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Rickenbacker Guitars

Updated on February 17, 2013

Rickenbacker

Rickenbacker International Corporation, also known as Rickenbacker, is an electric guitar manufacturer, notable for putting the world's first electric guitars into general production in 1932. All production takes place at its headquarters in Santa Ana, California.

Rickenbacker Frying Pan
Rickenbacker Frying Pan

Founding

The company was founded in 1931 as the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (ElectRo-Patent-Instruments) by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp in order to sell electric Hawaiian guitars. These instruments had been designed by Beauchamp, assisted at the National String Instruments Corporation by Paul Barth and Harry Watson. They chose the brand name Rickenbacher (later changed to Rickenbacker), though early examples bear the brand name Electro.

Nicknamed "frying pans" because of their long necks and circular bodies, the instruments were the first solid-bodied electric guitars, though they were a lap-steel type. They had pickups with a pair of horseshoe magnets that arched over the strings. By the time production ceased in 1939, several thousand "frying pans" had been produced.

Electro String also sold amplifiers to go with their electric guitars. A Los Angeles radio manufacturer named Van Nest designed the first Electro String production-model amplifier. Shortly thereafter, design engineer Ralph Robertson further developed the amplifiers, and by the 1940s at least four different Rickenbacker models were made available. James B. Lansing of the Lansing Manufacturing Company designed the speaker in the Rickenbacker professional model. During the early 1940s, Rickenbacker amps were sometimes repaired by Leo Fender, whose repair shop evolved into the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company.

Early History

Rickenbacker Electric Mandolin
Rickenbacker Electric Mandolin

George Beauchamp was a vaudeville performer, violinist, and steel guitarist who, like most of his fellow acoustic guitarists in the pre-electric-guitar days of the 1920s, was searching for a way to make his instrument cut through an orchestra. He first conceived of a guitar fitted with a phonograph-like amplifying horn, and approached inventor and violin-maker John Dopyera to create a prototype which proved to be, by all accounts, a failure. Their next collaboration involved experiments with mounting three conical-shaped aluminum resonators into the body of the guitar beneath the bridge. These efforts produced an instrument which so pleased Beauchamp that he told Dopyera that they should go into business to manufacture them. After further refinements, Dopyera applied for a patent on the so-called tri-cone guitar on April 9, 1927. Thereafter, Dopyera and his brothers began to make the tri-cone guitars in their Los Angeles shop, calling the new guitars "Nationals". On January 26, 1928, the National String Instrument Corporation was certified and, with its new factory located near a metal-stamping shop owned by Adolph Rickenbacher and staffed by some of the most experienced and competent craftsmen available, began to produce Spanish and Hawaiian style tri-cone guitars as well as four-string tenor guitars, mandolins and ukuleles.

Adolph Rickenbacher was born in Switzerland in 1886 and immigrated to the United States with relatives after the death of his parents. Sometime after moving to Los Angeles in 1918, he changed his surname to "Rickenbacker". This was done probably in order to avoid German connotations in light of the recently concluded First World War as well as to capitalize on Adolph's distant relation to World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. In 1925, Adolph Rickenbacker and two partners formed the Rickenbacker Manufacturing Company and incorporated it in 1927. By the time he met George Beauchamp and began manufacturing metal bodies for the "Nationals" being produced by the National String Instruments Corporation, Rickenbacker was a highly-skilled production engineer and machinist. Adolph soon became a shareholder in National and, with the assistance of his Rickenbacker Manufacturing Company, National was able to boost production to as many as fifty guitars a day.

Unfortunately, National's line of instruments was not well diversified and, as demand for the expensive and hard-to-manufacture tri-cone guitars began to slip, the company realized that it would need to produce instruments with a lower production cost if it was going to succeed against rival manufacturers. Dissatisfaction with what John Dopyera felt was mismanagement led him to resign from National in January 1929, and he subsequently formed the Dobro Manufacturing Corporation, later called Dobro Corporation, Ltd, and began to manufacture his own line of resonator-equipped instruments (dobros). Patent infringement disagreements between National and Dobro led to a lawsuit in 1929 with Dobro suing National for $2,000,000 in damages. Problems within National's management as well as pressure from the deepening Great Depression led to a production slowdown at National, and this ultimately resulted in part of the company's fractured management structure organizing support for George Beauchamp's newest project: the development of a fully electric guitar.

By the late twenties, the idea for electrified string instruments had been around for some time, and experimental banjo, violin and guitar pickups had been developed. George Beauchamp had himself been experimenting with electric amplification as early as 1925, but his early efforts involving microphones did not produce the effects he desired. Along the way Beauchamp also built a one-string test guitar made out of a 2X4 piece of lumber and an electric phonograph pickup. As the problems at National became more apparent, Beauchamp's home experiments took on a more rigorous shape, and he began to attend night classes in electronics as well as collaborating with fellow National employee Paul Barth. When the prototype electric pickup they were developing finally worked to his satisfaction, Beauchamp asked former National shop craftsman Harry Watson to make a wooden neck and body to which the electronics could be attached. It was nicknamed the frying pan because of its shape, though Adolph Rickenbacker liked to call it the pancake. The final design Beauchamp and Barth developed was an electric pickup consisting of a pair of horseshoe-shaped magnets that enclosed the pickup coil and completely surrounded the strings.

At the end of 1931, Beauchamp, Barth, Rickenbacker and with several other individuals banded together and formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (elektRO-PATent-INstruments) in order to manufacture and distribute electrically amplified musical instruments, with an emphasis upon their newly-developed A-25 Hawaiian Guitar, often referred to as the "Frying Pan" lap-steel electric guitar as well as an Electric Spanish (standard) model and companion amplifiers. In the summer of 1932, Ro-Pat-In began to manufacture cast aluminum production versions of the Frying Pan as well as a lesser number of standard Spanish Electrics built from wooden bodies similar to those made in Chicago for the National Company. These instruments constitute the origin of the electric guitar we know and use today by virtue of their string-driven electro-magnetic pick-ups. Not only that, but Ro-Pat-In was the first company in the world specifically created to manufacture electric instruments. In 1933 the Ro-Pat-In company's name was changed to Electro String Instrument Corporation and its instruments labeled simply as "Electro". In 1934 the name of Rickenbacher" was added in honor of the company's principal partner, Adolph Rickenbacker. In 1935 the company introduced several new models including the Model "B" Electric Spanish guitar which is considered the first solid body electric guitar. Because the original aluminum Frying Pans were susceptible to tuning problems from the expansion of the metal under hot performing lights, many of the new models were manufactured from cast Bakelite, an early synthetic plastic from which bowling balls are made.

Rickenbacker continued to specialize in steel guitars well into the 1950s, but with the rock and roll boom they shifted towards producing standard guitars, both acoustic and electric. In 1956, Rickenbacker introduced two instruments with the "neck through body" construction that was to become a standard feature of many of the company's products, including the Combo 400 guitar, the model 4000 bass, and, later, the 600 series.

In 1958, Rickenbacker introduced its "Capri" series, including the double-cutaway semi-acoustic guitars which would become the famous Rickenbacker 300 Series. In 1963 Rickenbacker developed an electric twelve-string guitar with an innovative headstock design that enabled all twelve machine heads to be fitted onto a standard-length headstock by alternately mounting pairs of machine heads at right-angles to the other.

John Lennon with his Rickenbacker 325
John Lennon with his Rickenbacker 325

Rickenbacker guitars and 1960s rock and roll

During the 1960s, Rickenbacker benefited tremendously when a couple of Rickenbacker guitar models became permanently intertwined with the sound and look of The Beatles.

In Hamburg in 1960, Beatles guitarist John Lennon bought a Rickenbacker 325 Capri, which he used throughout the early days of The Beatles. He eventually had the guitar's natural alder body refinished in black, and made other modifications including the fitting of a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece and regularly changing the control knobs. Lennon played this guitar for The Beatles' famous 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show (as well as for their third Sullivan appearance, pre-taped the same day but broadcast two weeks later). During Lennon's post-Beatles years in New York, this guitar was restored to its original natural wood finish and the cracked gold pick guard replaced with a white one.

Two new 325s were created for Lennon and were shipped to him while The Beatles were in Miami Beach, Florida, on the same 1964 visit to the US: a one-off custom 12-string 325 model and an updated 6-string model with modified electronics and vibrato. He used this newer 6-string model on The Beatles' sequentially "second" appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Lennon accidentally dropped the second 325 model during a 1964 Christmas show, breaking the headstock. While it was being repaired, Rickenbacker's UK distributor Rose Morris gave Lennon a model 1996 (the export version of a 325, available exclusively in a red finish and with an F-hole). Lennon later gave the 1996 to fellow Beatle Ringo Starr.

Beatles guitarist George Harrison bought a 425 during a brief visit to the USA in 1963. In February 1964, while in New York City, F.C. Hall of Rickenbacker met with the band and their manager, and gave Harrison a model 360/12 (the second electric twelve-string built by Rickenbacker). This instrument became a key part of the Beatles' sound on their LP A Hard Day's Night and other Beatles songs through late 1964. Harrison played this guitar sporadically throughout the remainder of his life.

In August 1965, during a Beatles concert tour, a Minnesota radio station presented Harrison with a second model 360/12 FG "New Style" 12-string electric guitar, distinguishable from Harrison's first 12-string by its rounded cutaways and edges. Harrison used this guitar on the song "If I Needed Someone" and during The Beatles' 1966 tours. This 12-string's whereabouts are unknown, as it was stolen at some point after the band ceased touring.

After the Beatles 1965 summer tour, Paul McCartney frequently used a left-handed 1964 4001S FG Rickenbacker bass, as its tone was better suited to recording than the lightweight Höfner basses he had used previously. The instrument became popular with other bassists influenced by his highly melodic style, as it produces a clear tone even when played high up the neck, its deep cutaways allowing easy access to the higher frets.

In 1967, McCartney gave his 4001 a psychedelic paint job, as seen in the promo film for Hello Goodbye, and in the Magical Mystery Tour film. A year or so later the finish was sanded off; a second over-zealous sanding in the early 1970s removed the "points" of the bass' cutaways. McCartney predominantly used the Rickenbacker bass during his time with Wings, until the late 1970s.

Partly because of the Beatles' popularity and their consistent use of the brand, Rickenbackers were quickly adopted by many other 1960s notables. The Byrds' Roger McGuinn, already a 12-string acoustic player, noticed Harrison's Rickenbacker in the film A Hard Day's Night and bought his own Rickenbacker 12-string shortly thereafter. Other contemporaries who frequently used Rickenbackers included Chris Squire of Yes, Mike Pender of The Searchers, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend of The Who, Pete Watson of The Action, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, Jerry McGeorge of the Shadows of Knight, Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Al Nichol of The Turtles and Steppenwolf.

As both the British invasion and the 1960s came to an end, Rickenbacker guitars fell somewhat out of fashion; however Rickenbacker basses remained highly in favor through the 1970s and on. Perhaps as an echo of the past, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rickenbacker guitars experienced a renaissance as many New Wave and jangle pop groups began to use them, with notable users including Tom Petty, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Marty Willson-Piper of The Church, Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, Paul Weller of The Jam, The Edge of U2, punk funkster Rick James (as pictured on the "Street Songs" album), The Smithereens, James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Pete Doherty of The Libertines, Chuck Sharp of Eight Miles High and Stan Cullimore of The Housemartins.

Rickenbacker guitars and basses continue to be very popular to this day with demand persistently and exponentially outstripping new factory supply. Demand is particularly high amongst retro groups who have been influenced by the sound and look of the 1960s.

Hallmarks of Rickenbackers

Rickenbacker 330
Rickenbacker 330

Many Rickenbackers — both guitars and basses — are equipped to be compatible with a "Rick-O-Sound" unit via an extra "stereo" output socket that allows the two pickups (or neck and middle pickup combined/bridge pickup, in the case of three pickup instruments) to be connected to different effects units or amplifiers. Another idiosyncrasy of Rickenbackers is the use of two truss rods (rather than the usual one) to correct twists, as well as curvature, in the neck.

Known for their distinctive jangle and chime, Rickenbacker guitars in general were equipped with lower-output "Toaster" pickups until they were phased out circa 1969-70. Hereafter, most Rickenbacker guitars were equipped with the newer design "Hi-Gain" pickups. In most cases, these pickups had twice the output of their illustrious predecessors. This change was almost certainly due to the trend toward the louder "Rock" sounds of the 1970s. Because of their tone, the guitars tended to be favoured by Jangle Pop, Power pop and British Invasion-style groups. In particular, the older "Toaster" pickup-equipped 12-string guitars have been associated with The Who, The Byrds and The Beatles among others.

In more recent years, a diverse cross-section of artists have started to favour Rickenbacker guitars. In 1979, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would adopt the Rickenbacker 12-string "toaster" jangle into their records and still use the vintage 1960s models. The post-1960s "Hi-gain" pickup-equipped guitars are associated with The Jam and REM. The "Hi-gain" pickups are well suited to harder spiky pop/rock sounds as well as the classic clean chime.

Rickenbacker 650
Rickenbacker 650

Pickups

Rickenbacker manufactures three distinct pickups for their current standard models: Hi-gain, Vintage Single Coil Toaster Top, and Humbucking. All three pickup designs share the same footprint, allowing them to retrofit into most current or vintage models. The tone varies from one style to the next, partially because of the types of magnets used but also due to the amount of wire wound around the pickup's bobbin.

Most models come with single-coil Hi-gain pickups as standard equipment. Many post-British invasion Rickenbacker players such as Peter Buck, Paul Weller, and Johnny Marr have used instruments with these pickups. Rickenbacker's humbucker/dual coil pickup has a similar tone to a Gibson P-90 pickup, and comes standard on the Rickenbacker 650 C. Vintage reissue models, and some signature models, come with Toaster Top pickups, which resemble a classic two-slotted chrome toaster. Despite their slightly lower output, "Toasters" produce a brighter, cleaner sound, and are generally seen as key to obtaining the true British Invasion guitar tone, as they were original equipment of the era.

In addition to the standard pickups, vintage reissue bass models are equipped with Horseshoe wrap-around style pickups, very similar to the pickups on the earliest Rickenbacker Frying Pan models.

Own a Rickenbacker Guitar? Leave a comment telling us what you like about them.

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    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      Can't wait to see one in real life. Looks like a great instrument. Thanks for sharing.