The Byrds’ first single had failed to chart after its release the October before, and their manager, Jim Dickson, knew they needed something special to break through. He’d heard Dylan sing “Mr. Tambourine Man” live, but the song hadn’t been released yet, so Dickson got a copy of the acetate and pushed the Byrds to record it. None of them really liked it at first. Vocalist Gene Clark gave it a shot, but rhythm guitarist–vocalist David Crosby convinced him it wasn’t worth pursuing.
Lead guitarist Jim McGuinn resisted initially as well. Back when he was a folk singer in Greenwich Village, he knew Dylan, “but he was my enemy . . . I felt competitive. He had like twenty little girl fans and I didn’t so I was mad at him. I didn’t particularly dig his imitation of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot or Woody Guthrie. I thought, okay, anybody could get up there and do that. But he was sincere about it so he carried it. That’s why he made it, because he was sincere about everything he tried. And he used to play these trust games with all his friends back then. Like he’d tell me confidentially that he was really down and out and hooked on heroin—you know, a complete lie—just to see if it would get back to him. He was pretty weird.”
But McGuinn gave “Mr. Tambourine Man” a shot. He cut down the lyrics, focusing on the line about boot heels wandering because it made him think of the Beatles’ Cuban-heeled boots and Jack Kerouac wandering across America.13 They set it to the beat of Beatles and Phil Spector songs. The track needed some kind of intro, so McGuinn took eight notes from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
On January 20, five days after Dylan recorded his official version, the Byrds went into Columbia Records’ Los Angeles studio to record “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Their producer was Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day. Melcher decided that no one in the band except McGuinn was technically good enough to play their instruments on record yet, so he hired LA’s top session musicians to accompany McGuinn on guitar and lead vocals: Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on electric piano, and Larry Knechtel on bass. (Along with other musicians such as guitarist Glen Campbell and bassist Carol Kaye, these three formed the core of a loose-knit band of session musicians called the Wrecking Crew, which played on countless hits, including those by the Beach Boys and Phil Spector.) Clark and Crosby added their harmonies. Melcher tweaked the beat to imitate “Don’t Worry Baby,” the Beach Boys’ take on the Spector drums.
They wanted the guitar sound the Beatles had gotten on the Beatles for Sale cuts “What You’re Doing” and “Words of Love.” But Columbia’s engineers had not worked with rock musicians before, and were afraid McGuinn’s twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar would blow out their expensive equipment. So engineer Ray Gerhardt ran the guitar through a compressor, a mixing tool that lowered the loud audio signals but left the quieter ones untouched. Then to be safe, he double-compressed it – which ended up making the guitar sound especially trebly and bright, and allowed each note to sustain a few extra seconds. At the mixing board, they tweaked McGuinn’s vocals to sound like a cross between Lennon and Dylan.