The Byrds performed primarily from 1964 to 1973, with the bulk of their commercial success occurring in the first few years of the band’s existence. Even so, they were considered pioneers of folk rock and important figures in the establishment of country rock and psychedelic rock. They were also important in the creation of raga rock, a subgenre known for using the sitar and other Indian instruments. In short, while they may have not been one of the most successful bands on a commercial level, they influenced the music industry in a huge way during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Some of the band’s contributions to the world of folk rock were actually based on their cover versions of other musicians’ songs. Not the least of these was “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan. Some have even said that the Byrds helped to spur Dylan’s early success by popularizing this song. While their version was a cover, it was also fairly original.
The band’s front man, Jim McGuinn, played the song on a twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. McGuinn was originally a banjo player, and he brought this skill to the table by picking each of the twelve strings with his fingers rather than strumming as on a traditional guitar. The band was also known for David Crosby’s rhythm guitar, Chris Hillman’s bass, and Michael Clarke’s drums. Each of the band’s members provided vocals to varying degrees, while member Gene Clark provided both vocals and tambourine. Together, they released a number of now-classic songs such as “Eight Miles High,” “Ballad of Easy Rider,” “The Bells of Rhymney” and “Chestnut Mare.”
Part of the band’s unique and influential sound can be credited to the band that each of them had a fairly different musical background. McGuinn was primarily a folk musician, having also played with Bobby Darin for a time. David Crosby had a fairly similar folk background, having primarily played in coffeehouses. Chris Hillman was a bluegrass musician, which certainly added to the band’s influence on country rock. Gene Clark’s primary former experience was credited to a group known as the New Christy Minstrels. They all had their own folk styles, but none of them had been formally acquainted with rock and roll. Yet when they got together, rock music was their primary endeavor.
The Byrds influenced a number of bands during the height of their career. Bob Dylan’s foray into the use of electric instrumentation was largely influenced by the Byrds. George Harrison of the Beatles has cited them as an influence as well. They also had an impact on bands such as the Eagles, the Smiths, R.E.M., and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The Byrds also had a likely influence on Gram Parsons, who played rhythm guitar and piano with the band in 1968.
Some bands are known for their mainstream success, but the Byrds never quite got there. Instead, they are known for their incredible impact on other musicians as well as on the music industry at large. Without the Byrds, many subgenres now considered to be practically vital to the world of rock and roll would simply not exist.
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