was really going for that.
You got your classic jingle jangle tone by running
your Rickenbacker 12-string direct and using
the studio’s tube compressors. How did you replicate
that tone live?
We really couldn’t. The compressors we
used in the studio were big and clunky. We
didn’t ever really think to buy them and put
them onstage. What I did was take the guts
out of a Vox treble booster and mount it
under the pickguard of the Rickenbacker. It
just increased the sustain a little. It didn’t
get that compressed sound from the studio.
I was never able to do it until Rickenbacker
made the signature model that I had the compression
built into. They custom designed a
compressor for it based on the Byrds recordings.
It sounded really good. I’ve also used a
pedal called the Jangle Box, but lately I haven’t
been using anything. I’ve just been going
straight into the board and using whatever
compressor they have in there.
You’re doing a collaborative songwriting contest
for kompoz.com. What do you look for in a
I’ve never done it this way before, but I’ll
be looking for tracks that complement the
song. The tune is “Take This Hammer,” an
old prison work song. Because it’s for the
Folk Den, I want to keep it in the traditional
realm—no wild synthesizers or anything. I
imagine people are going to play it straight
but there might be a couple of wild ones out
there and I wouldn’t kick them out if they’re
It seems like a contradiction: You’re the keeper
of the traditional folk flame, but you’re doing it
with cutting-edge technology.
When Alan Lomax went around recording
in the Appalachians in the ’30s, he had
the latest technology too. It was a disc
recorder/record player. I’m applying the same
principle, with a MacBook Pro running Pro