SAN DIEGO — So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star/ Then listen now to what I say/ Just get an electric guitar/ Then take some time and learn how to play ...
Chris Hillman was just 21 in 1966 when he co-wrote the classic "So You Want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" with Roger McGuinn for their now-legendary band, The Byrds. It became the fifth of seven consecutive Top 40 hits for the Los Angeles-based group, which — in a dizzying period of barely three years — helped launch folk-rock, raga-rock, psychedelic-rock and country-rock.
"I don't think we planned anything. We made two albums a year, starting in 1965, and our music just went into these different places," said Hillman, 75, whose candid, no-nonsense memoir, "Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond," was published Nov. 17 by BMG Books.
"It was wonderful because The Byrds developed this great sound out of nowhere," continued the veteran singer and multi-instrumentalist, who grew up in Rancho Sante Fe in the 1940s and 1950s. "We didn't have a blueprint."
As for the guitar Hillman learned to play before he became a star — and, in 1991, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee — it was an acoustic, not an electric.
He and his mother found it in a shop in Tijuana when he was 15. She paid the $10 price and promised her son that, if he stuck with the instrument for a full year, she would pay half the cost for him to acquire a better guitar. These were likely the best investments either of them ever made.
A year later, the self-taught Hillman moved up to a Goya acoustic that cost $100. It was followed by a used Epiphone, for which he paid $50. After becoming hooked on bluegrass, via albums by Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, Hillman bought a new Kay mandolin at Singing Strings in Encinitas.
As he had first done with guitar, he learned to play mandolin by listening to his favorite albums, over and over, at a slower speed than they were recorded. While attending San Dieguito High School, he found an invaluable musical mentor in Bill Smith, a custodian who was well-versed in nearly all things bluegrass.
"Billy was fantastic," Hillman said, speaking recently from the Ventura home he shares with his wife of 41 years, Connie. "I still feel blessed to have met people who were always pointing a way, a direction, for me and saying: 'Why don't you try doing it this way'?"
By 17, Hillman was a member of top San Diego bluegrass band The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, with which he would record his first album a few years later. His life would never be the same again.